THE BLOG
11/15/2006 05:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reagan Democrats Will Change America--And the World

The usual pattern in American politics is this: The Reagan Democrats win the politics, and then they lose the policy. But that pattern--victory turned into defeat--is likely to change. And when it does--when their victories endure--America will change, and so will its role in the world.

The Reagan Democrats are the middle- and working-class voters who supported the party of Franklin Roosevelt before 1968, but who have voted mostly Republican (with occasional detours in the direction of Bill Clinton or Ross Perot) in the decades since. Thanks to these swing voters, the GOP eclipsed the Democratic Party--or at least did until 2006. But while their partisan orientation might have changed, their basic outlook has not: Reagan Democrats are conservative socially, but they are not crusaders; they are populist economically, but they are hardly socialists.

Because the Reagan Dems sit athwart both parties, their voting pattern might sometimes appear confusing; they are avid ticket-splitters. In Wyoming, for example, Republican Sen. Craig Thomas was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote, but on the same day, in the same state, the Democratic Governor, Dave Freudenthal, was also re-elected with 70 percent of the vote. That's equal-opportunity ticket-splitting. In South Dakota, the voters showed their own kind of nuance; they voted down a totalizing anti-abortion measure, but they re-elected the Republican governor who embraced the measure. And in Michigan, voters enacted restrictions on affirmative action by a wide margin, even as they voted to re-elect their pro-affirmative action Democratic governor and senator.

Similarly, the Reagan Democrats' worldview is at odds with the elite consensus that has settled over national politics in recent decades. Whereas Reagan Dems tend to be suspicious of free trade and social liberalism, the elites of both parties think just the opposite. So it is that top Democrats joined with Republicans to advance NAFTA and CAFTA, while the attempted Republican cover-up of the Mark Foley scandal underscored the eagerness of DC conservatives to abide by inside-the-Beltway standards of social tolerance.

Yet outside the Beltway, Reagan Democrats continue to flex their muscle in their own ornery way. That's why the Republican reign came to an end this year; swing voters, instinctively nationalistic and patriotic as they might be, finally gave up on the once-popular "War President."

But whereas swing voters swung away from the GOP this year, a look at the state-level ballot initiatives shows them to be steady in their right-leaning populism. Gay marriage was voted down almost everywhere, while English-only was voted up. Medical marijuana and legalized slot machines were defeated, as were a variety of proposed tax increases, including California's trendy Proposition 87, which would have funded alternative energy. Still, the Reagan Democrats' economic populism was visible, too; voters endorsed big hikes in the minimum wage, and some tax-and-spend measures prevailed. Meanwhile, nine states, from Florida to North Dakota, voted "aye" on perhaps the most purely populist issue on the ballot this year, enacting new defenses for private property against the Supreme Court's Kelo decision.

Thus one can draw a clear picture of the voters' wishes--if one wants to. But if the past is a guide, both parties will once again do their best to ignore the voters' wishes in 2007; after all, Reagan Democrats are poorly represented among the chattering classes. There aren't too many magazines and books dedicated to promoting the full platform of Protestant Blue Dogs and Christian Democrat-type Catholics.

In other words, most likely, Democrats will seek to use their newfound power in the 110th Congress to push legal liberalism, which owes more to the American Civil Liberties Union than to the values of the Heartland. And Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told UPI on Monday that he wants to "re-visit" legislation authorizing a wall across part of the US-Mexico border--a wall that he had always opposed, along with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the incoming Congressional leaders. (And even in their shrunken situation, Republicans, no more heedful of the true voice of the voters, will gear up for yet another effort to partially privatize Social Security, and some will continue to crusade for "full speed ahead" in the Middle East.)

But there's good reason to believe that the familiar bait-and-switch won't work for much longer. That is, Reagan Democrats will start winning on policy, as well as politics. Why is that? Because America's diminishing clout around the world is undermining the internationalist faith that sustained the elites of both parties. And as the elites retreat from internationalism, they will inevitably default back to nationalism, which has always been the redoubt of the Reagan Democrats.

After 1945, it was almost impossible to be a top Republican or Democrat and not be committed to globalism of some kind. And so inevitably, left and right wings emerged within the internationalist consensus. Left-leaning globalists were strongly in favor of free trade and also military intervention; it was the Truman administration that gave us both the predecessor to the World Trade Organization and the Korean War. In more recent years, left-globalists have shifted their attention toward international law and international environmentalism, although Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin can always be counted on to support a trade deal.

For their part, right-leaning globalists have kept up their support for foreign wars and foreign trade, even if they have grown deeply suspicious of, for example, the United Nations.

These splits between left- and right-globalists have been real, although both sides could usually come together on critical issues, including trade, immigration, and the run-up to the Iraq war.

But now the fundaments of elite globalism are being undermined. Let's consider four undermining factors:

First, American military power, which secured the post-1945 order, is looking distinctly paper-tiger-ish. If the US seems to have met its match in Iraq, what do the Iranians and North Koreans--let alone the Russians or Chinese--have to worry about? Unipolarity will be replaced by... what? Multipolarity? Anarchy?

Second, America's willingness to lead further trade liberalization ended with the Dubai ports non-deal. The Doha Round is dead; the WTO is going the way of the UN. And even already-inked trade deals with Vietnam, Peru, and Colombia could be in trouble. Down the road a few years, once China and India fully join the international economy, one might suspect that there will be relatively few pure free-traders left in the US, even at the top.

Third, the elite consensus on immigration into the US is collapsing. Yes, business-oriented Republicans still love cheap labor, and yes, multiculturalist Democrats still salivate over more "Third World" voters, but in the vital American center, concerns over destiny and demography--not to mention fears of terrorism--are looming larger than at any time in more than eight decades. So a major battle is coming over "comprehensive" immigration reform.

Fourth, international environmentalism plays well with the elites--and not the masses. One of these days, "Inconvenient Truth"-citing Democrats, joined by high-minded Republicans, will try to enact something akin to the Kyoto global-warming treaty. And the ensuing backlash will remind people why Al Gore was not, and will not be, elected president.

Once upon a time, the globalizing elite could have pulled together to put down these populist eruptions. But 21st century realities are shattering the elite's most treasured shibboleth, which is that America will always have the power to remake the world, to establish one new world order after another. And if that if globalist faith is broken, and if the globo-elite's power is broken as well, then most internationalists are destined to become nationalists--some on the left and some on the right.

The Reagan Democrats will see merit in both flavors of this newfound American nationalism, even as the international order takes a dramatic post-American turn.