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The bailout debate and partisan realignment

- September 26, 2008

I read Gary Miller and Norman Schofield’s piece (abstract “here”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2136168&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S1537592708081218; article behind the PoP paywall) in _Perspectives on Politics_ a few weeks ago, and meant to comment on it.[1] Gary and Norm use social choice theory to suggest that we may be on the verge of a new partisan realignment in which the Republicans become traditional values economic populists, and the Democrats become multiculturalist economic right wingers. From their conclusions:

bq. William Jennings Bryan, of course, was an anti-business radical as well as a social conservative. Bryan’s position on social policy issues is now ascendant in the Republican Party. Can we infer that the Republican Party will adopt Bryan’s economic radicalism as well as his social conservatism?

bq. In the short run, the move by pro-business social liberals from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party will make both parties look more moderate on economic policy. In the long-run, the same dynamic could actually make the Republican Party more blue-collar than the Democrats. Social conservatives in the Republican Party already insist that the Democratic Party is the party of privilege and elitism. The populist rhetoric adopted by the Republican Party has pictured the Democratic Party as the home of overpaid professors, bureaucrats, and social technicians. Democrats are seen as “limousine liberals” who want to indulge themselves in expensive pro-environmental policy, and who have nothing to lose when wages collapse to the levels of Third World countries.

bq. If the Democratic Party continues to pick up social liberals like Jeffords and Parkinson (either by conscious strategy or just because they have nowhere else to go), then professionals and business leaders in the party will balance the beleaguered unions. These new elements of the party will be on the side of a balanced budget, open immigration, and accommodation with business (especially in the new computer and biotech industries). Most difficult for traditional Democrats will be the support for free trade among the new Democrats. The economic liberals in the Democratic Party will feel increasingly isolated and alienated. Listening to the populist rhetoric of Republican activists and politicians, blue-collar workers may come to expect the Republican Party to represent their economic interests, in addition to their social conservativism.

bq. Some Republican politicians already accept the social values of blue collar workers and will decide to represent the economic aspirations of their constituents as well. Why not, if professional and business elites are already heading for the door? Indeed, the role model for the complete twenty-first century reincarnation of Bryan is possibly already visible in the form of Patrick Buchanan.

I was inclined to be skeptical about this argument – it seemed to me that even if the Republicans might possibly move in a more vague-populist-plus-conservative-social-values direction a la Sarah Palin, the trend in the Democratic party seemed to be moving the party further to the economic left from the Robert Rubin style consensus of high Clintonism. But the politics of the bailout seem to me to be a data point in favor of the Miller-Schofield argument. Take this _TAP_ piece from Mark Schmitt “today”:http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=is_the_republican_alliance_finally_breaking.

bq. Thus the most significant event of the day may not have taken place in D.C., but out in those Republican districts like Boehner’s. The Republican coalition since at least Reagan has been a miraculous alliance of Wall Street and Main Street. Populist politics, such as the attack on “elites” now embodied by the enthusiasm for Governor Sarah Palin, were the vehicle for Wall Street policies, the very policies that led to the crash. The alliance always seemed unsustainable. At some point it had to break — you can’t go on forever with policies that do nothing for your core constituencies. And now, in the backlash against the bailout, it has broken. The House Republicans see in that backlash an opportunity to, as Rollins says, “rebuild this party” on populist, anti-Wall Street grounds.

As Mark notes, the Republican ‘populists’ are still responding with auto-programmed pro-market rhetoric, but that might change over time if this revolt starts to change the Republican party as Rollins suggests it might. Meanwhile (as Mark notes in another piece in _The American Prospect_ this month; teaser “here”:http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=were_all_chicagoans_now) an Obama presidency is likely to be all about choice friendly tinkering and nudging at the edges of markets, rather than grand schemes to remake society. It’s furthermore probable that Obama will be presenting himself as the avatar of sober managerial capitalism this evening in the debate. Me; I’m busy revising my priors …

fn1. See “here”:http://redbluerichpoor.com/blog/?p=83 for a skeptical piece by Andrew on some related research by the Miller/Schofield duo.