The Tectonic Shifts Underlying the Campaign

The quirky personalities of this political season often mask the turmoil caused by ethnic and cultural change—on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Washington earlier this month.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 24, 2016, 9:50 a.m.

Every­one pretty much agrees that this is one of the most un­usu­al pres­id­en­tial elec­tions in his­tory, but the fo­cus is too much on quirky per­son­al­it­ies. To be sure, Bernie Sanders and Don­ald Trump are un­con­ven­tion­al pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. But this elec­tion isn’t really about them or about Hil­lary Clin­ton either. This race is about shifts in the elect­or­ate that have promp­ted voters to be­have in ways they nev­er have be­fore.

The phe­nomen­on is not con­fined to the U.S. We are see­ing sim­il­ar ab­er­ra­tions in Bri­tain, Ger­many, and, to a less­er ex­tent, France. On Thursday, Bri­tain voted de­cis­ively to leave the European Uni­on. Most card-car­ry­ing mem­bers of the Brit­ish es­tab­lish­ment were dis­mayed by this ef­fort, and they warned of cata­stroph­ic eco­nom­ic con­sequences if the U.K. op­ted to go it alone.

While not ex­actly ana­log­ous, some of the same dy­nam­ics that are fuel­ing the ef­fort for Bri­tain to leave the EU can also be seen in the rise of Don­ald Trump. There are pas­sion­ate voices in the U.S. de­mand­ing a crack­down on im­mig­ra­tion, and a con­cern by many, on both sides of the At­lantic, that their coun­tries are chan­ging too much and too quickly—which is an­oth­er way of say­ing they are alarmed by the speed of ra­cial and cul­tur­al trans­form­a­tion. The rise of Is­lam­ic-in­spired ter­ror­ism is stok­ing the fires on both sides of the At­lantic.

But it isn’t just im­mig­ra­tion and eth­no­cen­trism that are driv­ing the polit­ic­al volat­il­ity, at least on this side of the At­lantic. Both of our two ma­jor polit­ic­al parties are be­com­ing far more ideo­lo­gic­al than they were in the past. The Demo­crat­ic Party, once cen­ter-left, is now em­phat­ic­ally Left. The Re­pub­lic­an Party, his­tor­ic­ally cen­ter-right, is now em­phat­ic­ally Right.

Con­sider Hil­lary Clin­ton and Jeb Bush. Clin­ton was widely per­ceived as be­ing on the far left of her hus­band’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, but she has spent the past year scram­bling to keep up with a party that has moved well to her left. Jeb Bush, who was one of the most con­ser­vat­ive gov­ernors in Amer­ica from 1998 to 2006, dis­covered in the primar­ies that he is now on the far left end of his party. Bush hadn’t changed, but the party had moved out from un­der him. The left­ward drift of the Demo­crat­ic Party pro­pelled the un­likely can­did­acy of Sanders, a self-de­scribed demo­crat­ic so­cial­ist.

The eco­nomy has changed just as dra­mat­ic­ally. Glob­al­iz­a­tion, auto­ma­tion, pro­ductiv­ity gains, and tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vances, among oth­er things, cre­ated new win­ners and losers al­most overnight. The losers were of­ten people who had skills that served them well in the 20th cen­tury but had few­er ap­plic­a­tions in the 21st cen­tury. The people left be­hind are scared and angry. Many of them are work­ing-class voters without col­lege de­grees, and they form the back­bone of the Trump move­ment.

Still oth­ers are young people who gradu­ated from high school or col­lege since 2008, of­ten with big stu­dent loans to pay off, only to find the worst job mar­ket in gen­er­a­tions. Sev­er­al years ago, the amount of stu­dent-loan debt in this coun­try passed the level of cred­it-card debt. When you com­bine these factors with the pro­gress­ive pro­nounce­ments of the Demo­crat­ic Party and the nat­ur­al ideal­ism of youth, you have the in­gredi­ents for the so­cial­ist cam­paign of Bernie Sanders that gave Clin­ton fits.

The fight over im­mig­ra­tion is partly re­lated to jobs and the eco­nomy. But it also re­flects a split between people who em­brace mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and see im­mig­ra­tion as freshen­ing the lifeblood of the coun­try, and oth­er people who are un­com­fort­able with the new ar­rivals and feel our cul­ture is un­der siege.

At the same time, the polit­ic­al cul­ture wars have heated up. Abor­tion, guns, gay mar­riage, and bath­room policies at schools have cre­ated deep emo­tion­al cleav­ages in the coun­try. The op­pos­ing camps are so en­trenched that com­prom­ise seems im­possible.

The quirky per­son­al­it­ies who have walked on stage dur­ing this cam­paign sea­son of­ten blind us to the so­ci­et­al un­ease we are ex­per­i­en­cing. It would be a mis­take to fo­cus on the strengths and weak­nesses of vari­ous can­did­ates without re­cog­niz­ing the un­der­ly­ing forces at work—and try­ing to fig­ure out where they might lead.

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