By Mike Dorf
In my latest Verdict column, I argue that the Tea Party movement is a sign of the breakdown in the Republican coalition. I use three incidents -- proto-Tea Party opposition to TARP; the Tea Party opposition to a deal on the debt ceiling; and fights over immigration that pit Tea Party types against employers -- to show how increasingly the interests of Wall Street and corporate America diverge from the ideology of what I call the populist right. I characterize the fight as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Here I want to explore the possibilities that the rift offers for realignment. Specifically, I want to ask: How would American politics look if the Democratic Party were to replace the Republican Party as the party of Wall Street and big business?
A pro-business Democratic Party is not at all difficult to imagine. Indeed, many people on the left would say that is already what we have. After all, President Clinton signed the Financial Services Modernization Act and President Obama's policies have been very generous to Wall Street. The two main ways in which Dems give corporate America less than it thinks it can get from Repubs are: 1) taxes; and 2) regulation. These are important, to be sure, but the differences are small enough that I could imagine corporate America concluding it can live with somewhat higher taxes (on wealthy individuals, with fewer loopholes for corporations) and somewhat more robust regulation, in exchange for knowing that the country is not being run by a collection of ideological maniacs willing to blow up the economy to prove a point. (Here's an illustration of the reasoning process.)
What would realignment mean for other issues? Many of the people who work on Wall Street and in corporate America skew libertarian, and would thus be relieved to be freed of their alliance with the social conservatives in the Republican coalition. There would still be some contested questions, of course. Some people who are otherwise libertarian are also pro-life (e.g., Ron Paul). Would the new, more libertarian Democratic Party support gun rights? I think the most likely outcome would be regional variation and a lot of straddling. Meanwhile, a socially conservative Republican Party shorn of its connection to Wall Street and big business would look a lot like Mike Huckabee as governor.
The tough questions are what would happen to union members and racial and ethnic minorities. The latter would, I think, still find a home in the Democratic Party. Recall, after all, that big business has generally supported affirmative action. Out-and-out racism is more likely to be found among poor whites, who view minorities as either an economic threat or people whose low status can elevate their own status, than among the elite. (Again, these are very broad generalizations.) I'm not saying that racism, nativism, and other exclusionary ideologies are inherent in the Tea Party movement, but I think the Tea-Partyfication of the Republican Party would certainly not make the latter more hospitable to minorities.
I suspect that organized labor would be the big loser in the reorganization I am imagining. Unions have provided a big boost for the Democrats in recent decades, even as Democratic policies have been only a little more union-friendly than Republican policies, and even as union membership has been declining. A Democratic Party allied with Wall Street and big business would have less need for unions, but it is hard to see how the Republicans would welcome union activists into their midst--even once they've divorced Wall Street and big business. Tea Party support for such figures as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Cristie, who have made public-union-busting the center of their respective agendas, suggests that in the short run at least, the conservative populists don't see the advantage of allying with organized labor. Perhaps realignment would mean that would change in the long run, but unions seem to be in decline in the long run.
Finally, I want to be clear that I'm not making a normative case for the sort of realignment envisioned here. This is simply a thought experiment.