Yesterday was the Presidential primary in my state. My vote went to Hillary Clinton, principally because I’m a Democrat and Clinton’s views are slightly closer to mine than Bernie Sanders.
At heart, I’m a pragmatist who isn’t a big fan of hopeless battles. I agree with many of Sanders’s aspirations, such as universal healthcare and free college, but I don’t feel a huge degree of confidence that he would be able to get any of it done with a Republican dominated Congress. Politics is a game where you need to know when to compromise, to accept half a loaf when the full loaf isn’t in the cards. I think the reason older Democrats generally support Clinton is because we’ve been around the block a few times and seen what actually gets results.
I’m also not convinced Sanders would make a strong candidate in the general election. I know about the polling data that shows him doing well with independents, but it doesn’t convince me for two reasons. First, independents are a superset of swing voters. Most independents skew toward one party or the other, so polling that overall group doesn’t tell us much about the sentiments of swing voters specifically.
Second, swing voters seem to be a lamentably low information bunch. I’m skeptical of any polling of them right now, because most of them reportedly won’t focus on the election until late October, when they’ll learn a lot more about Sanders and the other candidates. Crucially, they’d be learning about Sanders while the Republican attack machine is in full force.
A lot of people talk about the passion that exists for Sanders. I definitely see that passion among his supporters. The trouble is that it doesn’t appear to be translating to votes, at least not on a large enough scale and, most notably, not among minorities. If that passion isn’t carrying him to primary victories, it’s hard to see it carrying him to general election victory.
That being said, I don’t have strong feelings about the differences between Clinton and Sanders. It’s looking like Clinton will get the Democratic nomination, but if Sanders were to somehow get it, I wouldn’t have any qualms about voting for him. My differences with either of them (and I do have differences) are miniscule compared to the Republicans.
Liberals who say that if they don’t get Sanders, that they’ll either sit out the general election or vote for Trump strike me as seriously misguided. People with that attitude should consider who Sanders himself would vote for if faced with a choice between Clinton and any of the lunatics on the Republican side.
Which brings us to the Republicans. Yeah, the Republicans. If you’ve been paying any attention, you’ve probably noticed that the Republicans have descended into civil war. I think Donald Trump has exposed a divide in the GOP, one that’s been around for a long time, but for some reason has never really been exploited.
For decades, the Republican party has been a coalition of social conservatives, economic libertarians, and corporate interests. During those years, Republican politicians have generally paid lip service to social conservatism while taking care of the donating classes, mostly concentrated in the corporate interests. They’ve carefully courted the more extreme, bigoted, xenophobic, and racist conservatives using Nixon’s old Southern Strategy, but only in a way that gave them plausible deniability so they had a chance with moderates.
What Trump has demonstrated is that if you appeal to the social conservatives on matters they care about, they really don’t care about economic conservatism. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Polling data has shown it for years. It’s only surprising that it took this long for someone to exploit it. In marketing parlance, the social conservative yet economic moderate, or even economic liberal, is an underserved segment. It’s a gap that Trump is filling.
It’s also not surprising if you know history. For generations, Democrats held the south (The Solid South) because they had southern racists in their camp. That only ended with the civil rights era. Most of the people in that old Democratic conservative tradition are now Republicans. But they were once economic liberals, and it’s not inconceivable to see them being so again.
I’ve noted before that parties change. In the 19th century, the Democrats were the conservatives and the Republicans the progressives (the party of Lincoln). Given the demographic changes underway in the US, it was only a matter of time before Republicans started to change, although I have to admit that I thought it would happen on the social front before the economic one.
Even if Trump eventually fails, I doubt this is a genie that the GOP will be able to stuff back in its bottle. The existence of the divide has now been thrust into the open. Shrewd politicians will not forget it. It will be exploited again, although hopefully the next time by someone not interested in appealing to the worst elements of social conservatism.
All of which is to say, if you care at all about public policy, this is not the year to sit out the vote. Even if Obama is able to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy, you only have to look at the ages of the current justices to see that the next President will likely get a couple of nominations, mostly likely to replace liberal justices. The people placed on the court will have effects on our society for decades to come. (Antonin Scalia was appointed by Ronald Reagan.) If you don’t vote, your opinions on these matters literally won’t count.