Why the Center Holds

Within the Democratic Party, institutions created during the New Deal and civil rights era have acted as barriers to insurgents on both the right and left.

US president Joe Biden stands on stage during a campaign rally at Girard College on May 29, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Andrew Harnik / Getty Images)

The mainstream press is obsessed with Trump’s inner circle. In March, James Politi of the Financial Times wrote, “narrowly ahead in the polls against Joe Biden, Trump now has the backing of a small group of seasoned campaign operatives and a tightly knit entourage of former officials eager to apply his ideas.” In another article titled, “How MAGA Republicans plan to make Donald Trump’s second term count,” the Economist observes that “a professional corps of America First populists are dedicating themselves to ensuring that Trump Two will be disciplined.” Rather than allow the GOP intelligentsia (who, according to this narrative, constrained Trump’s America First agenda) to infiltrate the White House again, a cadre of true believers will unquestioningly execute his plans to shut down the US-Mexico border, unleash political retribution on his enemies, and slap tariffs on all Chinese-made goods.

There is undeniably something appealing to this analysis. Vaguely Gramscian, such journalism promises insight into the “organic intellectuals” behind Trumpism. An America First inner circle also furnishes an easy target against which to organize, for now there will be no “adult in the room” to mask Trump’s authoritarianism.

The problem with these stories, however, is that unlike Gramsci they do not follow the trail down to civil society, the hidden abode where we might find the social and institutional bases of the Republican Party. On such accounts, the intellectual movement behind MAGA emerged as if from the ether to undermine the once dominant politics of compromise.

But the question of why Trump has been able to take hold of the Republican Party only becomes pressing in contrast to the inability of Bernie Sanders, or any other left-wing challenger, to do the same. Absent in the inner circle narrative is a discussion of the enduring strength of the Democrats. In 2008 and 2020, the party was able to hold together the New Deal coalition, relying on networks of association created during the Roosevelt and civil rights eras. So sedimented were these institutions that Sanders, whose program was popular with the multiracial working class, was unable to gain a foothold. The origins of the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties lie in the long history, and transformation, of both since the nineteenth century.

The Class Politics of the Civil War

The great question at the heart of the US Civil War was whether or not slavery would be allowed to expand into the western reaches of what we today call the continental United States. De Bow’s Review, an agricultural journal of the American South, summarized the Southern rights position on this question in 1852. For them, westward colonial expansion was the solution to a future demographic apocalypse. If white southern settlers could not transport their human chattel into indigenous lands and northern Mexico, they would be trapped in a land of the enslaved, who, upon vastly overtaking the white population, would eventually rise up in a murderous revolution. The South’s choice, then, was clear: “fight for her slaves or against them.”

In contrast, Northern Republicans held that the expansion of slavery into the West would allow planters to monopolize those lands, overrun them with enslaved Africans, and, having effectively closed the door to land ownership, condemn landless whites to a life of wage dependency in the factory. Northern Republican elites thus framed slavery as a demographic threat that must be subordinated to the prerogatives of white settler colonial expansion. The escalating partisan conflict over these two competing demographic futures undermined mass consent for the existing terms of the Union and in so doing precipitated the secession of the South and, as a consequence, the US Civil War in 1861.

Antebellum population politics had its economic sources. Chief among these was mounting wage dependency in the North, which allowed the Republican message to gain traction. A Southern conspiracy to overrun western lands with enslaved Africans played on white workers’ fear of a life of endless toil in the factory. Indeed, 1860 was the first census year on record in which wage workers eclipsed those who owned their own farms or workshops. Conversely, the Southern insistence on transporting the enslaved to the western territories was animated by the political economy of cotton planting. Both large and petty slaveholders required ever more land and enslaved people to gain access to credit and money. Hence the antebellum commonplace that planters “care for nothing but to buy Negroes to plant cotton & raise cotton to buy Negroes.”

Together racial slavery, settler colonialism, and growing wage dependency in the industrial North comprised the key elements of the antebellum political economy, but the partisan mobilization of mass white consent was necessary to articulate them together. The promise of land ownership, made possible through settler conquest, rendered poor whites an inadequate source of agricultural labor, a fact that impelled the landed elite toward African slavery.

Subsequently, plantation slavery and industrial capitalism became profitable and interdependent as cotton produced in the South supplied the textile mills of the North. But landless whites endured economic dependency on the promise that wages saved would buy cheap land out West, while the dynamics of cotton planting required ever more land and human chattel.

Thus, the agricultural and industrial nodes of antebellum capitalism turned on a delicate political compromise that balanced the demands of capital with those of white settlers. So long as settler colonial expansion for all whites could continue without restriction, that compromise would thrive. Building mass white consent for this compromise was the task of the early American party system, and it did so by keeping public debate trained on narrow economic issues like tariffs and banking, which created class and ethnoreligious coalitions that transcended the divide between free and slave states.

The Democratic Party cultivated a coalition of artisans, landless white immigrant workers, and small to middling farmers, who in turn were organized into unions, benevolent societies, granges, and churches, especially the Catholic and Lutheran churches. The opposition Whigs were a coalition whose hard core consisted primarily in industrialists, planters, and middle-class professionals, who, in civil society, were members of both mainline and evangelical Protestant churches, as well as the temperance, abolitionist, and nativist movements.

The issue of slavery, by contrast, could lead to disagreement over which whites had priority over the land. As Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States and architect of the Democratic Party, once wrote, “We must always have party distinctions, and the old ones are the best. . . . If the old ones are suppressed, geographical differences founded on local instincts or what is worse, prejudices between free and slave holding states will inevitably take their place.”

But when the party system fell to the Southern rights wing of the Democratic Party and the soon-to-be Republican wing of the opposition Whig Party, each of whom championed the priority of one group of whites to the land over others, the old party coalitions burst asunder: industrialists split from their erstwhile partners in the planter class, yeoman farmers in the South began to suspect the motives of northern workers, and so on. The abolitionist movement further deepened the political crisis. The heroic efforts of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and the Underground Railroad to smuggle the enslaved to freedom as well as the armed rebellion of John Brown in 1859 only lent credence to the Southern rights claim that the end of slavery was at hand.

Despite the defeat of the Confederacy and the initial promise of Reconstruction, the postbellum two-party system gave way to a politically repressive “Gilded Age” that married monopoly capitalism to Jim Crow segregation. That new racialized political economy remained in place until the Great Depression, when the Democratic Party advance a new agenda called the New Deal.

The New Deal and the New Social Compact

The preeminent objective of the New Deal was to keep in place capitalist economic relations and secure profits for business in the face of a working-class rebellion. The latter culminated in the 1933–34 strike wave. In 1933, the total days lost to strikes jumped dramatically from 603,000 to 1,375,000 from January to July, and then to 2,378,000 in August; in 1934, there were 1,856 more strikes involving 1,470,000 workers. Many of these involved violent confrontations with the police and armed forces.

In the face of this apparent mutiny, the Democratic Party used the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 to channel working-class militance into a bureaucratized system of union elections and collective bargaining. As this was the first time that workers gained both the right to organize and a mechanism of legal enforcement, organized labor whipped votes inside the labor movement on behalf of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal Democratic Party and suppressed support for left-wing challengers.

Similarly, the Communist Party, which had supplied the most skillful organizers of the strike wave, also threw its support behind the Democrats; in 1944 it refused to run a presidential candidate against Roosevelt lest he lose to the Republican challenger. Once the Democrats had consolidated their power, however, the party repressed these left elements. The American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and certain black civil society organizations, among others, became active agents of the Red Scare.

Like the political compromise that hinged on unrestricted access to land in the antebellum period, the success of the New Deal relied on the ceaseless expansion of the American economy. Once again, the paradigmatic audience for this compromise were less affluent whites, who, along with black workers, bore the brunt of mass unemployment during the Great Depression. The mode of capital accumulation following the Great Depression utilized not only extensive state expenditures to mitigate unemployment and facilitate mass consumption (e.g., social security, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining), but also state subsidies and other supports to capital (e.g., infrastructural spending, the Federal Housing Administration, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation) to facilitate accumulation.

Within this framework, the welfare state created jobs and anti-poverty programs that ensured the smooth functioning of capitalist markets but also incorporated black workers, who were often discriminated against in the labor market, into the Democratic coalition. Accordingly, the New Deal Democratic Party assembled an odd bloc consisting in the white working and middle classes, southern Dixiecrats, and a growing black working class that in the first half of the last century was a critical swing vote in populous northern states.

The institutions that held these groupings together in civil society were even more varied on ideological lines. Tenant farmer and labor unions, the Communist Party, black and white ethnic civic organizations, the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the Catholic Church, synagogues, and (in the South) evangelical groups all made up the social base of the New Deal coalition. This relegated the Republicans to the role of representing the petit and corporate bourgeoisie, rural whites, and a shrinking but still sizeable number of northern black voters who remained loyal to the party of Lincoln. Today much of the MAGA movement still consists of small-business owners unable to compete against larger firms. During the New Deal era, however, Republicans associated in mainline Protestant churches, black civic and church groups, local chambers of commerce, and large corporate interest groups like the National Association of Manufacturers.

The Crisis of the 1970s

The Democratic Party was able to balance the needs of its diverse coalition, restrain corporate America, and thus maintain support for the New Deal compromise so long as economic growth and state revenues remained high through the 1960s. However, it became increasingly difficult to do so as growth slowed and revenue shrank. Indeed, the rate of profit fell by over half from a postwar high of 9.2 percent in 1966 to 4.4 percent in 1974.

These new conditions created zero-sum conflicts, politicized in racial terms, over whether, and if so how, the state should subsidize capital, organized labor, and black workers. Should it raise taxes on private property and corporate profits or through regressive taxes on household income? In the electoral arena, Richard Nixon was among several key actors responsible for a hard right turn inside the Republican Party. Claiming to speak on behalf of a white “silent majority,” he campaigned on breaking the New Deal consensus by ending subsidies that he cast as reserved for black workers and in doing so precipitated a mass defection of white union households from the Democrats to the Republicans. So successful was Nixon in 1972 that he carried a majority of the labor vote, according to Gallup.

Pressure increased in the early 1970s to choose one of two paths: an authoritarian path that imposed austerity on the working class in service to capital or a path that sought to redistribute wealth downward, creating shared prosperity. The state chose capital and allowed the dramatic expansion of corporate power through deregulation, declining corporate taxation, and the weakening of labor laws — the series of reforms that came to be known as neoliberalism. The justification for this upward redistribution was a race-baiting politics that sought to undermine the New Deal.

Under Ronald Reagan in particular the state gave capital carte blanche to bust unions and outsource production overseas. Aiding in the growth of public support for this agenda was a working class divided by the politics of racial fear and resentment. The form that the latter took was an assault on the welfare state that immiserated the working class and drove up crime, which both parties responded to cynically by embracing so-called law and order initiatives that intensified policing and mass incarceration. Slow economic growth and the emergence of a zero-sum politics had created a new political consensus. Although the Democrats retained the civil society infrastructure of the New Deal and later civil rights era, both political parties operated in a context in which the only legitimate moves in the game were to drive down wages, reduce tariffs and regulation, and cut welfare.

Trumpism and the Remaking of the American Right

From the Civil War to the New Deal, the far right in the United States has exploited the breakdown of political compromises predicated on continuous expansion, whether territorial or economic. Trumpism is no different.

Our present crisis began in 2008 with the conjuncture of the Great Recession and Barack Obama’s unanticipated elevation to the presidency. The 2008 Obama campaign reforged the New Deal coalition of white suburban middle-class voters, organized labor, and racial minorities by building consent for a Keynesian reset in domestic economic policy. The latter was a centerpiece of the 2008 Obama campaign. For example, in El Dorado, Kansas, his white grandparents’ ancestral home, Senator Obama said, “I am standing here today . . . because my grandfather got the chance to go to school on the GI Bill, buy a house through the Federal Housing Authority, and move his family west.” The American electorate thus had good reason to expect a second liberal golden age. Indeed, Time magazine’s postelection cover featured Obama’s likeness photoshopped onto a famous image of a smiling Roosevelt with his trademark fedora and cigarette filter. The cover story by Peter Beinart was titled, “The New New Deal.”

But instead of a New Deal, Americans got a bank bailout that dwarfed the administration’s proposed public works projects — the kinder, gentler neoliberalism of the erstwhile Clinton administration, which famously worked to take the sting out of post-Fordism but not to resuscitate Fordism itself. This was followed by the disillusionment of progressives and the emergence of the Occupy Movement, whose slogan, the 99 percent, put class inequality back on the table where once class had been a dirty word in American politics. The other side of the political spectrum witnessed the rise of a racist anti-Obama rebellion of Birthers and Tea Party activists (supported in part by reactionary political and economic elites like Donald Trump) that gave voice to the far-right fringe of civil society and eventuated in the Republican takeover of Congress in 2010. Institutional politics was convulsed, with no one actor having the mass consent of the people.

The Center Holds

Gramsci argued that there were three routes out of such crises: 1) the reabsorption of renegade constituencies by the political establishment; 2) the passage of all renegade groups under a new banner; and 3) Caesarism, the rise of a single charismatic figure not unlike Gramsci’s own nemesis, Benito Mussolini. There appear to be two routes at present, with no one clear pathway out of the crisis. The least likely of Gramsci’s three routes is a unifying progressive force, capable of leading the renegade factions under a new banner.

The US labor movement is resurgent, but its ties to the Democratic Party, as I have argued, are strong and will not give way to a politically independent force in the near term. Moreover, the most active mass movement in America and abroad is the Palestine solidarity movement, and it is too soon to tell whether it can serve as the vanguard of a new left.

Joe Biden, having already clinched the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, represents the best chance for the establishment to reabsorb the foregoing disaffected groups into the Democratic Party. This he has done, like Obama before him, by combining the traditional New Deal coalition of white middle-class suburbanites, union households, and the African American community with feminist, environmental, and LGBTQ groups. That same coalition has proven resilient enough to deny Sanders the Democratic nomination twice on the one hand (despite the fact that when polled many of these constituents supported the Sanders program), and defeat the Republicans in the most recent presidential and congressional midterm elections on the other.

The Democratic Party’s enduring hold on labor unions and black voters is a case in point. In 2016, no major national labor union, with the possible exception of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and its seven hundred thousand members, endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. Most were local unions with a handful of state bodies, many of them from Sanders’s home state of Vermont. By 2020, the number of unions in the Sanders coalition shrunk further; its largest endorsement came from the American Postal Workers Union with a membership of two hundred thousand. The rest of organized labor, including the CWA, threw its support behind Biden.

Sanders suffered a similar fate with black Democrats. In the 2020 South Carolina primary, for example, the Sanders campaign ran up against the machinery of Democratic congressman and majority whip James Clyburn. More than once, Clyburn said that Sanders’s proposal for free higher education was not feasible and misleadingly suggested that it might hurt black institutions of higher learning. In a kind of “folksy red-baiting” that recalls the complicity of certain black organizations during the New Deal, Clyburn said, “I do not believe there are any free lunches. And certainly there’s not going to be any free education.” Clyburn’s relationships with black civil society, which became entrenched over a lifetime of patronage politics that dealt in everything from jobs and scholarships to infrastructural improvements, worked to deny Sanders the votes of party members in South Carolina.

What we have in Donald Trump is a Caesar, who now leads the disaffected fractions of the racist anti-Obama rebellion. His message is clear: that the political and economic system takes away the precarious white majority’s once unchallenged access to power and privilege and hands it over to undeserving immigrants, black people, howling feminists, and sexual perverts.

Trump’s most loyal constituency is the evangelical right, particularly after the defeat of Roe v. Wade. Arguably the least reliable sector of support is the Republican establishment, which continues to have close links to the conservative press (minus Fox News), think tanks, and Wall Street. Finally, there is a small white minority in the more racially conservative sectors of the US labor movement, especially among the police, who have cast their ballots for Donald Trump. For example, in 2020 the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest union of law enforcement officers in the United States, endorsed Trump for president.

The Republican Party is far from a “zombie” organization utterly bereft of institutional ties to civil society and running only on the fumes of the leader’s cult of personality, but neither does it have the constancy of the Democratic Party’s hold over the institutionalized left. The Democrats’ enduring ties to civil society comprise the ceiling or limit of Trump’s support in the American electorate and at the same time represent the barriers that any left-wing challenge would have to overcome to win the presidency.

Trumpism is therefore a product of the twin failures of neoliberalism and the New New Deal. This is not only a structural failing in capitalism’s capacity to provide for social needs, but also a failing on the part of political actors to deliver what they promise to less affluent white voters. To these latter constituents, Trump represents a way to get at a system that is far beyond their reach. As the former president himself said in March of 2023, “I am your justice . . . I am your retribution.” Among the base, Trump’s recent felony conviction in the New York hush money trial will likely only deepen support. His success will be limited by the extent to which the Democratic Party can motivate its historic bloc.

America’s complicity in Israel’s brutal campaign against Gaza together with ongoing fears about economic insecurity may further fragment the multiracial coalition that the Democrats have long taken for granted. Absent any serious left challenger, these disaffected voters may see no other option but to stay home on election day. The irony is that it is because the center can hold, that the Right might win.