Enduring American political parties have always been coalitions. The country is too big and populous, with too many strong regional and other economic demands to meet the models of European-style ideological political configurations. In reality, the coalitions have often included absolutely contradictory forces making the fight for leadership of the parties in conventions and primaries more issue-oriented than the final election itself. We have seen that this year when the Republican primary candidates discussed every issue on the political battlefield but the general election is going to be purelu a contest of personalities, the cool, even cold, professional Clinton against the amateurish showman but attractive Trump..
These coalition-parties often have built myths about who constitutes the party machines and who votes for them.
The Democrats had been consistently as the party of “the people” – big city Irish-American machines, strong personalities with highly personal followings, not the least Franklin Delano Roosevelt for almost half a century, and Southern bosses with their solid, segregationist following. Then there was trade union support, and demagogic oratory backing up their claims which overwhelmingly depended on government legislation and intervention. The Republicans, on the other hand, were characterized as aristocratic with their “permanent” New to a New England constituency, their supposed strong links to Wall Street and the innocent rubes in the fly-over rural hinterland.
We may well be in one of those rare periods when even the myths are changing. One of the things Donald Trump is doing –- assuming he comes in a strong vote-getter if not the winner in November – is remoulding these traditional parties’ mystiques. In fact, he appears to be swapping them, one for the other almost intact.
His hard-core base of supporters are the proverbial “little people” who have lost their jobs to technology in the digital revolution or to overseas low-wage competitors, a large following that feel they haven’t got a fair shake from the system. In reality, Hillary Clinton’s Democrats have long since had uncelebrated stronger ties to the new Wall Street of the MBAs and widening international markets than the GOP. The South – look at the current loud battle for North Carolina – is not only less than solid Democrat but with strong Republican leanings since Richard Nixon’s days. Trade unions [except for the powerful traditionally conservative Teamsters] may still be Democrats but their numbers have melted except as government workers tied to the party in power.
Trump’s stream-of-consciousness oratory now often sounds like the old Democrat swan song. Democrat Hillary’s ties to the corporate world, particularly Wall St., were no more better demonstrated than tens of millions of dollars collected by her from the still to be revealed speeches to financial entities in the primary run-up to the general election campaign.
The old myths may hang on for a while in some benighted and less political circles. But what Trump is in the process of doing, if nothing else, is creating a new set of myths about the two great political coalitions – and, in fact, up to a point, simply swapping them as we go into a new political era.