The Emerging Populist-Neoliberal Political Realignment

Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders' emergence into the political scene has potentially irreversibly altered the political landscape as we know it. Both candidates represent a form of their respective party's ideological populism taken to their logical extreme. On the right, Donald Trump has galvanized a faction of the Republican Party that is more interested in protectionist trade and immigration policies than in party orthodoxy on free markets and low taxes. On the left, Bernie Sanders has satiated the Democratic Party base's yearning for an unabashed economic socialism to confiscate wealth from the rich to redistribute to the middle and lower classes. The success of both candidates has exposed deep ideological rifts in their respective party's governing coalition that has the potential to undo a generation-old political order. The previous political dividing line of liberals vs. conservatives is no longer sufficient to describe the fault line in contemporary politics; instead, the major difference fracturing both parties is one of populism vs. neoliberalism.

The last major political realignment occurred with Ronald Reagan's ascendance to the presidency in 1980. Reagan built a Republican coalition built on the three-legged stool of conservatism: fiscal conservatism, social conservatism and neoconservatism. In this political realignment, Reagan seized disaffected working class voters and foreign policy hawks from the Democrats to form, respectively, the social conservative and neoconservative legs of the three-legged stool. This conservative coalition has been the foundation of the Republican Party ever since.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary, however, is an existential threat to the Reagan coalition. Donald Trump has dismantled the GOP's reverence for free markets and global trade with his support for single-payer health care and the Obamacare individual mandate, and his proposals for increased taxes on hedge fund managers. On foreign policy, Trump has bashed the neoconservative assumptions underlying the GOP's interventionist instincts in favor of an inward-focused foreign policy. Donald Trump has shown little to no interest in the social conservative culture wars of abortion and gay marriage politics.

On the left, Bernie Sanders' policies closely resemble that of Donald Trump's. Neither expresses much interest in litigating old culture wars and both prefer a noninterventionist foreign policy. More importantly, however, on economic issues Sanders merely expounds upon Donald Trump's government-controlled economy by calling for even higher tax rates and expanded government benefits to the lower class.

The policy similarities between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders reveals that their bases of support have more ideological commonality with each other than with their respective parties establishment candidates, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Marco Rubio, consequently revealing the new populist vs. neoliberal fault line in American politics.

In this realignment, the populists would represent what Walter Russell Mead describes as a Jacksonian American political tradition. Jacksonians believe that American foreign policy should pursue strictly national interests and that government should actively use its powers as a check to corporate influence. The populists would not only embrace the contemporary welfare state but seek to expand it. These are the voters who support expanded Medicare and Social Security, pro-union labor policies, higher taxes on the wealthy and adamantly oppose free trade agreements. The populists are motivated by nationalist appeals to restrict immigrant labor from competing with American workers and reverse decades of globalization that has decimated America's manufacturing industry. Internally, the populists would test the limits, if any, of expansive government powers. As heirs to the old Irish-Scot constituency, the populists would have strongholds in Appalachia and other rural areas of country.

On the contrary, neoliberals would comprise Mead's Jeffersonian American political tradition. Jeffersonians believe that the U.S. should actively participate in international relations and pursue a more business-friendly domestic economic policy. The neoliberals represent the business elites who favor global trade agreements, interventionist foreign policy to protect American interests abroad and pro-business economic policies. The neoliberals would support subsidies to business, liberal immigration policies, industry deregulation and a generally light tax burden. The neoliberal's base of support would exist primarily in the coast and urban centers.

Along with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, current politicians from both parties who would identify with the populists include Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin and, for Republicans, Representative Steve King and former Senator Rick Santorum.

Neoliberal contemporaries, along with Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, would include Democrats Senator Ron Wyden and Governor Andrew Cuomo and Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Governor Jon Huntsman.

Of course, this projection is not perfect; however, it is still arguably more representative of today's ideological divide than the status quo. Even within this realignment, however, internal divisions and seeming ideological inconsistencies will persist.

For example, the populists would express a streak of libertarianism in regards to stronger Second Amendment protections, whereas the neoliberals would be amenable towards stricter gun control laws. On counterterrorism and surveillance issues, however, civil libertarians would side with the neoliberals, who are skeptical of government force, whereas the populists support unrestrained government powers to counter terrorism. Furthermore, though conservative populists would now have a party to unabashedly advocate their economic interests, free market libertarians would again be without a natural political party, eschewing both the neoliberals' corporatist inclinations and the populists' fervor for an expansive welfare state. Evangelicals as a monolithic voting block will probably be excluded from both parties, but judging by their embrace of Donald Trump, it can be surmised that evangelical voters are no longer animated about the morality issues that defined them in the Reagan coalition.

As the insurgencies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have shown, the current political parties do not adequately represent the ideological composition of their constituents. The current left-right political coalitions no longer apply and soon enough voters will sort themselves into more mutually beneficial ideological alliances. Shifting coalitions has long been a part of the American two-party tradition; it was only a matter of time before the liberal-conservative axis went the way of the federalists, Whigs, radicals, Know Nothings, silverites and New Dealers. In this emerging political realignment, neoliberals will unify to defend the neoliberal world order that has served them so well for the past 30 years. In contrast, the populists who have been borne the economic burdens of globalism will seek to regain the economic benefits lost to the status quo. Hopefully, the next political realignment suffers a less ignominious breakup than the current internecine battles afflicting the Republican and Democratic parties.