Since the 1964 presidential election, when the Republican Party ran Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson, the American polity has been split along rather unlikely lines. Goldwater’s brash stance on Vietnam, coupled with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, completed the departure of minority voters and the socially liberal upper class from the GOP. At the same time, Southerners who had supported Democrats since the Civil War began to side with Republicans on cultural and racial issues. Political allegiances split roughly into two groups: minorities, urban professionals and intellectuals on the Democratic side, and white working-class voters along with the business elite on the Republican side.
These alliances, formed between demographic groups whose political and economic interests did not always align, forced those in power to pay attention to the needs of the working class. While supporting lower taxes and less regulation, the GOP also worked to create jobs in the Bible Belt and prop up institutions that supported the values of low-income communities. On the other hand, while the Democratic establishment implemented its economic, social and foreign policy agenda, it also worked to improve the lot of minority communities and immigrants. Without realizing it, the United States achieved something of an Aristotelian balance between political extremes.
This balance seems to have been lost. The issues that created the unnatural left-right divide in the U.S. are no longer at the fore. After the Great Recession and the onset of globalization, trade, immigration and terrorism have become the central issues in American politics. Moreover, now that the Supreme Court has largely settled the hot-button social issues of the last half-century, moneyed, urban liberals have less of an incentive to support progressive economic policies.
These shifts are beginning to result in an ever-greater divide between political elites and the average voter, a trend that is by no means unique to the United States, as demonstrated by Brexit and the probable demise of Angela Merkel.
The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan terms the new generation of low-income nativists the “unprotected.” She explains that the cultural and economic ramifications of globalization fall not on political and business elites, but “on regular people who live [close] to the edge, who do not have the resources to meet the burden, who have no particular protection or money or connections.” The fashionable inhabitants of New York, Washington and Los Angeles who espouse increased immigration, multiculturalism and free trade will never have to live in the communities most affected by those changes. Considering the elite’s recent indifference to the “unprotected,” Donald Trump’s rise should not come as a surprise.
To a certain segment of the population, racism, xenophobia and provincialism are the most pressing issues facing our country. These people scoff at the idea that we should impose tariffs on Chinese goods, work to limit immigration into the U.S. or “bomb the s— out of ISIS.”
They are not coal miners who have been laid off as a result of Environmental Protection Agency regulations; they are not manufacturing workers whose jobs have moved overseas; they are not poor Appalachians unable to climb the economic ladder, losing friends and family to opiate addiction.
The New York Times’ David Brooks predicts that political lines will soon be drawn not as they have been for the past 50 years, but between the elite and the disaffected. When a less impetuous, less bigoted leader than Trump reaches out to both working-class whites and underprivileged minorities, the two-party system will reflect the split between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, cosmopolitan and insular. In that even, self-interest politics will reign supreme. Without a political incentive for compromising with people of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, politics will become a war between diametrically opposed demographic groups. This does bode well for a country racked by social inequality and economic stagnation.
For better or for worse, the vast majority of Yale students will enter the global elite after graduation. Many of us will go on to careers in politics, business, law and journalism. When that happens, I implore those of us who now disparage the concerns of Bible Belt reactionaries to consider why one might end up opposing common-sense legislation such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or immigration reform. A politics divided between haves and have-nots will only sow the seeds for more demagogues who play on the fears of less educated, lower-income voters.
I am not excusing the candidacy of Donald Trump. This election cycle has been dreadful for me, particularly as someone who has supported the Republican Party my entire life. That being said, if intellectuals and business elites continue to turn a blind eye to the misfortune of others, the future of this nation looks grim.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .