Donald Trump; Kathy Griffin; Bernie Sanders (Getty/Molly Riley/AP/Richard Shotwell/Jae C. Hong)

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Partisan paralysis has brought new energy to both the far right and far left. It’s exciting, but it won’t end well

Matthew Sheffield
June 1, 2017 9:00am (UTC)

The systemic failure of both the major parties' elites to adequately respond to the side effects of mechanization and globalization — particularly the real decline of wages with respect to inflation and the great NC NC Football Tee State State xqfzqrw01 for those with less education — has gradually radicalized American politics and society. The provocations and recriminations that Donald Trump has injected into our politics ever since he declared his presidential candidacy have only accelerated the trend.

Initially, most of the radicalization began on the right as Republican political strategists found it easier to use divisive cultural issues like abortion, homosexuality and religion to motivate people to support a political agenda primarily related to reducing taxes on the rich and cutting spending — positions that have never been popular with a wide public. Instead of running on the blatantly anti-government platform that led to Barry Goldwater’s catastrophic defeat in 1964, conservatives ever since have run on cultural populism to cover for their lack of economic populism.

Libertarian means to traditionalist ends” was the dictum for right-leaning intellectuals, while fighting the “San Francisco Democrats” was the sales pitch for the conservative masses. It was identity politics avant la lettre.

While some of the cultural conservatives who left the Democratic Party undoubtedly did so out of racial animus, there were also many others who were simply interested in reducing the personal tragedies of poverty, divorce and abortion. Instead of realizing that more access to birth control, higher minimum wages and targeted spending could help to reduce all three, however, they became convinced that abstinence-only education and shrinking the government were the only real solutions to the problems they sought to solve.

Unfortunately for the cultural conservatives who migrated into the Republican Party, conservative elites were much more interested in cutting taxes than they were in criminalizing abortion or homosexuality. While interested in cutting the government, Goldwater’s heirs could never muster popular support for the idea. Politicians who campaigned on "small government," from Ronald Reagan to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then George W. Bush, could never really manage to reduce federal spending and slash the budget, even when they won elections.

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When libertarian means were enacted, however, they proved essentially useless in helping the cultural conservatives reach their traditionalist ends. Lower taxes didn’t mean less poverty, abstinence-only education just led to more teen pregnancies, and removing regulations on Wall Street's behavior had no effect at all on the decline of faith.

While a handful of right-leaning intellectuals like David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have been willing to admit that the American right’s anti-government goals are both undesirable and impossible to achieve, the immense conservative policy apparatus funded by the Koch brothers and their allies has instead decided to keep on partying like it’s 1979.

After decades of failure at realizing their larger values, grassroots conservatives — rather than rejecting the anti-government, insurgent mentality that has led to repeated setbacks — have instead become trapped in Dress Casual Clothing Coveted winter Boutique fFHT11 whereby they blame “the left” or “the Republican establishment” for their own failures in vision and competence.

Instead of a “party of ideas” politics, the American right has increasingly veered into the semiotic realm. It didn’t matter that former president “Dubya” destabilized the Islamic world and exploded the federal budget deficit — at least he was against “limousine liberals” like former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and Tom Daschle, the party's former Senate leader.

Linked to the growing sense of malaise on the right was the realization that recent Hispanic and Asian immigrants to the U.S. are much less likely to fall for the cultural populism that’s powered Republican victories since Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential triumph. Instead of seeing the influx of newcomers as a means of escaping the white identity politics that had kept them under the heel of libertarian billionaires, however, religious conservatives in the early 2000s began to embrace the concept of a “demographic winter,” the idea that many Western problems originate not in governments’ failures to address their citizens’ problems but rather from excessive numbers of nonwhite immigrants. Author Kathryn Joyce summed up the argument in a 2008 report in The Nation:

Europe is failing to produce enough babies — the right babies — to replace its old and dying. It’s "the baby bust," "the birth dearth," "the graying of the continent": modern euphemisms for old-fashioned race panic as low fertility among white "Western" couples coincides with an increasingly visible immigrant population across Europe. The real root of racial tensions in the Netherlands and France, America’s culture warriors tell anxious Europeans, isn’t ineffective methods of assimilating new citizens but, rather, decades of "antifamily" permissiveness — contraception, abortion, divorce, population control, women’s liberation and careers, "selfish" secularism and gay rights — enabling "decadent" white couples to neglect their reproductive duties. Defying the biblical command to "be fruitful and multiply," Europeans have failed to produce the magic number of 2.1 children per couple, the estimated "replacement-level fertility" for developed nations (and a figure repeated so frequently it becomes a near incantation). The white Christian West, in this telling, is in danger of forfeiting itself through sheer lack of numbers to an onslaught of Muslim immigrants and their purportedly numerous offspring.

Long before Donald Trump began leveraging the same racist fears promoted by the alt-right, other Republicans began doing so as well, as Joyce documented:

Such predictions are winning the ear of top US conservatives, with Mitt Romney taking time during his campaign exit speech on February 7 [in 2008] to warn that "Europe is facing a demographic disaster" due to its modernized, secular culture, particularly its "weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for human life and eroded morality." With this, the American Christian right has hit on a potent formula: grafting falling Western birthrates onto old morality arguments to craft a tidy cause-and-effect model that its members hope will provide their ideology an entry into European politics.

As all these factors were radicalizing right-wing politics, different forces were working on the left as conservative electoral victories made it increasingly difficult for liberals to obtain what they wanted out of politics as well. For years, progressive activists accepted the Democratic leadership’s claims that Republican intransigence alone was to blame for such things as former President Barack Obama's refusal to consider a single-payer "Medicare for all" plan during the drafting of his signature health care proposal. The GOP was also blamed for failing schools and corruption and incompetence in cities that had been run by Democrats for generations.

The largely unexpected popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential challenge to the dominant Democratic order ought to have provided party elites a wake-up call that their old nostrums were no longer persuasive. Instead, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign ran on a milquetoast promise to "make history" and an overall message of “at least we’re not crazy.”

As the GOP took and retained control over Congress in 2010 — even in the face of what appeared to be a built-in demographic disadvantage — Democrats also began to embrace a politics of symbolism rather than accomplishment. Instead of trying to lead the way in reforming urban politics and prosecuting bankers who lied to the public, Democratic elites encouraged protests by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, betting that such activist groups were organized enough to motivate left-wing voters to show up at the polls but not enough to prove mutinous. The blue-collar whites who had built the Democratic Party into a majority, well who cares about them, anyway.

The left and right’s dueling symbolic politics came to a head in the Clinton-Trump contest last year.