By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Trump and Sanders have transformed their parties and American politics
If you watched this month's extraordinary party conventions carefully -- the most enthralling political fortnight since 1956, the last time the Republicans and Democrats held their sessions in consecutive weeks -- you may have had a rare glimpse of an unusual phenomenon: the shifting of the tectonic plates of American politics.
The remarkable thing about this movement, occurring in plain sight rather than under the crust, is that it was set in motion not by Barack Obama, who made history by becoming the first black president, nor by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who hopes to become the first female president -- precedent-setters, to be sure, but not forces who will be credited in history with altering the rocky inner layer of our public life. Instead, the overheated forces that are remaking American politics are a 73-year-old activist with the accent of a Catskills vaudevillian and roots in democratic socialism and a 70-year-old tycoon best known until now for flamboyant real-estate deals, gaudy casinos and a reality TV show.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Manhattan businessman Donald J. Trump have reset the gyroscopes of both parties, altered the mechanics of presidential politics, transformed the identities of both parties and, perhaps most consequently, ended three decades of mounting ideological rigidity in American politics.
Not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt reshaped the Democratic Party in 1932 and Ronald Reagan changed the character of the Republican Party in 1980 has so dramatic a shift occurred. The 32nd and 40th presidents set these transformations in motion over the course of a half-century. Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump appeared to turn the trick in less than two weeks' time.
In truth, the Sanders and Trump changes were a year in the making, but only this month -- when Mr. Trump effectively seized the 160-year-old Republican Party and forced it off its ideological moorings and sentimental inclinations, and when Mr. Sanders demonstrated that he may have lost the Democratic nomination, but won the heart of a remodeled Democratic Party -- was the breathtaking magnitude of this overhaul evident.
No longer is the Republican Party a Reaganite legacy project, a conservative movement that first toppled nearly five decades of liberal ascendancy and then remade the GOP into a political force that explored, and then sought to apply, innovative dimensions of conservative thought. No longer is the Democratic Party a vanguard of soft liberalism that tried to reconcile its New Deal heritage with Wall Street values. Today, the Republicans have at least a plausible claim of being the blue-collar party, and the Democrats, apart from their fast-fading organized-labor rump, are vulnerable to the label they once applied to their GOP rivals: the repository of elitist outlooks.
All this was on display this week, especially the eclipse of the Bill Clinton centrism that was so intoxicating in the 1990s and is so irrelevant in the second decade of the 21st century.
The nomination of his wife was almost certainly the last breath of Clintonism, and even her version of the creed stands in repudiation of his on trade, crime and immigration. Mr. Clinton showed Tuesday night he still has the capacity to make the rafters ring, but it was impossible to repress the notion that he was appearing as yesterday's champ, much like Muhammad Ali in his later days -- a great fighter once, made frail by age.
It was Mr. Sanders who rendered the old Clintonism irrelevant. He made student loans, global warming and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership centerpieces of Democratic politics, and then he watched in wonder, and his youthful warriors watched in horror, as Ms. Clinton, reluctantly and awkwardly, adopted his positions.
Today's Democratic Party bears almost no resemblance to the one Mr. Clinton transformed in 1992 and, indeed, in today's light, which shines disapprovingly on Wall Street and the bond market that Mr. Clinton embraced and the trade deals that Mr. Clinton won, both Mr. Clinton and the profile of his 1990s party have the musty look of antiques -- beloved artifacts, to be sure, but moldy reminders of faded glories and long-ago triumphs.
The transformation that Mr. Trump set in motion in the venerable old Republican Party is even more dramatic. Only a quarter-century ago, the GOP was the stage for a struggle between party regulars -- the elites of the day, whether in small-town Rotary and Kiwanis clubs or at California's Bohemian Grove -- and the religious conservatives whose quiet dedication and spiritual fervor threatened to take over the party. Only a few years ago, it was the stage for a different struggle, between those same elitists, now regarded as political mastodons, and a new breed of conservatism advancing into uncharted waters on the right.
Now all that is gone. There was hardly a groan from religious conservatives in Cleveland; the conservatives were in retreat; and the old elitists were elsewhere, at the shore or at the club, nursing a bitter cocktail of despair and remorse, humming romantic torch songs of days long gone. The GOP, under Mr. Trump a revolutionary party, has gone from one "Les Miserables" ballad ("Drink with me to days gone by,/To the life that used to be") to another, in a vastly different key ("Do you hear the people sing?/Singing a song of angry men?").
As for the landscape that appears as these plates shift ...
The ideological discipline in our politics, which created a conservative party that called itself Republican, and a liberal party that called itself Democratic, is endangered. The Democrats still lean left -- only more so. But there is a new breath and breadth in the GOP, now a modern analogue of the old Democrats, who were a balky but robust coalition of Southern conservatives and Northern liberals.
Mr. Trump's party now claims those Southern conservatives and has married them not with urban liberals who have a distinct Northeastern tint, but with blue-collar Midwestern voters, mostly but not exclusively male, living in the shadows of abandoned manufacturing plants. Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders have much in common. They both moved millions of Americans -- and the tectonic plates of American politics.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
Copyright 2016 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WDRB Media. All rights reserved.