We are in an odd place. The Democrats live on as a political party, divided as ever, but they carry on. Traditional American political parties have always been split into factions, Democrats most of all. In the 1980s Democrats moved to what is called identity politics. The Party came to be split into so many factions based on racial and economic differences that state party conventions were simply gatherings of competing subgroups.
It was unworkable. Union activists who had formed the privileged core of the Democratic Party in urban areas became disgusted and walked out. They didn’t just walk out, they walked over. They joined Ronald Reagan and the Republicans. They were called the Reagan Democrats but they had really become Republicans.
In the meantime, the Republicans had also managed to win over the white South. So the working class white South combined with northern union members became an important part of a new Republican Party. They were part of it, they helped it win, but the leaders of the party that all those people joined really didn’t have much to offer them.
The new working class Republicans, both north and south, were not offered real financial or health gains because that would have required more tax money from the wealthy corporate types who really had the attention of Republicans in Congress. What they were offered was the opportunity to feel patriotic (we were the most powerful nation on earth) and the feeling of being protected from the dangers posed by socialism and by communism.
If a political party can offer the people who support it nothing, they have to substitute something. With no real benefits to offer, the Party held up symbols for its new followers to be angry with. So long as Russia was officially communist and neither the candidates nor the voters actually knew much about socialism and communism, the tactic worked well. It had the virtue of focusing anger away the real causes of voters’ problems.
When Communism ended in Russia in 1991, President George H.W. Bush stood up before the Congress and proudly announced that the struggle with communism was over. He waited for the applause. There was virtual silence. It was true that communism had lost but the Republicans had too. They had made defending against communism their main reason for being. Now it was gone. They tried to switch to China but at that point the Chinese military couldn’t even get here. They were hardly a substitute.
When one target ends, parties have to move on to others (Nancy Pelosi became much more awful after Hillary Clinton was defeated). Communism is long gone but socialism is still with us, even though many in the Republican Party, including its leader, would have difficulty explaining exactly what socialism is. This Fall nearly every Republican campaign ad will contain the word “socialism”.
Democrats were never as serious about anger targeting as Republicans and perhaps therefore not as good at it. Democrats have always been about programs (sometimes too many programs). And, the kind of people who believe that programs can help people tend to become Democrats. So Democrats do have the advantage of potentially being able to offer something real to people who vote for them.
So, what about this year, this election? The people who have allowed themselves to be convinced that Democrats are the enemy are most often the ardent supporters of Donald Trump. More traditional Republicans are trapped. With no “normal” presidential candidate to vote for, facing a pandemic and an economy in deep trouble, they can vote for Trump, reluctantly vote for Biden, or not vote at all.
For most would-be Democratic voters there will be less stress. Joe Biden is not the best possible candidate but for them he will be clearly better than the alternative. Biden has been lucky. He has a much milder personality than Donald Trump, and because he was forced to spend the campaign isolated in his basement, he is an easy target for projected hope. He has to be a frustrating target for the Republican campaign team.
We are, perhaps, at the end of a political era. If Donald Trump does not win we could face a dominant Democratic Party whose candidates could have time to do some of the things that Donald Trump promised to do (and then completely forgot). In the meantime the Republicans will melt down (many of the ralliers will simply disappear). What could emerge is a more responsive, more modern Republican Party finding itself forced to compete with the Democrats for the mix of people who are actually out there. That would be the best of all possible worlds.
We are condemned to live in interesting times!