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OPINION | REX NELSON: Out-flanking the fringe

by Rex Nelson | November 22, 2020 at 9:11 a.m.

In politics, it's said that perception is reality. Never has that been more true than in these waning days of 2020.

Here's how many of the country's voters--including a majority of voters in Arkansas--view the national Democratic Party: A collection of coastal elites who condescendingly look down on them, the education they received, the way they make their living, their culture, and their religious beliefs.

They view Democratic leaders as scolding woke warriors who want to force a socialist version of America on them. They see them as people who dislike America and subvert its history at every opportunity.

Seriously, has there ever been a more ridiculous slogan than "defund the police" or a bigger political non-starter than the Green New Deal?

Where's Bill Clinton when we need him to teach the party's leadership about the political imperative of moderation? Where's the Democratic Leadership Council, whose annual meetings I covered in places like Philadelphia and Williamsburg back in the 1980s when Clinton was among the party's rising young stars? So much for the blue wave that so many were predicting in 2020.

Still, most Democrats don't get it.

"They've built a cultural blue wall that keeps the other half of the country out, no matter the circumstance," writes David Brooks of The New York Times. "They've done it by telling a certain sort of story. American politics, progressives commonly say, is all about the historical shift from homogeneity to diversity. They see America as divided between those enlightened cosmopolitans (Democrats) who welcome the coming diverse post-industrial world and those knuckle-dragging, racist troglodytes (Republicans) who don't.

"The first problem with this narrative is that it is perpetually surprised by events. Election after election, the emerging Democratic majority fails to emerge. The second problem is that it over-simplifies the different processes going on in America. Somehow, we have to have the racial reckoning, which is essential, while we understand the other mega-narratives people feel are driving their lives. Third, it's astonishingly smug, self-congratulatory and off-putting."

The Democratic Party has given far too large a megaphone to its fringe elements. With a Democrat about to enter the White House, it's time to take back the bully pulpit with a moderate President Joe Biden while assigning Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of The Squad to political Siberia.

Republicans, meanwhile, have even deeper problems after four years of the divisive, chaotic Trump administration, which catered to the party's fringe. At some point, Republicans must face up to the fact that they've lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. The country's changing demographics make the party's reliance on disaffected white male voters even more problematic for those who play the long game.

Had the petulant bully in the White House been re-elected, I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have seen another Republican elected president in my lifetime. The damage of eight years of President Trump would have been too deep to overcome. Now, Republicans have a chance at reform.

"Trumpism and Woke-ism are not equivalent phenomena, but they both serve as secular religions for their disciples," Brooks writes. "They offer a binary logic of good and evil, a cultlike membership experience, apocalyptic or utopian visions, witch trials for the excommunication of the impure and the sense of personal meaning that comes while fighting a holy war.

"In different ways, voters told the two parties that they'd like our politics to be about practical issues. If you want a religious war, go have it somewhere else. They told Republicans, for example, that you will be much stronger without the MAGA craziness. The Republican Party had a much better election than Trump."

Rural states in parts of the South and West will remain Republican for years to come (think Arkansas and Mississippi), but we saw in this month's election how well Biden ran in more urbanized Southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. When one considers that the majority of Texas voters are now urban voters, it's easy to see Texas going blue in the next couple of election cycles.

"The walls are closing in, making the message inescapable: Texas is not what Republicans are pretending it is," Robert Draper writes in the November issue of Texas Monthly. "In the 1992 presidential election, 60 percent of the state's votes were cast in greater Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. By contrast, in the 2018 midterm, 69 percent of the electorate came from those areas."

The fastest-growing racial group in Texas is Asian Americans, whose numbers have grown from 1.1 million in 2010 to almost 1.8 million now. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, incumbent Republican Greg Abbott won by 13 percentage points but lost the Asian American vote by 18 points. Sen. Ted Cruz lost the Asian American vote by 31 points.

Trump is the first elected incumbent to lose his presidential re-election campaign in 28 years and only the fourth to do so in the past century. It will be interesting to watch Republicans position themselves for the 2024 presidential nomination. Few doubt that Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas will run. Cotton likely will present himself as a much smarter version of Trump (admittedly a low bar to clear).

"The Republican Party has long had a significant nativist, isolationist element," Nicholas Lemann writes in The New Yorker. "In the party's collective memory, this faction was kept in check by 'fusionism,' a grand entente between this element and the party's business establishment. The best-known promoter of 'fusionism' is the late William F. Buckley Jr., the theatrically patrician founder of National Review and an all-around conservative celebrity.

"Buckley tried to keep anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists out of the conservative movement, but he was not a standard Chamber of Commerce Republican. His first book atacked liberal universities, his second defended Joseph McCarthy, and in 1957, when Dwight Eisenhower was sending federal troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School, he wrote an article titled 'Why The South Must Prevail.'

"Buckley helped define American conservatism as a movement that supported free-market economics and internationalism and welcomed serious intellectuals, including former Communists such as James Burnham, Frank Meyer and Whittaker Chambers. Fusionism brought these views together into what seemed for a long time, at least from the outside, to be a relatively workable political coalition."

Philip Zelikow, a veteran foreign-policy official who was among the sensible Republicans who opposed Trump, says: "World War II, followed by nearly World War III, brought the United States into an unprecedented world role. And a vocal minority didn't accept it. They don't like foreigners. They think they're playing us for suckers. There were a lot of Pearl Harbor and Yalta conspiracy theories that we've forgotten about. This group concentrates overwhelmingly in the Republican Party."

Lemann writes: "For a long time, it was kept in check. Now, in Zelikow's view, it has grown in prominence and become less deferential to the business wing of the Republican establishment and is 'close to being the most influential element in the party.'"

Republicans won't win the popular vote in a presidential election until the nativists and nationalists are pushed to the side. Just as the Democratic Party must move away from its woke warriors on the left, Republicans must minimize the party's fringe right element. The vast middle of the country is still looking for a home after this election.

Even before the election, Arizona State University historian Donald Critchlow, an expert on American conservatism, told Lemann: "We're in a new situation in both parties. Everything's up for grabs."


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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