How Democrats Become the Conservative Party

In the era of Trump, Clinton and co. want to preserve the status quo, while their Republican opponents want radical change.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

By any reasonable definition, Democrats are now the more conservative of America’s two parties. They are more interested than Republicans in conserving America’s international relationships, cultural norms, and political and economic institutions as they are.

This is evident among the party’s leaders. On Thursday, The New York Times profiled Steve Bannon, the new chief executive of Donald Trump’s campaign. “As the American financial system collapsed in the fall of 2008,” the Times explained, “Stephen K. Bannon began to fantasize about destroying something else: the elite economic and political establishment.” Essentially, Bannon entered the political arena to blow it up. Which makes sense given that he’s working for a candidate who has suggested scrapping NATO, defaulting on America’s debt, imposing massive tariffs on China, and using nuclear weapons. Trump’s election would immediately create more turmoil than the election of any president in modern American history.

While the Times was profiling Bannon, Vox was interviewing National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who declared, “This is a much more hopeful and positive period in history than we have seen certainly in our lifetimes.” The Obama administration, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted astutely, believes it is overseeing “trends that make this, in their eyes, the best time in human history to be alive” and “this results in a foreign policy focused—to a degree most people don’t appreciate—on protecting this system from threats.”

Hillary Clinton would continue this fundamentally conservative outlook. She’s not suggested a single policy change that, if implemented, would immediately convulse America’s overseas relationships or social fabric. On election eve, the fact of her gender will spark excitement. Other than that, in overseas capitals, and atop America’s core institutions, observers would greet her election with a sigh of relief and a yawn.

How did Democrats become the more conservative party? Partly, it’s incumbency. The party in power always has a vested interest in arguing that the status quo is pretty good, and requires only modest tinkering. The party out of power always has a vested interest in arguing that the status quo is pretty bad and requires wholesale change. But that’s only a partial explanation. Even compared to past de facto incumbents, Clinton is sanguine. She’s running a more upbeat campaign than Al Gore did in 2000 even though the country is less peaceful and prosperous than it was back then. For his part, Trump is more apocalyptic than previous GOP insurgents. In 2000, George W. Bush titled his campaign book A Charge to Keep. In 2012, Mitt Romney titled his No Apology. Trump’s is titled Crippled America. In his convention speech, altogether, Trump used the words “crisis,” “chaos,” “death,” “destruction,” and “violence” 19 times. In his 2012 convention speech, Romney didn’t use any of those words even once.

There’s something deeper going on. Democrats have become the more conservative party because their voters are more optimistic about America’s long-term trajectory. They are more likely to believe that America is headed in the right direction and thus doesn’t require radical upheaval. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that 81 percent of Trump supporters say life in America is worse “for people like you” than it was 50 years ago. Only 19 percent of Clinton supporters agree. More than two-thirds of Trump supporters say the next generation will be worse off. Among Clinton supporters, it’s less than one-third.

African Americans and Latinos are particularly optimistic. The very demographic and cultural trends that make Republicans pessimistic about America’s long-term course—immigration, female empowerment, LGBT rights, growing secularism—make Democrats optimistic. Democrats feel less of a need to turn American politics upside down because they represent, in Ron Brownstein’s phrase, the “coalition of the ascendant.”

What’s odd about this is that while Democrats are more optimistic than Republicans, they’re also poorer. As Nate Silver has noted, the average Trump primary voter boasted a household income $11,000 higher than the average Clinton and Bernie Sanders voter. In states with large non-white populations, the gap was even greater. In Florida, the income gap between Trump and Clinton voters was $19,000. In South Carolina, it was $33,000.

By historical standards, this is odd. Conservative parties—parties that exude a greater comfort with the political, cultural, and economic status quo—generally represent the affluent. Democrats, by contrast, have become the more conservative party by representing less affluent constituencies––especially African Americans, Latinos, and the young—who are nonetheless optimistic about the future.

Is this sustainable? In the primaries, Bernie Sanders led an insurgency against the conservative nature of the Clinton campaign. It failed in large measure because African Americans—who appreciated Clinton’s deep connections to the black community and her loyalty to Barack Obama—stuck with her. Now, in the general election, Clinton is winning the support of African Americans and Latinos, along with white, former Sanders supporters who are horrified by Trump and college-educated whites repelled by Trump and reassured by Clinton’s conservatism.

But what happens when the Trump bogeyman disappears, and when the support Clinton enjoys as a result of her loyalty to Obama fades? The Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter both represent enduring, revolutionary insurrections inside the Democratic coalition. They both challenge Obama’s premise that America’s moral arc is bending toward justice.

If Clinton wins but African Americans, Latinos and Millennials don’t see economic progress, the Democratic Party’s “coalition of the ascendant” may not feel so ascendant anymore. And the contradictions of being a relatively conservative party presiding over a relatively downscale coalition may become impossible to contain.