Hello Again, Reagan Democrats

Starting soon after President Barack Obama's first general election victory in 2008, the American conservative media establishment, some think tanks and various organizations, and a number of GOP politicians began in earnest to construct an elegant narrative.

The story was that the nation was in great peril, and the solution was to buy into what the Founders had intended. It was time to get back to “constitutional conservatism,” elect “principled conservatives,” and live the grand movie exemplifying these beliefs.

It all failed, because it was a superficial sales job that the vast majority of voters saw through -- once they pulled back the curtain and glimpsed who was controlling the machine, much as in The Wizard of Oz.

The theory seemed, on its face, correct. But the problem was that the theory didn't work. In fact, it couldn't work because it was painted over a rotten foundation. Lipstick on a pig is still a pig.

Dream all you want about the Founders, and a beautiful dream it is whose time will hopefully come again.

Now try and fit that dream into a conservative establishment policy framework that includes globalization and unbalanced trade, mass immigration (most of it illegal), capitulation to -- and tolerance of, nay, perhaps even encouragement of in certain quarters -- the increasing Islamification of the homeland, the hyperpolarized involvement in geopolitics (especially in the Middle East with the Israel question), and the general corporatization of America. That dog won't hunt.

Something had to give, and increasingly over the past several years it was becoming obvious to many what would work instead: a return to a more nationalistic view of governance. Take care of our own first, and only.

Had the elegant narrative been working, Donald Trump would not be far out in front at this point in the Republican primary process. Actually, he wouldn't even be in the race.

Trump isn't winning because he is simply taking in disaffected Democrats, he is winning across the center-right spectrum -- including disaffected Democrats. Florida is a case study in this.

A News 13/SurveyUSA poll conducted on March 4-6 shows Trump leading decisively for both men and women, in all age groups from first-time voters to senior citizens, among strong Republicans, “regular” Republicans, and independent-leaning Republicans, within those who support the Tea Party and those who oppose it, among voters who have a very conservative, conservative, or moderate political ideology, and within all income groups and levels of education.

This isn't an isolated insurgency from a few sectors of the center-right collective, it is a spectrum-wide revolution that hasn't been seen since Ronald Reagan.

Back in 2008, Stanley Greenberg wrote an article for the New York Times waving goodbye to the Reagan Democrats:

“I'm finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County in suburban Detroit after making a career of spotlighting their middle-class anger and frustrations about race and Democratic politicians... Given Macomb’s history, this story helps illustrate America's evolving relationship with race. These voters, like voters elsewhere, watched Mr. Obama intently and became confident he would work for all Americans and be the steady leader the times required. But focusing on the ways that Macomb County has become normal and uninteresting misses the extraordinary changes taking place next door in Oakland County... These changes have produced a more tolerant and culturally liberal population, uncomfortable with today's Republican Party... So, good riddance, my Macomb barometer. Four years from now, I trust we will see the candidates rush from their conventions to Oakland County, to see the new America.”

The 2008 and 2012 elections said nothing about America, because they were doomed to fail on the GOP side. Rightly or wrongly, the nation would never have elected a presidential ticket that includes Sarah Palin, never mind John McCain. Nor would it elect Mitt Romney and an untested congressman in 2012, even against one of the weakest Democratic tickets in memory.

Their supporters may be angered by the bluntness of the remarks, but it is a fact, and for too long has the center-right been living in a fantasyland. If you want to win elections, join the real world. Otherwise, dream -- and lose.

So Greenberg's analysis was wrong, based as it was on faulty data that could not give insights into the character of the country and whether it had really changed, or had just decided on the lesser of two evils in two consecutive elections.

Furthermore, derogatory statements by Greenberg about white working-class areas “becom[ing] normal” explain, almost on their own, the Trump effect. A large majority of the United States is “normal” and has always been “normal,” and they are very angry at nearly 30 years of being increasingly told they are not “normal,” and that the new “normal” is some rabidly dysfunctional worldview that is clearly not delivering on its promises. Ironically, Greenberg worked for Bill Clinton -- who was part of the most abnormal First Family in modern American history.

Did the corporatist establishment really think that average middle-aged and older Americans wouldn't remember that when they were young, they could move out of their parents' homes soon after high-school or college, get a stable well-paying job, get married, settle down, buy a home at a reasonable price with an affordable mortgage, and have kids cared for by a stay-at-home parent without going bankrupt? Now these folks are watching their kids live at home until middle-age, all the while working at unstable, low-paying jobs with no real career prospects within a social milieu that tries to portray a traditional nuclear family as somehow wrong.

Maybe some corporatists on the right desire an economy with a 100% labor force participation rate and low wages, but “normal” people do not. They want to see individual incomes high enough that one spouse can stay home permanently -- if he/she so wishes -- and still have a prosperous life.

The Silent Majority is rising once again. Will it rise enough, and with sufficiently cohesive political support to catapult a candidate into office? Maybe. The trajectory is promising, but the polls show that -- at present -- Trump may be in a tough position against Hillary Clinton for the general election. However, it is still too early to read the tea leaves for the head-to-head matchup. At this point in the 1980 race, Reagan was getting whipped in the polls at a 2:1 margin by Jimmy Carter. That all changed by election day.

Along came George Will in late 2012, claiming that “[w]hite voters without college education -- economically anxious and culturally conservative -- were called 'Reagan Democrats' when they were considered only seasonal Republicans because of Ronald Reagan. Today they are called the Republican base.”

Incorrect. The “Republican base” in 2012 was far from Reagan Democrats. It was Evangelicals and those buying into the elegant “constitutional/principled conservative” narrative promoted by the various wings of the GOP establishment. These individuals were never Democrats. The Reagan Democrats were “economically anxious and culturally conservative,” but they were often committed union members and not ideologically opposed to government programs that would help out their family finances.

The Reagan Democrats were, and still are, practical -- not ideological, and Trump's path to a landslide general election victory resides with them. They love his practicality, hard work, straight talk, and “can-do” attitude. As shown by interviews on NPR earlier this week, while the Teamsters may be reluctant to publicly admit it, in private they are looking to vote for Trump in large numbers. During the 1980 and 1984 elections, Reagan effectively split the union vote with his Democratic opponent. Since Reagan, the union vote has gone overwhelmingly to the Democratic ticket, typically 60:40 or more.

If the GOP wants to continue its war on unions, and by definition, union members, that's fine. But then it certainly won't win this election. Perhaps it is time for many “principled, constitutional, Reagan Conservatives” to review their role model's actual views on unions.

Trump's unwillingness to engage in race-based pandering has also galvanized massive support.

If you want to see how race-based pandering is an electoral loser, look no further than across the political divide to Bernie Sanders' campaign. Sanders has made a career out of fighting for black causes and peddling the racist line at so much of American society, and yet the blacks have deserted him and are voting for Clinton in massive numbers. This strategy likely cost Sanders the nomination. White Democrats watched his race-baiting and concluded that while they might agree with him on economic issues, on social issues he was working against them. Suggesting your base is racist is not a great way to win votes.

Republican Hispanics were supposed to hate Trump. Yet he won their vote in Nevada. If the key to the GOP nomination is through visible minorities, why are Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio not winning, and why did Jeb Bush do so poorly? Pandering doesn't work on either side of the divide, as the Sanders campaign is proving.

The GOP establishment -- which includes many that try to sell themselves as anti-establishment -- is reaping the rewards from the same mistakes that Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party made in Canada. Promoting the rapid growth of a low-wage immigrant workforce while advocating against the welfare state, all under the rubric of false “principled conservatism” sold by hypocritical candidates, will ensure a massive electoral defeat.