Political realignments occur in response to crises. The Whig/Jacksonian Democratic electoral system was broken up by irrepressible conflicts over slavery.
The New Deal Coalition arose in response to the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt consolidated working-class voters—including ethnic groups from urban areas—brought new citizens into the electorate, and drew most (though not all) progressive Republicans into his party.
For progressives, the question now is whether the crisis created by the Trump era will produce a center-left majority led by the Democratic Party.
The 2018 midterm elections are tantalizing because they point to this possibility. Many Republican-leaning suburban voters who had supported Hillary Clinton in 2016—particularly women—proved willing to also vote for Democrats farther down the ticket, particularly in House races. Democrats had been picking up suburban votes since Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, but the 2018 gains were deeper and farther reaching, extending even into core Republican states such as Oklahoma and Kansas.
Many former Republicans and moderate independents were repulsed by the GOP leadership’s embrace of Trump—his ethno-nationalism, his lies, his extremist rhetoric. If Republicans stay Trumpist, they will keep losing these voters.
Meanwhile, the 2018 mobilization of young voters, African Americans, and Latinos far exceeded Democratic expectations. If repeated and expanded in 2020, these new voters would hasten the creation of the much-discussed “coalition of the ascendant.”
Equally heartening were signs that the “Trump Democrats” in the three key swing states of 2016—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—were, in the end, still Democrats. This was the import of the double victories by the party’s candidates in contests for Senate seats and governorships.
It was not always appreciated that the ascendant coalition based on Barack Obama’s twin victories required a 40 to 50 percent Democratic vote share among white non-college voters in the old industrial states. Obama hit these levels. Clinton did not. The 2018 results marked a return of the Democrats’ industrial state blue-collar majorities and, when combined with the party’s new suburban gains, held the potential for an even broader and more durable coalition than Obama built.
But nurturing this coalition will require maintaining the organizing energy brought to life by the backlash to Trump and the breakthroughs in participation by young people and voters of color.
And given the breadth of the coalition, the two wings of the center and left will need to learn not only to tolerate each other but to work together. Many Democratic suburban victors focused relentlessly on economic issues (health care above all, jobs, and education), adopted a moderate tone, and called for more civil politics.
What unites staunch progressives and their moderate center-left brethren might be called The Politics of More: more Americans covered by health insurance (whether through single-payer or some other system); more with decent wages and benefits, including the family-friendly sort; more with good schools; more with affordable paths to college and effective training programs; more with unimpeded access to the ballot; more with adequate provision for retirement; more with security from gun violence.
Sectarianism does not build broad coalitions. They are created by shared goals and an understanding that these cannot be achieved unless citizens of diverse backgrounds and views come together—and stick together, even in the face of differences over tactics, methods, and the pace of change.