Common Enemies: Coalition Building in America’s Major Political Parties
By Emily Hruban
In countries with parliamentary systems, like Germany, consensus is built after the election. Parties work together to form coalition governments and craft platforms that represent their values. In the United States, the elections themselves are consensus building exercises, as the parties undergo a less formal – and far messier – process of carving out platforms that attempt to appeal to broad swaths of their base, while not alienating others.
The two major American parties are not monolithic blocs. “Somehow,” observes Sean Thornton, the Chairman of the South Carolina Libertarian Party, the Republican Party brings together “the religious right and the right-wing war machine,” along with fiscal conservatives. Likewise, the Democrats have their own constellation of Americans with vastly different interests, from working class rust belt to coastal city-dwellers concerned with social issues.
The presidential primaries function as an opportunity for the parties to realign, articulate their values and priorities, and bring together millions of voters who have seemingly little in common. Thornton observes, “Because of the business model of the Republicans and Democrats, they are simply trying to capture as many votes as possible…. They have to change in order to keep getting all the votes that they want.” Both parties are struggling to accomplish this.
In order to win, candidates in the primaries need to demonstrate that they will be able to fire up and bring together key parts of the Democratic base. In 2016, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to activate large portions of the Democratic Party, especially white working-class voters in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Some of these voters, uninspired by Clinton or the party’s message did not vote, while others defected to the Republican Party. Trump’s focus on the economy and restoring jobs to manufacturing and mining communities resonated with voters who had been hard hit by the financial crisis in 2008.
Democratic candidates in 2020 are trying to win votes in the primaries, but also show that they can keep the party base united and not repeat the errors made in 2016. The first states in the primary process, Iowa and New Hampshire, are predominantly white, but Democratic voters nationwide are much more diverse. African American voters – and voters of color more broadly – are the backbone of the party. Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, where Democratic voters are predominantly African American, shook the trajectory of the race. Frontrunners Senator Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg took home a paltry 19.9 and 8.2 percent of the vote, respectively. Buttigieg dropped out of the race immediately. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s success in South Carolina, where he cinched over 48 percent of the vote, catapulted him to the front of the race after an otherwise lackluster start.
Biden Supporters in Charleston, SC. Photo by Emily Benson.
Ideologically speaking, U.S. President Donald Trump has satisfied many in the Republican base. For pro-life (anti-abortion) religious voters, his nomination of two conservative judges to the Supreme Court, and hundreds more to lower courts, has been the ultimate victory. For economically-minded voters, the president is also credited with a booming economy and low unemployment rate.
However, “fundamentally [Trump’s] personality is not conservative,” observes student Caleb Roberson, who heads Furman University’s Conservative Society in Greenville, South Carolina. Some of Trump’s behavior and policies do not match the traditional approach of the party. Roberson notes, “spending is an issue where President Trump is nowhere close to conservative,” much to the frustration of the party’s fiscal conservative base.
“For a lot of us younger Republicans, the budget is a huge deal” observes Cameron Brown, a leader in Charleston County’s Republican Party. “You realize the financial burden and impact [the deficit] is going to have on our lives moving forward,” says Brown.
Trump has taken credit for the soaring stock market and low unemployment rates throughout his presidency. This healthy economy has assuaged many Republicans’ concerns about the president’s fiscal policy. However, as the stock market dips with fears of the coronavirus, conservative voters may begin giving his policies more scrutiny.
In lieu of voting for a Democrat, if economic conservatives are frustrated by the president’s policies, they could do one of two things in November: not vote, or vote for a third-party candidate. Both could make a big difference in 2020.
One central strategy for ensuring support from the base is the creation of a common enemy. “The tribal-ness and loyalty to a person is a big problem. It’s not [just] Republicans being loyal to Trump. It’s [also] Democrats being loyal to anti-Trump,” observes Roberson, the Furman University student. Fellow student McLean Ewbank, acting president of the university’s College Democrats club, echoes his concerns: “It’s one thing to stand there and say, I’m a strong candidate… and it’s another thing to just stand there and just yell I’m not Trump, Trump is awful, Trump is terrible.” She notes, “Obviously, I don’t agree with his policies, but I think instead of attacking just so blatantly, talking about the things that you would change is a positive way to do that.”
This radicalization is something that does not sit well with voters on either side of the political divide. Cameron Brown, the Republican leader in Charleston notes, “My fear is that we radicalize ourselves and…that can ultimately deter us from doing the right thing, because you’re just trying to align with what the party agrees with.” He sees this polarization as potentially alienating, citing debates on abortion as an example. “If you don’t agree with what the parties are telling you, then you’re kind of an outlier or outsider.” Most voters do not fit neatly into one box, which can make it difficult for them to feel fully at home in one party.
Even voters active in their own party, who believe in its message and mission, are frustrated by polarizing us-versus-them rhetoric. A coalition built around a common enemy is not enough to get Americans to the polls in November, or to ensure their loyalty to the party in the future. For the long-term success of the parties, both will need to galvanize their diverse bases and build new coalitions of voters excited to support a shared vision for the future of the nation.