Last year, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump was expected to be a transformative figure who could remake the Republican Party, altering its electorate, image and policy priorities. The “populist” Trump “dashed Republican hopes for a more traditional agenda… and all but dared his own party to resist his Republican reformation,” the New York Times reported.
The government shutdown greeting his administration’s first anniversary shows he has remade a major political party, pushing it toward a new strategy and identity—but it was the Democrats.
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Republicans are the same party of conservative brinksmanship that they were last year, but Democrats are pursuing a harder line strategy of unified opposition focused on social issues. Whereas they greeted a new George W. Bush administration with cooperation on education reform and acquiescence on tax cuts, Democrats have loudly opposed all Trump administration initiatives, facing pressure from an energized base.
The Republican reformation has not materialized. Promising to end “American carnage” as he took office, Trump sought to refocus Republicans around immigration, trade and crime. Strategists said he could move left on economic policy, targeting the party’s white working-class constituency with tangible benefits. But his first year focused instead on a major corporate tax cut and considerable deregulation, along with more failed votes to repeal Obamacare. Trump moved policy rightward on immigration, but he also did so on education, health, the environment and nearly everything else.
The government shut down in the wee hours of Saturday morning after the House Freedom Caucus held up a must-pass bill to force concessions while Mitch McConnell put off major policy in favor of another short-term funding extension. It was a scene that looked like many weeks under President Obama. For congressional Republicans, not much has changed.
But look at the Democrats. Inside Congress, they demanded action to restore protections for immigrants who entered illegally as children in order to vote on a government funding bill. Their liberal base copied the minority intransigence of the Republicans, using online media and activism to hold legislators to a hard line. In the grassroots, they organized massive women’s marches across dozens of American cities, marking a full year of relentless progressive activism.
Losing a presidential election often stimulates activism and a new president usually provokes a backlash, but the size of the Democratic resurgence is unprecedented. They have more than tripled the usual number of serious candidates challenging members of Congress. They have competed everywhere in special elections, winning in unlikely places. This—after reaching a low in federal and state offices the party had not seen since the 1920s.
What’s particularly astonishing is how Democrats have accomplished this outside the formal structures of the Democratic Party, which has often seemed irrelevant. Explicitly copying the Tea Party, they founded grassroots organizations in nearly every district to regularly call legislators. They held large protests on women’s issues, science, climate and racism. More Democrats even started identifying as liberals, coming closer to mirroring the Republicans’ unified conservative identity.
Instead of facing a factional challenge allied with Bernie Sanders, Democrats integrated his young, left-wing supporters with their traditional identity-based constituencies. Elected Democrats of all stripes unified against Republicans’ major two legislative initiatives: tax cuts and Obamacare repeal. All of the party’s allied interest groups have remained stridently anti-Trump.
Nearly every new Trump move has been treated as a five-alarm fire with united resistance, with Hillary Clinton die-hards just as active as Bernie bros. They tripled the ratings for MSNBC and spurred new liberal media outlets. Some followed online conspiracy theorists, who breathlessly enlarged every detail of the Russia investigation. Major Democratic donors, such as California billionaire Tom Steyer, have called for the president’s immediate impeachment.
But the sharpest changes have been on social issues surrounding gender and race. Democrats in the electorate have moved swiftly left on race, immigration and feminism. Trump’s ban on immigration from Muslim countries even provoked an outpouring of support for Muslims. Attitudes toward illegal immigration softened. Sexual harassment became a top-tier Democratic issue. The Hispanic Caucus gained a hearing with leaders in both chambers—and is now having its concerns become the party’s top priority.
The government shutdown is the clearest example of Democratic change. Republicans, normally more suspect about the value of government, usually openly dismiss the consequences of shutdowns and see funding extensions as an opportunity to gain concessions. Democrats almost never do. In 2013, they criticized Republicans relentlessly for bringing non-budget issues into the discussion; now, Democrats are doing the same.
Of course, Democrats are still a coalition of many constituency groups with different priorities. Democrats in the public and in Congress have long valued compromise more than Republicans. They will not become a broad, ideological party anytime soon, but they are now actively copying Republican strategy.
In the process, Democrats will learn the limits of the Republican approach. It is difficult to chalk up many wins for your constituents when you are engaged in all-or-nothing budgetary battles. Establishing an ideological national party image does not play well everywhere the party needs to compete—especially in the rural and outlying suburban areas Democrats hope to win back.
And you can never fully satisfy a base that always wants more fealty. Once you give the hardliners a taste of influence, they may start to challenge you in every instance. Republican leaders can attest that empowering the activists, media personalities and online mobs has its downsides.
But Democratic leaders cannot do much to stem the tide of base insurgency; the Democratic base has seen what Republicans have achieved and judged it worthy of imitation. Trump ignites unstoppable fear, anger and action. Harnessing all that energy toward constructive ends is the hard part.
One year into Trump’s administration, Republicans are surprisingly looking about the same: a conservative party focused on ideological battles over the size and scope of government and the direction of society. It is Democrats who are testing a new focus and hardline strategy, in some cases pursuing symbolic stands over tangible gains.
The danger in that approach is that the purists never know when to stop.
Matt Grossmann is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University and co-author of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.