Can Steve Bannon Realign American Politics?

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Steve Bannon stumped for Roy Moore on Tuesday in Fairhope, Ala., telling a crowd that establishment Republicans “think you are a bunch of rubes” and urging them to be “the voice of the deplorables” in their efforts to elect the former judge and accused child molester to the United States Senate next week. The rhetorical bombast may have overshadowed his broader project, of which the Alabama contest constitutes only one small, if unexpectedly lurid, part.

Mr. Bannon has insisted that his intraparty efforts in a “season of war” on the Republican establishment are about nothing less than a basic reorientation of what the parties fight about and who is on which side.

The term for that is “party realignment.” Overhyped claims of an overturned political order are a staple of American politics — just ask the last would-be architect of a new Republican majority coalition, Karl Rove. Mr. Bannon is hardly alone, however, in seeing the potential for realignment in the volatile electoral party dynamics that carried Donald Trump to the White House.

But realignments are made, not born. A recent outbreak of Republican congressional retirement announcements reflects fears of a Democratic wave in next year’s midterms more than any clear pattern of looming party transformation. Still, the volatile electoral dynamics that carried Mr. Trump to the White House offer the potential for activists, organized groups and political elites to restructure party conflict. There is no substitute for this work to be done on a sustained, long-term basis — measured in decades rather than an election cycle or two.

What would a realignment amount to? The contemporary divide between the Democratic and Republican Parties closely aligns with an ideological divide between what we call modern liberalism (a bundle of issue positions favoring activist and redistributive government and cultural tolerance and cosmopolitanism, and more) and modern conservatism (a bundle of positions favoring limited government and cultural traditionalism, and more).

If one party definitively shifted its position on an important subset of those issues — if the Republican Party shifted left on entitlements, for instance — the response by the other party could bring about a realignment. That’s what Mr. Bannon says he’s after.

In fact, he peddles two different visions of realignment, depending on his audience. Sometimes it’s about building a diverse coalition united on issues of economic nationalism, pitted against a “globalist” opposition. When Mr. Bannon met with the teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten to discuss potential alliances or called the American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner, a labor liberal, to chat up his admiration for Mr. Kuttner’s position on trade, this is the realignment he seemed to be pursuing. It was reflected in Mr. Trump’s promises during the Republican primary to protect Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare; invest in infrastructure; and raise taxes on hedge fund managers. The populist party shaped by this vision would undoubtedly include some racist “deplorables,” but the racism wouldn’t be what defined the coalition — economics would.

More frequently, the nature of Mr. Bannon’s envisioned realignment appears different, and darker — centered around racial and ethnic identity. Breitbart’s output under Mr. Bannon’s editorial control and the Trump who brought us the wall, the Muslim ban and the response to Charlottesville, Va., are consistent with the goal of a cross-class party coalition of whites united by whiteness. Economics wouldn’t be what defines the coalition — white nationalism would.

The fact that Mr. Bannon serves simultaneously as, in the journalist Ben Smith’s words, “the guy selling a new cross-racial coalition” and “the chief arsonist of that coalition” casts suspicion about how seriously to take his pronouncements. Nevertheless, political science research confirms that large numbers of Americans hold positions on issues that are both noncentrist and inconsistent with the standard line of either modern-day liberalism or conservatism. At least some raw material exists, in other words, for a transformation of party conflict.

A single election sweeping an unorthodox candidate into power hardly suffices. President Trump’s evident disinterest in even trying to reorient Republican governance away from priorities like welfare state retrenchment and regressive fiscal policy underscores the point. Mr. Bannon says he knows that realignments are something activists will have to “grind out day in and day out for the next five, 10, 15, 20 years.”

What he thinks those years of effort entail is less clear. Investment in candidate recruitment and nomination challenges would be one component. On that score, though, the lack of consistent issue or ideological patterns in the challengers that Mr. Bannon has touted so far for 2018 is notable.

Even more important would be the long-term intellectual work and institution-building necessary to build political alliances among existing or emerging groups. The tweedy quarterly American Affairs presents itself as the high-level intellectual exponent of Trumpism, while Breitbart provides day-to-day red meat in the form of trolling, outrage and race-baiting cultural politics.

Mr. Bannon’s one institutional reform goal in the 2018 challenges invites further skepticism. He has said he’s seeking a Republican Senate majority that would vote to do away with the filibuster, making it easier to pass Mr. Trump’s agenda. This ignores the reality that even in the event of a filibuster abolition, the agenda helped would be orthodox Republican — like the current tax cut bill — reflecting the priorities of the interests that dominate the party and the policy expertise of the Heritage Foundation veterans who staff the executive branch under Mr. Trump.

By contrast, a serious pursuit of reforms that could advantage “populists” might include changes to the campaign finance system, which currently facilitates the very party dominance by plutocrats that Mr. Bannon denounces.

If the potential is out there in the electorate to reshuffle the deck of political alliances and conflict, how would a serious realigner actually do it? Such a person might look at the very realignment that produced our current, polarized age.

Starting in the postwar years and throughout the second half of the 20th century, politicians in both parties deliberately pursued their reorientation around modern liberalism and conservatism. National politics at midcentury involved historically high levels of bipartisanship: Conservative Southerners remained an empowered force in the Democratic Party; liberal and moderate Republicans were frequent occupants of East and West Coast statehouses and Senate seats.

Key intellectuals, activists and politicians on both the left and the right came to share a systemic critique of the parties’ fuzzy programmatic overlap, as well as a democratic argument for forging disciplined, ideologically distinct parties in their stead. When, say, the United Auto Workers passed a resolution in the 1950s calling for a “real realignment” of the party system producing a “clear demarcation” between a liberal party and a conservative one, the liberal union was echoing contemporaneous sentiments expressed by the editors of National Review, who criticized the “fatuous” celebration of “bipartisanship” and heralded a “two-party system that fights its feuds in public and honestly.”

The polarizers’ efforts involved both coalitional and institutional work. A postwar generation of issue-driven liberal activists battled to wrest control of Democratic organizations from traditional political machines while challenging the clout of conservative Southerners within the national party. On the right, intellectuals and operatives incorporated racial elements into a broader conservative ideology that helped to facilitate Republican forays into the Solid South. In the aftermath of the 1960s, meanwhile, movement activists like Heather Booth and Michael Harrington worked with the progressive wing of organized labor to reconstitute a labor-liberal alliance at the base of the Democratic Party, while New Right political brokers like Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich secured a lasting partnership between Republicans and a nascent Christian right.

Key activists recognized the party system as a system. Transforming it would require not just ideological advocacy but reform of the party organizations themselves and the governmental institutions in which they operated. Liberal Democrats pursed congressional reforms that ended the sanctity of seniority and the autonomy of committees — which had long advantaged Southerners — while concentrating new powers in a party leadership accountable to rank-and-file sentiment. Others instituted reforms of the Democratic presidential nominating procedure that opened them up to popular participation. These reforms rendered the political system more permeable and responsive to ideological activism, with long-term consequences for the parties’ ideological sorting. By drawing new party lines across an array of issues while rendering the parties vehicles for issue-oriented politics, the polarizers helped to construct our political world.

The story of how such a system came to be forged tells us something about what it would take to transform it. The ideologically defined partisan conflict that currently structures our politics is not the only world possible. But changing it would take as much collective and long-term effort as it took the polarizers to bring it about in the first place.



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