Forecasting the Big Trends of 2016: Politics Edition

by Charles J. Reid, Jr Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas 31.12.2015

"Will the Republican Party break apart? As we close out 2015, we must raise this previously unthinkable possibility. The base's interests have grown radically at odds from the Establishment's. The base wants to follow Donald Trump and will settle for Ted Cruz. They want to expel whole classes of people from the United States. The base, in other words, stands for zealous, non-negotiable extremism."

Most election cycles occur within well-understood parameters. Indeed, these parameters are so generally accepted by the experts that they assume the character of revealed truth. And so they appear to be, until their foundations are shifted and we are suddenly confronted by new arrangements.

When I look forward to 2016, I see the likelihood of just such a paradigm-shifting event. I would like therefore to identify the major trends that are likely to contribute to the coming paradigm shift.

1. First, the GOP economic orthodoxy is now at great risk, even within that Party. For several decades, it has been taken for granted that whatever the other differences among the competing factions, Republicans of all persuasions agreed on the economic message. That message consisted of ever lower tax rates; the further deregulation of the American economy; and the privatization of vital public services. The last three decades bear witness to the success of this message, from lower tax rates to the various iterations of Paul Ryan's budget.

It is now becoming obvious, however, that this is no longer the glue that holds together the Republican Party. In truth, the base's passions were never really stirred by these matters. But the base now comprises increasingly less-well-off whites. They don't want to listen to talk about reducing someone else's taxes let alone suffer through long-winded paeans to the magic of the free market. And only massive cognitive dissonance prevents them from understanding Paul Ryan's budgets for what they really are -- attacks on the benefits and programs that provide a comfortable existence for many members of the base.

They demand the red meat and strong drink only the social issues can provide them. This cannot be welcome news to the Republican Establishment. Establishment Republicans -- the grandees of Wall Street, the beltway pundits, and the business class in many of America's affluent big cities -- want nothing more than to flee in embarrassment from the toxic racism and nativism of Donald Trump and his odious campaign. Do they feel trapped? I wager that they do. Surely, they will do everything within their power to try to banish Donald Trump to the sidelines even as they hope to hang on to his voters. Good luck with that.

2. At the other end of the spectrum, we are witnessing the rise of an economic progressivism which we have not seen since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or Lyndon Johnson. College, it is claimed, must once again be made affordable. There was a time when Americans could attend great universities practically for free (the University of California did not charge tuition until the late 1960's, the University of Wisconsin charged only nominal tuition until the late 1970's). The minimum wage must once again be made a living wage. Indeed, the call for fifteen dollars an hour has strengthened to an anthem.

The old summons to economic and social justice, in other words, is gaining new currency. Even Pope Francis is promoting anew the idea that global capitalism in its present form is dehumanizing and destructive. It is becoming clear to increasing numbers of people that markets are meant to serve humanity, not the other way around.

It is this set of concerns that has captured the imagination of the supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders. And it is here where the Democratic Establishment must tread carefully. The 1990's are over. A Democratic candidate will find it difficult, if not impossible, to campaign on the themes that made Bill Clinton successful -- the deregulation of the banks or the promise "to end welfare as we know it."

3. Third, we are witnessing profound shifts in the ways in which the religious right relates not only to politics but to the larger secular culture. Franklin Graham resigned from the Republican Party a few days before Christmas. This would be a small event were it not a symbol of larger currents bubbling just beneath the surface.

These currents are likely to lead to a steady withdrawal by large numbers of America's religious conservatives from participation in significant aspects of American life. Indeed, we have seen this occurring for two or three decades now with the home-schooling movement, which has chosen to opt out of America's system of public (and even private) education.

America's religious conservatives will likely still turn out and vote, but only for candidates they find morally suitable. Ted Cruz has strong support among religious conservatives. And even though Ben Carson's campaign has been bruised and battered these last few weeks, he still maintains the support of a steady ten or twelve percent of Republican primary voters. These voters, however, are likely not transferable. It is difficult to see, for instance, Marco Rubio or Chris Christie finding much enthusiasm among highly-networked social conservatives. The movement has simply come to see politics as a series of non-negotiable stands on issues that cannot be compromised.

But the political effects of this withdrawal are really the least of consequences. Indeed, we are witnessing the emergence of two other trends within the religious right that are likely to have greater long-term significance. The first of these is the building of parallel institutions to compete with the institutions of secular society. Consider for instance the creation of a parallel university system -- schools like Patrick Henry College in rural Virginia, or the large online presence of Liberty University. Consider also the emergence of new media, including the sophisticated use of Twitter, Facebook, and other means true believers use to communicate directly with their friends and sympathizers.

The second impact will be the more aggressive assertion of religious liberty as a ground for exemption from generally applicable law. This was a principal issue in the Hobby Lobby case. Expect more of the same. Going forward, civil rights may become the principal battle ground for a new culture war. To what extent should the claims of religious liberty be permitted to trump public policy favoring equality of treatment, especially of gays?

4. Is money the new Maginot Line of political campaigns? The French general staff constructed the Maginot Line after World War I. It consisted of a series of heavy fortifications -- concrete bunkers, artillery emplacements, connecting rail lines -- all along the German frontier. The purpose was to deter Germany from ever launching another invasion of France. As we know from history, the German Wehrmacht found a way around.

In early summer, 2015, the superpacs supporting Jeb Bush announced that they had raised an unprecedented sum of money in support of his candidacy -- nearly $120 million, with more promised. It was Bush's Maginot Line, meant to deter adversaries. Opponents have found a way around.

On the Republican side, it was Donald Trump who navigated the way around, and the vehicle he used was his status as a celebrity. Trump has lived in the public spotlight for most of three decades. More recently, over the last five or six years especially, he has raised high the banner of right-wing extremism ("birtherism" for example). My record in speaking out against Trump is clear and consistent. Still, I must give him credit for the ways in which he has pioneered a mix of social media and celebrity notoriety as a way of minimizing if not cancelling out the money advantages enjoyed by other candidates.

Is there a larger lesson in this? Yes. Celebrity-hood may prove to be a launching pad for other candidacies. We have seen this before -- think of the nineteenth-century folk-hero generals (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant) who were elected president and the many others who sought that office unsuccessfully. Reality-television hosts seeking office, however, seems a decided downward step.

Still, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is proving that celebrity-hood is not the only way to challenge entrenched establishment advantages. He has mobilized the power of social media in the service of an idea. For Sanders, that idea is economic justice and over two million supporters have now donated money to his cause. He has even eclipsed the grassroots fundraising of Barack Obama in 2008. So there may be at least two ways around the Maginot Line of the brimming campaign war chest -- the power of celebrity-hood and the compelling force of ideas.

5. Will the Republican Party break apart? As we close out 2015, we must raise this previously unthinkable possibility. The base's interests have grown radically at odds from the Establishment's. The base wants to follow Donald Trump and will settle for Ted Cruz. They want to expel whole classes of people from the United States. The base, in other words, stands for zealous, non-negotiable extremism. The Establishment may conclude that it can no longer make common cause with such a movement. From the ashes, will we see the emergence, not by 2016 but by 2020, of a center-right business party, with social and religious conservatives coalescing around fringe third parties?

2016, in other words, looks primed to be an extraordinary year, one of those rare occurrences, when settled paradigms are upended and something new, for better or for worse, is born.

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