However, in spite of the unanticipated 2016 success of Trump, Douthat maintains that the white strategy has limitations, and it cannot be the basis for forging a governing majority. He notes that Trump’s electoral victories in the Midwestern states were thin, and Trump lost voters among women and the educated that the Republican Party previously had been able to attract. He maintains that the “white-identitarian rhetoric . . . cost Republicans not only minority votes but white votes as well, repelling anti-racist white suburbanites even as they mobilize some share of racially resentful whites.”
Douthat maintains that, instead of a white strategy, it would be more politically effective for the Republican Party to “pursue a populist strategy shorn of white-identity appeals. . . . Pursue E-Verify but forgo the child-separating cruelties; be tough on China but stop vilifying black athletes; embrace nationalism but stiff-arm Confederate nostalgia.” He predicts that if the Republican Party does not do so, it will suffer defeats in future elections.
Here we arrive to the limitations of Douthat’s reflections. It seems to me that it would not be possible for the Republican Party to attain a governing majority on the basis of a populist economic agenda, whether it be a progressive economic agenda or merely a populist rhetoric. Its “Southern strategy,” in operation since the 1970s, of appealing to white resentment and to subtle forms of white racism is a legacy that cannot easily be overcome. A reformulated Republican Party message would continue to be rejected by too many blacks, Latins, and progressively minded whites. It would at best attain narrow electoral victories in the context of a deeply divided nation, which is not the foundation for a governing consensus.
But neither is the Democratic Party in a position to forge a governing consensus on the basis of a progressive agenda. In turning since the late 1960s to an identity politics that emphasizes the rights and the agenda of blacks, women, Latinos, and gays, it has alienated a considerable part of white society, including significant numbers of white women as well as greater numbers of white men. With a greater emphasis on the kind of economic populism that Douthat proposes and less emphasis on identity politics, it probably would be able at attain electoral majorities, capturing some Republican voters. But the nation would remain deeply divided, and governance would continue to be beset with conflicts and difficulties.
Both political parties are entrenched in their respective grass-roots bases. In addition, there is the overwhelming problem that both parties are controlled by the national power elite, which has two basic tendencies, sometimes in conflict with each other, namely, global neoliberalism and militarism. Having to make concessions to its base and at least sectors of the elite, neither party is in a position to forge a national consensus that would make effective government possible.
At the root of this state of affairs is the failure of the Left to be effectively present to offer a politically viable progressive alternative. The Left has failed to formulate a historically and scientifically informed narrative and program with a progressive social and economic agenda, identifying the particular issues for blacks, women, Latinos, and gays in this frame, without burying the frame in unreflective slogans and actions with respect to the identity issues. It has failed to formulate a critique of imperialism and neoliberalism, demonstrating that these policies contradict fundamental democratic values and direct the nation away from the principles upon which the republic is founded. And it has not articulated a critique of electoral laws, structures, and customs in order to formulate an alternative concept of popular democracy. Such an alternative narrative and critique would be able to bring on board high percentages of blacks, women, Latinos, and gays, without alienating a majority of whites with conservative social conceptions and values.
Forging a governing consensus on the basis of a progressive social and economic agenda would involve bringing on board a majority of white men, albeit a thin majority, a larger majority of white women, and overwhelming majorities of blacks and Latinos. In order to do this, we have to free ourselves from the political constraints of both political parties. When we study the political processes in other nations that have had triumphant popular revolutions, we see that they offered new narratives on the nation and the world, which included a strong identification with the history and destiny of the nation, even when it included a concept of diverse peoples within the nation. They formulated a comprehensive and integrated list of particular social and economic proposals, addressing the daily concerns of the great majority. Moreover, they simply bypassed the established political parties and associations, forming their own.
It is often said that third parties do not work in the political context of the United States. We need to reflect on this claim. The limitations of third parties during the twentieth century were rooted in their over-identification with one sector of the people and their incapacity to formulate a narrative for the nation that connected to the concerns and aspirations of the majority of the people.
The nation is in the midst of a profound political-cultural crisis, which is occurring in the midst of the sustained structural crisis of the world-system. We need to ask not how our party, be it the Republican or Democratic, could attain electoral majorities. We need to ask how a governing consensus among of people could be formed, so that the nation and its peoples can respond constructively to the challenges that it and humanity confront. This requires moving beyond the framework of debate and political strategies defined by the two major parties; and moving beyond the concepts of third parties to date. It requires creating a third party that redefines what a third party is, a redefinition forged by creative and committed reflection on the national and global crisis in which we find ourselves.