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The perils of downscale political parties

Michael Barone on

Political parties, and their travails, have been much on my mind recently as I've been speaking to radio and television interviewers about my new book, "How America's Political Parties Change (And How They Don't)."

The book thesis is that our two parties, founded in 1832 and 1854, have often changed positions on issues but have retained their basic character in a nation that has expanded from 25 million people to almost 330 million.

The Republican Party has always been centered around a constituency of people thought of as typical Americans who are not by themselves a majority. The Democratic Party has always been a coalition of disparate peoples not considered typical Americans but who, when they stick together, can form a majority.

Last week I wrote about the Democratic Party's travails, as its latest presidential debate revealed sharp disagreements between different groups in the Democratic coalition. Much of the discord arises from the emergence of affluent white college graduates -- gentry liberals -- as the dominant force in both raising money and generating ideas.

Republicans' travails arise also from the changing character in their core constituency. From the Eisenhower years to the Reagan years, it was centered on the relatively affluent. Since the 1990s, it has been changing, tilting more toward the religiously devout and economically downscale.

That change, as Ernest Hemingway said of bankruptcy, happened first gradually and then suddenly, starting with the baby-boom tussles of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and then climaxing in the baby-boom Armageddon between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

 

With his distinctive positions on trade and immigration, candidate Trump increased Republican percentages from non-college-graduate whites and captured 100 more electoral votes than Mitt Romney did as the nominee in 2012. This downscale Republican Party supports President Trump even more steadfastly than 1970s Republicans supported Richard Nixon.

But a downscale party attracts articulate attackers and lacks institutional support. That's true of Donald Trump's Republicans and, across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives, as Johnson struggles to implement Brexit, the solemn June 2016 verdict of the British electorate to leave the European Union.

Brexit was opposed by elites and minorities in metro London, Scotland and Northern Ireland but was supported by 57% of voters in England outside London, which is 70% of the UK. Similarly, Hillary Clinton beat Trump 65 to 30% in metro New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But he carried the other 85% of the country by a 49-45% margin.

Downscale parties tend to have few champions among the chattering classes. In Britain, most of the print presses and the BBC, the latter of which every TV owner is forced to subsidize, heap ridicule and scorn on Brexit and its supporters. The financial elite and entertainment celebrities take a similar view.

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