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The 2016 presidential election demonstrated a dramatic resurgence of populism in American politics, in which the three most successful candidates – Trump, Clinton, and Sanders – advanced their own distinctive populist brands. Trump’s promise to “make America great again” involved a direct appeal to a socially and economically struggling white working class. Clinton’s campaign focused attention on the concerns of women, minorities, and the disadvantaged, at the same time that she cultivated support on Wall Street. As a democratic socialist, Sanders challenged Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination from the left, advocating extended social welfare benefits and free higher education. These three candidates and their campaigns reflected the variegated history of populist appeals in American politics. Trump’s campaign reflected a regressive, divisive brand of populism with a long history in American politics that has been particularly vibrant in the American South. Sanders represented the democratic socialist tradition that has historically experienced the most difficulty in gaining a resilient base of support in American politics.
The populist impulse in American politics is to level the playing field in both politics and the economy. Leveling the playing field in politics means creating a political process that reflects the “one person, one vote” democratic ethos – a politics in which every vote counts and influence is not a simple by-product of wealth, birth, or social standing. Leveling the field in economic terms takes on a variety of meanings, from (1) dramatic attempts at income redistribution to (2) more modest efforts at creating a social welfare state that provides some basic level of social welfare services in the areas of health, housing, nutrition, and education that are available for all to (3) creating high barriers to immigration and trade aimed at keeping jobs in America for Americans. Hence, populist appeals take on a variety of forms, from progressive to regressive, and each must be judged relative to its own context and content.
The 1957 Civil Rights Act (CRA) was the first significant civil rights legislation adopted by the Congress since the end of Reconstruction. It was passed in the face of seemingly intractable disagreement and very long odds of success. Many otherwise liberal Democrats were still weak on civil rights, while many otherwise conservative Republicans were strong civil rights supporters. Within the political context of the New Deal, the Democratic Party’s coalition was held together by two contradictory policy goals: an economically liberal populist instinct combined with the corrupting political imperative of home rule for the white Southern wing of the party. The construction of majority support for the passage of the 1957 Act thus provides a preview of the New Deal Democratic Party’s demise, as well as its replacement with a new party system. The 1957 Act constitutes a watershed moment in the evolution of American politics, even though it failed to produce any dramatic change that would revolutionize the legal landscape of racial discrimination in the United States.
Sombart’s (1906) question continues to resonate politically more than 100 years after it was posed. Our effort has refocused the question away from socialism to ask, “Why is there such a meager welfare state in the United States?” Many explanations for American exceptionalism have focused on individualism, individual initiative, and the frontier spirit. While these offer plausible accounts for the resilience of American capitalism and the resistance to government ownership and interference in capital markets and production, they fall short in explaining the relative absence of social welfare benefits being provided by the American government. Other western democracies have managed to combine capitalism and private ownership of the means of production with an extensive network of guaranteed social welfare benefits in health, education, and general welfare. Yet, in the American context, the effort to provide universal social welfare benefits has met with mixed success.
Donald Trump appeared to turn American politics upside down in his 2016 presidential election campaign. He accomplished this feat by embracing issues that have long been at the core of Republican Party platforms and combining them with positions that appealed to socially, economically, and politically disaffected white voters. In addition to advocating a pro-life agenda, he reached out to traditional Republican constituencies in a range of important ways, embracing tax reform and tax cuts as well as promising major rollbacks of Obama-era regulatory regimes that were aimed at reversing climate change, stimulating economic competition, and stabilizing financial markets. Perhaps most importantly, he promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the most important social welfare legislation adopted since the establishment of Medicare in 1965. All these positions fall in line with Republican orthodoxy regarding small government and unfettered free enterprise.
The contemporary versions of the major political coalitions in American politics demonstrate an attenuated relationship with the parties as they existed at the end of the 1940s, or even at the beginning of the 1960s. The transformation has certainly been less than complete. The Democratic Party continues to be closely associated with the mantle of liberalism, while the Republican Party continues to embrace conservative values and political positions across a wide range of issues. At a more profound level, however, the class and racial alignments of the parties have been radically transformed over the past sixty years, and liberalism and conservatism have taken on different meanings. As the previous chapters demonstrated, one central element of this transformation was the civil rights revolution in American politics. Race and civil rights do not, however, provide a complete account. Other important changes were occurring at the same time, with important consequences for the alignment of American political parties.
This chapter addresses the ideological transformation of political parties as they were represented by state delegations within the House of Representatives. So long as social welfare policy was kept separate from civil rights, it was politically feasible for southern delegations to support social welfare. The coupling of civil rights and social welfare led to a wholesale partisan realignment within the House as well as within the country as a whole. After keeping civil rights legislation off the congressional agenda throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the dam burst and members of both parties in the House and in the Senate confronted a politically charged climate surrounding not only civil rights legislation but social welfare legislation as well. House Democrats in the South had been fully complicit in bottling up civil rights legislation while supporting social welfare legislation in the form of the New Deal and Fair Deal initiatives.
The events leading to the adoption of key civil rights and voting rights legislation in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s came at a critical moment in American political history – a moment that preserved the legitimacy of the American political system. Absent those events, denials of citizenship rights based on race and ethnicity would have been sustained in large parts of the country, the “Second Revolution” in American politics (McPherson 1992) would have been aborted, and the United States would have ceased to qualify as a democracy. The efforts and sacrifices made at Antietam in 1862, Gettysburg in 1863, Ford’s Theater in 1865, Little Rock in 1957, Birmingham in 1963, Selma in 1965, and at other countless places and times would have been wasted. Moreover, the transforming potential of the due process, equal protection, and citizenship guarantees of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments would have gone unrealized.
A number of studies demonstrate a puzzling relationship in American politics. Wealthier states tend to be represented in Congress by liberals typically committed to social welfare spending. In contrast, poor states tend to be represented by economic conservatives typically hostile to greater social welfare spending. The “red state, blue state, rich state, poor-state” phenomenon identified by Gelman et al. (2010) is not due to affluent voters in wealthy states being ardent liberals. To the contrary, the pattern within states is one in which more affluent individuals are less likely to support Democratic candidates than the less affluent. Hence, the pattern arises as a consequence of state-level variations in party support that persist even after taking account of individual affluence. This red state-poor state relationship is, however, a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1960s, the relationship had been reversed. The poorest states were represented by some of the most economically liberal members of Congress, and most of these poor states were located in the South.
What makes it so difficult to enact and sustain comprehensive social welfare policy that would aid the disadvantaged in the United States? Addressing the relationship between populism and social welfare, this book argues that two competing camps of populists divide American politics. Regressive populists motivated by racial resentment frequently clash with progressive populists, who embrace an expansion of social welfare benefits for the less affluent, regardless of race or ethnicity. Engstrom and Huckfeldt uncover the political forces driving this divided populism, its roots in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution of the mid-twentieth century, and its implications for modern American politics and social welfare policy. Relying on a detailed analysis of party coalitions in the US Congress and the electorate since the New Deal, the authors focus on the intersection between race, class, and oligarchy.