A Tale of Two Parties: Republicans vs. Democrats in November 2024

Pedro Soriano Mendiara

10 mins - 31 de Enero de 2024, 07:00

This week marks the start of the primary season for the US presidential election, and all indications are that the outcome will be to offer Americans the same menu they had to choose from four years ago – but reversed: Joe Biden as president versus Donald Trump as challenger. That inevitably leads to the following question: why are we going to repeat the confrontation of the two oldest candidates in the history of the country, but now four years older? Why does American politics seem to be in a state of stasis? How did we get to this point?

In the case of the Republican Party, it is worth doing a bit of history to explain how Trump has managed to dominate the party, understanding first of all that the New York mogul (now, like a good New York retiree, transplanted to Florida) is not an anomaly, but a consequence of a long political process that has affected American conservatives, turning them into a very different party from what they were at the beginning.

The GOP was born in 1854 as a northern, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, anti-slavery party (on economic rather than moral grounds) and in favour of a federal state that was stronger than the federated states (but also, and this is often forgotten, as a party generally hostile to immigration). The Civil War made it the natural party of government for several decades (between 1868 and 1912 there was only one Democratic and eight Republican presidents), during which time the party became more conservative, and more passive in the struggle for black civil rights, to the point that by the 1920s it was virtually indistinguishable from the Democrats on this point.

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To this we must add the fact that the First World War, which coincided with the term of a Democratic president, caused Republicans, to some extent in reaction to Wilson’s inflexibility, to develop an isolationist gene that has re-emerged in recent years. By contrast, the Great Depression, which coincided with the term of a Republican president, Hoover, who responded to it with austerity economic measures that we now associate with conservatives, ended up placing Republicans firmly on the right wing of US politics.

The Democrats’ twenty years in office in a row as a result of the Great Depression forced the Republicans to look for new electoral grounds, and they soon realised that their main political objective had to be to win the vote of Southern whites, who, despite being descendants of the Confederate rebels against whom the founders of the Republican Party had created the party, were now ideologically closer to it than to the Democrats (and moreover, they were still WASPs, i.e. white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant).

It was a process that dragged on for decades but was aided by a correlative movement in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, which after the Civil War had become the party of the defeated Southerners, had initially opted, after the conflict, to broaden its scope by targeting newly arrived immigrants (not because the ex-Confederates had any special sympathy for them, but for two main reasons: first, because the immigrants were not going to aim for the poor South, but the rich North, and second, because the Republicans’ decidedly anti-immigrant attitude led the Democrats to apply the old principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to the immigrants).

Thus, the Democratic Party in the early 20th century was a somewhat strange conglomerate of racist Protestant Southerners and non-Anglo-Saxon, largely Catholic immigrants to which the Great Depression added a destabilising component: urban black voters in the North. Despairing of Republican inaction under Hoover, they moved en masse to the Democrats, voting, for example, for Roosevelt with 76% of the vote in the 1936 election. World War II, in which nearly a million blacks fought for a country that treated them as second-class citizens, eventually led to the integration of the Armed Forces by executive order of President Truman – a Democrat – in 1948, triggering the first Southern split among Democrats, a prelude to many more to come.

But it was the civil rights struggle, officially inaugurated by the 1953 Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional, that caused a realignment of American politics whose consequences we still see today. The Democratic administrations of Kennedy and especially Johnson aligned themselves decisively in favour of the black minority, thus permanently alienating southern whites, who slowly but steadily moved to the Republican Party, and created a new era of Republican dominance at least at the presidential level (between 1968 and 1992 there was only one Democratic and four Republican presidents).

And not only that: non-Anglo-Saxon and Catholic immigrants in the North, who had been the other great pillar of the Democratic coalition for much of the 20th century, also began to move towards the Republicans as a result of the competition they faced from racial minorities in their blue-collar jobs (often called “blue-collar work”) and the consequences of de-industrialisation and the loss of jobs to lower-wage countries (which were not blamed on the Republicans, who maintained a more isolationist discourse although in practice, while also being the party of the employers, they were mainly responsible for these policies).

The Republican Party in Reagan’s time was thus a curious amalgam of upper-class voters (the old, lifelong WASPs) and lower-class voters (white ex-Democrats in the South and North), while the Democrats were the party of racial minorities and, increasingly less so, of the Northern working class.

However, all political movements create counter-reactions: in this case, the Republican Party’s absorption of Southern voters meant both an assumption of much of their social and religious positions, including in particular opposition to abortion and same-sex relationships, and an authoritarian temptation, aimed in the first instance at trying to exclude minorities as much as possible from access to the ballot. The growing dominance of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party led to a growing exodus of college-educated northern Republican voters who did not subscribe to these positions (later, the entry of the gay marriage issue onto the scene exacerbated this movement).

This dissociation also generated a growing gap between Republican voters (increasingly homogeneous: white working class or rural, evangelical, and uneducated, with populist and isolationist tendencies) and their leaders (presidents and candidates such as the Bushes, Mitt Romney, or Paul Ryan, all of them from the country’s elites, with a neoliberal economic and interventionist foreign policy discourse).

The Republican Party had already been threatening to elect a “populist” candidate for some electoral cycles (Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 achieved notable results by betting on this discourse) and finally succumbed to the temptation in 2016, by choosing Trump (who took advantage of the division of the vote among the conventional candidates). During the four years of his presidency and the following three years as tacit leader in the opposition, Trump has deepened isolationist (proposed withdrawal from NATO and cessation of support for Ukraine), conservative (appointment of Supreme Court justices who have overturned the constitutionality of abortion rights), and authoritarian (support for storming the Capitol on 6 January 2021 and promises of political persecution of his opponents if re-elected) tendencies.

The remnants of the Republican establishment have tried to find a candidate capable of fighting Trump, but all polls indicate that Trump is already supported by more than 60% of Republican voters, and even if he has the occasional stumble in a state where GOP voters are somewhat more moderate than average, as may happen in New Hampshire, the end result will be the logical one in the current Republican Party: Trump will be the nominee.

And then, unless health prevents them both, he will face Biden. In the last few weeks, we are reading all sorts of slightly fanciful comments about how Biden may be forced to retire, and a knight in shining armour will emerge to lead the Democratic hosts to victory. This is all unsubstantiated speculation. The Democratic Party, unlike the Republican Party, is a very disciplined party and very disinclined to experiment. And if for some reason Biden opts to withdraw, the candidate for the nomination would be Vice President Harris. The Democrats are never going to give up on the first female vice-president in their history (and a black and Asian minority to boot). 

Leading a heterogeneous coalition of college-educated whites and uneducated blacks and Latinos, the president faces the election, however, at his lowest point of popularity. Although the economy is holding up (unemployment remains at very low levels), the long-term effects of inflation and the undeniable fact that he is an old man mean that there is little enthusiasm for him. Biden has to hope that, once the Republican primaries are over and it is clear that Trump is going to be the Republican nominee (something that a majority of American voters today still do not believe is possible), voters will accept, even as a lesser evil, that he is the only guarantee to defeat Trump, as they did in 2020.

Biden is also confident that Trump’s judicial calendar, which could see him face up to four separate criminal trials before the election (two for his attempts to subvert the 2020 election, one for withholding secret documents after leaving the White House, and one for the illicit management of his business conglomerate) will culminate in at least one or two convictions, causing the minority of Republican voters who oppose Trump to either vote for Biden or stay home, giving Biden the necessary margin of victory.

The main problem with such a strategy is that its execution is not up to the president, while the Republican candidate’s legal team will do its best to defer all lawsuits after the election. Biden is also vulnerable to any recession that might occur in the coming months. If the election were held today, it is doubtful that the president would win it, and even if he did win in terms of votes, it would be perfectly possible for Trump to beat him in the Republican-biased Electoral College, as he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016. 
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