The 2016 Presidential election is a watershed for two movements long marginalized by both major political parties. For the Republicans, the nomination of Donald Trump symbolized the re-emergence of “paleoconservatives.” On the Democratic side, the Bernie Sanders movement represents the return of the progressive left as a formidable force in the Democratic Party.
Donald Trump won the GOP nomination by emphasizing limiting the U.S. role around the world, halting illegal immigration, curtailing legal immigration, limiting the size and scope of the federal government, and instituting a trade policy of economic nationalism. Trump brands his program “Putting America First.”
This nationalistic approach is known as paleoconservatism because it was once the prevailing orthodoxy on the right. It can also be referred to as the “alternative right.” This variant of conservatism has, until this election been subjugated by a globalist conservative mindset.
The golden years for the ideology that Trump’s espouses in the GOP were the 1920’s. In 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding won the Presidency with 60.3% of the vote by running on an eerily similar platform as Trump. With WWI having recently ended, the American people were apprehensive toward foreign entanglements. Capitalizing on this sentiment, Harding used the slogan “America First.” He averred: “We decided long ago that we objected to foreign government of our people.”
In his 1921 inaugural address, Harding told the American people: “America can be a party to no permanent military alliance. It can enter into no political commitments, nor assume any economic obligations which will subject our decisions to any other than our own authority.” This is similar to Trump questioning the U.S. commitment to defending NATO allies in case of an attack. Trump said he would aid NATO allies only if they “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Trump also supports charging countries like South Korea and Germany for U.S. military protection.
Like Trump, Harding was an adherent to the gospel of limited immigration to the U.S. In his first year as President, Harding signed the Emergency Quota Act into law, which limited immigration through the application of a quota system.
On international trade, Harding, like Trump, sang from the same economic nationalism hymnbook. He signed the Emergency Tariff Act, which increased tariffs on many agricultural products imported into the U.S.
Harding’s Republican successor, Calvin Coolidge, opposed U.S. entry into the League of Nations. He was an exponent of “restrictive immigration.” In 1924, he singed the all-encompassing Comprehensive Immigration Act, which leveled quotas on each nation based on their percentage of the population in 1890. In the “America First” view, Coolidge, after signing the legislation, vocalized: “America must remain American.”
Coolidge was also an economic nationalist who borrowed a catchphrase from Republican President William McKinley (1897-1901), calling for the “full dinner pail,” meaning that the effects of protective tariffs would be advantageous for the entire nation.
The last time a Republican candidate ran on these ideals and was taken seriously was in 1996. That year, former Republican operative Pat Buchanan astounded the political establishment by upending establishment Republicans and winning the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. However, after a loss in South Carolina, known as the firewall for the GOP establishment, the campaign and the movement faded from the GOP mainstream.
Buchanan promoted “a wholesale review of our foreign policy and our Defense policy.” His message of “a new nationalism” resuscitated the dormant paleo-conservative movement.” Buchanan called U.S. intervention “imperial overreach” and called for a halt to all foreign aide.
In addition, Buchanan advocated for a five-year moratorium on legal immigration and was an ardent economic Nationalist, opposing U.S. involvement in NAFTA, and calling for protective tariffs to protect U.S. industry. In true paleoconservative oratory, Buchanan declared: “When I walk into that Oval Office, we start looking out for America first.”
On the left, in 2016 Bernie Sanders became the torchbearer for a brand of progressivism that only had quick flashes in the Democratic Party. This version of progressivism calls for a redoubtable federal government, increases in social spending, establishing a single-payer health care system, decreases in the military budget, and opposition to most U.S. military interventions.
Since the Democratic Party usually offers up more moderate Presidential candidates, Sanders’ ideological antecedents have sometimes come from left wing third party candidates.
In 1924, the Democratic Party nominated the conservative John W. Davis. The Republicans selected the conservative Calvin Coolidge. This left an aperture on the left for a progressive Presidential candidate. U.S. Senator Robert La Follette Sr. of Wisconsin became the nominee of the Progressive party and filled that vacuum. La Follette, like Sanders, was skeptical of power held in private hands. His flagship goal was “to break the combined power of the private-monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people.” La Follette was probably to the left of Sanders in his anti-war approach, calling for a national plebiscite where the American people can decide whether to enter war “except in cases of actual invasion.” That year the American Socialist Party endorsed La Follette, marking the only time it has supported with a nominee from another party. La Follette mustered 16.6% of the vote.
In 1948, the Progressive Party nominated former Vice President Henry Wallace, who was to the left of Democratic President Harry S. Truman. Interestingly, Wallace was a former Republican. When Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated him for Vice President in 1940, some in the party thought he was too conservative. When his name was placed in nomination at the convention, a Democratic Stalwart commandeered a microphone demanding: “Give us a Democrat! We don’t want a Republican.”
By 1948, Wallace advocated a rapprochement with the Soviet Union, calling for “a peaceful foreign policy,” instituting single-payer health insurance, and racial desegregation. Wallace pocketed just 2.4% of the vote.
Sanders’ style of progressivism reached its high water mark in 1972 when U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD) miraculously won the Democratic Presidential nomination despite 200-1 odds against him when he announced his candidacy. McGovern advocated bringing U.S. troops home from the Vietnam War, emphasizing that he had long held this position. McGovern’s slogan was “Right From The Start.” In addition, McGovern proposed to truncate the U.S. military budget by “$30 billion a year in fat by 1975.” Moreover, his plan to bestow every American with a $1,000 income supplement was seen as too radical for moderate voters.
McGovern proved too liberal for the vox populi, losing 49-states. Since that time period, the progressives have occasionally popped up, only to be batted back down.
In 1992, Irvine, California Mayor Larry Agran ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination with a plan for economic convergence, calling for a $150 billion cut in the military budget, with some of the proceeds being pipelined directly to the cites. His campaign gained little traction, and many major media outlets ignored his candidacy. In fact, in one poll, Agran was ahead of former California Governor Jerry Brown. However, ABC News, in reporting on the poll, mentioned Brown’s numbers but not Agran’s. In a surreal moment, Agran attended a debate as an audience member (He had not been invited as a participant) and was arrested for heckling the moderator.
More recently, in 2004 and 2008, U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) captured the enthusiastic support of hardcore progressives by calling for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. He also supported the U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, single-payer health care, and the establishment of a Federal Department of Peace in the Cabinet. However, Kucinich did not win a single state or territory in either campaign.
2016 is “back to the future” for the paleoconservative and liberal progressive movements. Both are no longer an ostracized bloodline in their respective parties.
A chasm has developed in the GOP between supporters of contemporary conservatives like U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and paleoconservatives like Republican nominee Donald Trump. Contrariwise, a schism has emerged on the left between supporters of contemporary center-left Democrats like the party’s Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and progressive devotees of Bernie Sanders. The ideological divide in both parties is the underlying legacy of the 2016 Presidential sweepstakes. view
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