How Did We Get Here?

Losing Ground

The crisis of the two-party system.


Here is a version of the old rock-paper-scissors game, on a topic that should be of urgent concern to people on the left: How did Trump’s America happen, and what can we do to dislodge its hold on our politics? One can argue that Donald Trump didn’t really win the 2016 election or that he won it only through some combination of voter suppression, Russian meddling, and the peculiarities of the American constitutional system. Even so, somebody who shouldn’t have been a serious candidate got tens of millions of votes, and it’s legitimate (urgent, if we are to avoid a repeat performance this November) to ask why. Was it racism? Misdirected economic frustration? Expert manipulation of public opinion? A deterioration of democratic norms? All of these combined? Three new books by prominent liberal intellectuals—Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Let Them Eat Tweets, Robert B. Reich’s The System, and Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles’s Never Trump—give strikingly different answers to these questions. Each book’s argument is strong and important, and yet each one also vitiates the others.

Let Them Eat Tweets and The System are notionally similar. Both books insist that our very high and rising levels of economic inequality have relentlessly corroded the integrity of our political system, in ways that enabled the rise of Trump and his politics of anger, resentment, and mistrust—a politics that, at least in Trump’s hands, is disconnected from any real program that would help the people he claims to represent. The two books treat it as axiomatic that a social democratic system with higher and more equitable taxes and more generous government provision would help cure us of this corrosion, and they blame a small, powerful cohort of very rich people—Hacker and Pierson call them plutocrats, while Reich terms them oligarchs—for creating this crisis and making it so hard to resolve. Trump, they argue, is more a symptom of deep, systemic deterioration than a cause.

But in explaining the sources of this deterioration, the authors part ways. Hacker and Pierson see it as almost completely a Republican phenomenon, the result of the GOP’s transformation from a center-right to a far-right party. Reich argues that the oligarchs have captured both parties, and he devotes far more of his critical attention to the Democrats. If Hacker and Pierson have it right, we should focus our attention and political energies on the Republicans. If Reich is correct, that won’t do much good; it’s the political system as a whole that needs to be radically changed if it is going to do better by working people.

Saldin and Teles’s Never Trump comes at the Trump phenomenon from a different angle. It seeks to explain not why American politics has turned away from social democratic policies but rather why the Republican establishment failed to deter Trump’s rise. Never Trump is written in a less passionately argumentative style than the other two books, and it’s also less prescriptive. Implicitly, though, it makes its own case for what went wrong and in so doing subverts the others.

Saldin and Teles leave one with the impression that Trump and his followers are actually an independent, unaligned, and alarming political phenomenon whose advent demonstrates that the Republican elite exercises less control over the party than many of us assumed it does. They argue that rather than continue to be obedient, those voters whose interests the elite ignored for years staged an uprising that brought us Trump. If this is the case, then the next logical step in their argument would be that the Democrats do not need to disempower the elite of either party. Instead, they should focus on wooing those descendants of the New Deal voters who left the Democratic Party, by addressing their economic needs.

Reich was a classmate of Bill Clinton’s and a fellow Rhodes scholar in the late 1960s. The two remained close through the years, and Reich’s 1991 book The Work of Nations was widely seen (in retrospect, perhaps incorrectly) as a blueprint for Clinton’s presidency and for a post–New Deal, postindustrial liberal political economy in which the government would promote high-skilled, high-paying jobs as a way for people to succeed in the global economy. After Clinton was elected in 1992, Reich became his first labor secretary and pushed for higher taxes on the rich and corporations, stronger labor laws, and limits on free trade. But he quickly fell out with Clinton’s economic team—Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, and so on—and left the administration at the end of Clinton’s first term.

Since then, Reich’s disillusionment with the Democratic Party deepened as it became clear that, at least on economic policy, it had become far more the party of Wall Street and Silicon Valley than of working-class Americans. He has spent the last quarter-century teaching and writing and has published a new book every three or four years. He ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, and in 2008 he broke decisively with the Clintons by endorsing Barack Obama for president during the Democratic primary season—only to become increasingly frustrated with the party’s continued neoliberal turn during the Obama years. In 2016 and again during the 2020 campaign he endorsed Bernie Sanders for president.

The System is Reich’s latest condemnation of the country’s move away from the political economy that developed during the New Deal and continued for half a century. It is structured as an extended essay intermittently addressed to Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase (the country’s biggest bank) and a major influence on the Democratic Party. Other oligarchical targets of Reich’s include the presidentially ambitious Democrats Tom Steyer and Howard Shultz. (Notably, Reich mentions the Koch family only in passing.) If a political system is like an ecosystem, in which each element exists in relation to the others, the Democrats, in Reich’s view, have destroyed the system’s historical balance by accepting formerly Republican causes like deunionization, deregulation, and the weakening of the social safety net. He writes in The System’s first chapter that the book is a study of “the obsolescence of right and left” within mainstream party politics.

The great and undernoticed remaking of the American political economy over the last 40 years, Reich insists, was anything but a natural, inevitable process. “Governments organize and maintain markets,” he explains. And both parties have organized and maintained the markets to disempower labor, treat free trade as an absolute virtue, view sending jobs overseas as unavoidable, scale back antitrust enforcement and other forms of economic regulation, and encourage corporations to orient themselves toward the financial markets rather than workers or communities.

This abandonment of policies meant to correct the inequities of unimpeded capitalism created a self-reinforcing loop of greater inequality, Reich argues—a greater concentration of economic and political power that resulted in a further dismantling of the policies that would correct the problem. The oligarchs have taken relatively liberal positions on noneconomic issues like climate change, immigration, and gay marriage that have obscured their conservative positions on labor, trade, and taxes. The Clintons and Obama did not depart significantly from the oligarchs’ bipartisan consensus on economic policy, and that is why Sanders was able to ambush the Democratic establishment and Trump the Republican one.

Although it’s clear what Reich’s policy preferences are, his real concern is with calling attention to the oligarchs’ capture of the Democratic Party, so he doesn’t end The System with a detailed program for governing. Instead, his preferred first step toward a solution is a political realignment—not back to the Democrats but toward an entirely new party system. “Unless one or both of the two major parties in the United States moves away from the established systems of political and economic power,” he writes, “a new party could unite the disaffected and anti-establishment elements of both major parties and give voice to the 90 percent of Americans who have been losing ground.” If someone started such a party, Reich would clearly be at the head of the line to sign up.

Hacker and Pierson acknowledge that there are some plutocrats in the Democratic Party, but they insist that the great majority are Republicans, and as a result, the authors devote no energy to criticizing Democratic politicians and a great deal to criticizing Republican ones, along with their donors and interest groups. (Hacker, a politically active academic like Reich, has long been a promoter of the public option in health care, but he has not broken with his party’s leadership as Reich has.)

For Hacker and Pierson, the modern Republican Party put the American democratic system fundamentally at risk even before Trump became its unlikely head. Rich people will always cluster in conservative parties, they write, and will always face the challenge of how to bring people who aren’t rich into a political alliance with them. Mainstream conservative leaders—Eisenhower, for example—often do so with appeals to tradition, patriotism, faith, and a minimal welfare state. But the Republican Party in recent decades has pushed its economic agenda further and further to the right and so has to create other ways to appeal to the mass of voters. Therefore the Republicans devised what Hacker and Pierson call “plutocratic populism,” a politics aimed at retaining the loyalty of their base while promoting economic policies that only the 1 percent could love.

Economically oriented groups like the Koch family network, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the US Chamber of Commerce control the Republicans’ policy agenda and its money supply, and culturally oriented organizations like Fox News, the National Rifle Association, and a wide range of fundamentalist Christian groups generate voter support by whipping up cultural and racial resentments. Because the Republicans’ policies on issues like taxes, Social Security, and health care are ever more oriented toward the preferences of the very rich and because the GOP’s voting base is aging and concentrated in declining rural areas, the party increasingly has to resort to antidemocratic measures like gerrymandering and voter suppression to retain its hold on power. In its techniques and the nature of its appeal to voters, the Republicans have come to resemble a European-style authoritarian party.

The last Republican leader to precede this plutocratic populist turn, in Hacker and Pierson’s telling, was George H.W. Bush. His acceding to a minor and eminently reasonable tax increase sealed his fate, they argue, and seems also to have sealed the fate of his form of conservative politics in the GOP. His successor as the party’s most powerful figure, then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich, moved it substantially to the right and helped invent plutocratic populism as a political stance that combined relentless rhetorical assaults on elites with aggressive tax- and program-cutting economic policies. When George W. Bush was elected, he began his presidency with a large tax cut and at the outset of his second term attempted to begin the privatization of Social Security.

For his part, Trump has not departed from the GOP’s economic direction since 1990. Once in office, he pushed through another set of tax cuts and tried to undo Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act. At the same time, Trump ramped up the party’s nativist, fundamentalist, and antidemocratic inclinations. His incessant culture warring, Hacker and Pierson write, is necessary because the party’s fundamental program has become ever less appealing to anyone who isn’t rich.

Hacker and Pierson’s ideal policy menu would be a lot like Reich’s: for starters, an enlarged welfare state and a more equitable tax system. Like Reich, they are primarily interested in creating a politics that would support such a program; also like Reich, they believe that the different elements in a political system affect one another’s behavior. In Reich’s view, the Democrats’ move to the right on economic issues allowed the Republicans to move even further right. For Hacker and Pierson, it was the Republicans who moved, pulling the rest of the system with them. So one might expect them to call for the Democratic Party—reenergized in response to the economic and racial injustice of the Trump years—to restore balance to the political system. But they don’t, remaining focused instead on changing the GOP. “The only lasting way out of our challenge is to make the Republican Party once again a contributor to a healthy polity, capable of helping the nation address pressing public problems,” they write. The first step would be to deliver a stinging defeat to Trump in November in order to reactivate the saner elements in the GOP, but given the last several decades of Republican history that they discuss, it still sounds like quite a difficult project.

Saldin and Teles’s book is a more modest, monographic effort: an account of the internal Republican Party politics of 2016, not a major analytical prescription for changing the political system. But it contains more original research than the others, including dozens of in-depth interviews with never-Trumpers, who are often amazingly candid in their answers. Hearing Republican voices at length provides a rare picture of life inside the GOP that has a feeling of anthropological verisimilitude. Although Never Trump steers clear of directly proposing a big theory, what emerges inter alia is an explanation of American politics today that is actually more disturbing than the other books’, in which Trump’s rise is properly understood as an expression of the authentic preferences of his supporters and as a repudiation of the Republican establishment.

Trump was not a typical Republican presidential nominee, Saldin and Teles observe. Indeed, he was not really a Republican at all; during the first GOP debate, he was the only candidate who would not promise to support the party’s eventual nominee, and he mowed down what looked like a strong field of opponents—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker—who had much more experience, more substantial organizations, and more funding, precisely because he came from outside the party establishment. (Saldin and Teles note that Trump didn’t even enter the “Koch primary,” in which aspiring presidential candidates pay obeisance to the party’s most important donors.) When campaigning, he departed from the GOP’s customary economic conservatism and its aggressive foreign policy. He opposed free trade, criticized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and praised Social Security and Medicare. These positions, along with his background and his generally unpresidential demeanor, horrified most of the party’s elites. Saldin and Teles assert that there has never been a recent presidential nominee who was as actively, publicly, and vociferously opposed by so many prominent members of his own party.

The sociologist Mario Luis Small has adapted to political use the phrase “outgroup homogeneity bias,” a psychological term for the ways the group you’re not a part of appears to be more uniform than it actually is. In Reich’s book, which focuses on the Democrats, the Republicans—to the extent he mentions them at all—appear as a monolithic, naturally pro-oligarchy party. In Hacker and Pierson’s book, GOP voters tend to fall into two neat categories: plutocrats and working-class whites who have been manipulated into voting against their interests. In Never Trump, Saldin and Teles give us a more subtle and empathetic picture of elite Republicans (at least those who opposed Trump), dividing them into several subcategories and carefully describing each one’s distinctive mentality and economic support system.

The major groups of never-Trumpers in this taxonomy are national security professionals, political operatives, public intellectuals, lawyers, and economists. The many long quotations from them are illuminating but not necessarily exculpatory. Sometimes, as in the case of the never-Trumpers who decided to keep their mouths shut after his nomination, they sound bluntly cynical. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the chief economic adviser for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, was quietly but not actively anti-Trump during the fall campaign. He tells Saldin and Teles that the president “lacks honor. He has no character. He’s a horrible human being.” Nevertheless, “I wanted to get tax reform done, and I wanted to get healthcare reform done, and I want to get entitlement reform done. I’ve been working on regulatory and education reform. I have my bucket list, and I’m not going to give a rat’s ass who’s there.” It’s astonishing to hear how little the never-Trumpers and Trump voters have in common.

Throughout the early primary season, the never-Trumpers, cohort by cohort, waged a series of direct and covert assaults on Trump. There were public letters with numerous signatories, new organizations, and impassioned appeals to prominent Trump-hating Republicans (like the anti-Trump, then pro-Trump, and again anti-Trump retired Marine general James Mattis) to jump into the race at the last minute. None of it worked, and quite a few never-Trumpers went on to serve in the Trump administration. Now they have three options: active rebellion (as with the Lincoln Project), grudging assent, and waiting for the Republican Party they thought they knew to reemerge in 2024.

In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, the title character’s neighbor is Howard Littlefield, PhD, the house intellectual at the Zenith Street Traction Company, who uses his Yale degree in economics to produce learned justifications for whatever the company wants to do. Hacker and Pierson, by treating Republican conservatism as being based not on ideas but on the self-interest of the very rich, implicitly regard conservative intellectuals the same way. Saldin and Teles grant them their authentic enthusiasms for Hayek and Churchill but present that as immaterial to Republican voters, whose core conviction—as Trump but none of his rivals perceived—is a deeply tribal, all-encompassing, information-resistant ethnonationalism.

Saldin and Teles cite one e-mail from an anonymous never-Trumper, written during the assembling of one of the public letters, saying, “I think we have basically no chance of influencing any voters. Any. The things that drive Trump are not susceptible [to] rational discussion, and his potential supporters are not interested in having one.” Another never-Trumper, Eric Edelman, a veteran Republican diplomat, quotes George W. Bush as telling him, “You don’t have to scratch very deep in the Republican Party to hit a pretty deep vein of xenophobia and protectionism and isolationism. My job as party leader is to push back against that.” Trump defeated his Republican opponents because he went straight for that vein and they didn’t.

The picture of Republican voters that emerges from Never Trump is almost precisely the opposite of the one in Let Them Eat Tweets. Rather than being expertly manipulated by plutocrats and interest groups, Republican voters are effectively in control of the party. Trump’s campaign agenda represented their authentic preferences—and he won. It’s the party establishment, not the voting base, that is disempowered and obedient.

Early in his second term, Bush made two big domestic policy bets that backfired with this Republican base: He tried to liberalize immigration policy and to marketize Social Security. Those failures, in retrospect, were a sign of things to come. Another spectacular failure, the Iraq War, reawakened the isolationist strain in right-wing populism. The 2008 financial crisis and the long-running effects of inequality, especially on rural white men with no higher education, further fertilized the soil in which this economic and ethnonationalist populism thrives. The Republican leaders from an earlier era, economically conservative but socially liberal, have come to realize that they had no followers.

After the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney drew just 27 percent of the Latino vote (compared with Bush’s 40 percent in 2004), the Republican National Committee produced a study, called “The Autopsy,” warning that the party had to broaden its appeal beyond white voters. This was Republican conventional wisdom when the 2016 election cycle began. So, too, was the conviction that Republican voters were generally libertarian on economic issues, especially trade. The big money in the party placed its primary season bets on candidates who preached variations on the theme of open borders, lower taxes, and cultural tolerance. It was an expression not only of what the Republican donor class wanted but also of the party’s tactical conviction that 40 years of being able to win by appealing to disaffected white voters had come to an end. Instead, as one of the never-Trumpers admits to Saldin and Teles, Trump’s victory demonstrated that “we did have one more election left” in which the old appeals could produce a very narrow technical victory.

The authors of these three books disagree on a fundamental question: Are we living (unhappily) under the rule of a bipartisan oligarchy, a Republican plutocracy, or the GOP’s ethnonationalist base? But their books have some things in common, too. All of them choose not to understand this political moment as being about Trump personally; instead, they see him as a phenomenon brought to us in part by large structural changes in the economy and in politics, resulting in the superempowerment of a small minority and the justified embitterment of many Americans who can be found voting for either party. Political reform would entail some kind of major readjustment of the US political system so that one or both of the major parties would become more attentive to the needs of the majority of voters—or, as Reich suggests, until someone starts a party that does what the Democrats and Republicans have not. In any event, a system this troubled isn’t going to be fixed in one election cycle.

It’s undeniable that inequality and the sense of deep frustration it brings are driving a great deal of the politics of the world. But connecting inequality to the most obvious policy remedies and then to winning elections is far more complicated than it looks—and the left wing of the Democratic Party is only beginning to sort out how to do so on a national scale. You’d expect the Democrats to be the party that leads the way in creating a better, more just political economy, but given the party’s last quarter-century, one should be wary of making that assumption.

Reich is persuasive when he argues that the Democratic elite’s full embrace of markets has seriously subverted what ought to be the party’s mission. Since about 1980, when rising inequality began to take off, both the Democrats and the Republicans have moved to the right on economic issues, to some extent in tandem. He is also correct to note that the Democratic base, mobilized mainly by Sanders, has pushed the party back in the direction of its historic concern with the economic lives of ordinary people. Hacker and Pierson are persuasive in contending that the Republican Party can on its own imperil the whole system by pulling everything to the right, especially if it continues to restrict voting. American mainstream politics has become profoundly out of sync with the economic realities that motivate most voters, and neither party can automatically claim the loyalty of those whom they have ignored.

If it is possible to have a politics that successfully addresses economic injustice, it isn’t going to happen quickly or neatly. If Republicans who can’t stand Trump defect and attain some influence in the Democratic Party, most of them will not push for a focus on inequality. Few of the organized, established elements in the GOP will push in that direction, either; as Hacker and Pierson point out, Trump as president has been far more traditionally libertarian and far less of an economic populist than he was as a candidate.

People identify themselves and make their political choices in nonstraightforward ways. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned with economic issues. Most voters focus mainly on what’s right in front of them: Did the local factory move abroad? What’s the minimum wage? Has my employer laid people off? Having once been the party of working people in the United States, Democrats are just beginning to relearn a language that addresses those immediate economic concerns and to be critical of deregulation, anti-unionism, and the concentration of economic power. Joe Biden, unexpectedly, is running for president on a less market-oriented economic platform than any Democratic nominee has done in decades, and the party is moving in the right direction. But it is not clear whether, even if Biden wins, that will be enough to power the passage of a New Deal–like economic program.

Inequality has been rising for half a lifetime, and it will take more than just defeating Trump to turn the tide against it. But a happy result in November would make for a promising start, especially if it entails successfully presenting the Democrats as the party that is more authentically concerned with the lives of working people.

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