Just after Election Day—as President Donald Trump looked to be underwater in Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—Nigel Farage threw his support behind the embattled president. It is fitting that the leader of the right-wing UKIP and Brexit parties encouraged Trump to “keep up the fight” against Joe Biden. In 2020, the Grand Old Party looks less like the classically liberal party of Ronald Reagan and increasingly fits into the mold of the European right-wing parties Farage helms.
The GOP gains in the House and their continued Senatorial strength show a new path for the Republican Party. This poses problems for the liberal left and the libertarian right who have anticipated the electoral collapse of the Republican Party.
For some on the left, Donald Trump’s presidency was the “last gasp” of right-wing America, whose alleged lack of policy direction revealed the vacuity of modern conservatism. The sentiment was that a blue wave in 2018 and 2020 would bring a stream of progressive policy. Even some conservative pundits agreed. In the recent election, though, Mr. Trump received the second-most votes for president in the history of the United States and actually expanded his appeal with minority voters who had historically voted for the Democratic Party.
One reason the blue-wave failed to materialize is because it incorrectly assumed the party that nominated Mitt Romney in 2012 was the same group voting for Donald Trump in 2020. Political scientists consistently find that parties evolve over time to court new demographics. The recent change in the Republican Party is no different.
Ever since Mitt Romney was excoriated by the media for campaigning on fiscally conservative policies like reducing federal entitlement programs and balancing the federal budget, Republicans have shifted away from these policies. Social welfare programs have always been popular. Even Ted Cruz, one of the most conservative Tea Party politicians, wants to “strengthen” Medicare and Social Security.
The coverage of pre-existing conditions has widespread public support and Trump repeatedly pledged to keep that coverage. Instead of domestic quarrels, the GOP has focused on issues such as globalization and China, perhaps as a result of a growing number of Americans who are increasingly suspicious of Chinese influence. This shift is part of a larger demographic and political trend away from fiscal libertarianism.
A comparative analysis of the Republican Party and the rightist National Front party in France shows both parties gaining ground with men and those without a college degree. In Britain, looking at the combined Brexit Party and Conservative Party voters shows a similar picture of the overall conservative demographic. Brexit Party voters are poorer and less educated whereas Conservative Party voters lean older and religious. All of these parties are less reliant on middle class college graduates who have historically powered rightists to office.
While it is true that UKIP and National Front are minority parties, right-wing parties in the United Kingdom and across Eastern Europe have risen to power through this same coalition of middle class workers, poor people without credentialing, and religious groups. The rightist political realignment is a multinational trend not confined to the U.S. Republican Party.
This shift has important implications for those on the political left. The message of rectifying income inequality and a nationalized healthcare service, as offered by Bernie Sanders, is clearly resonating with some citizens. However, as the GOP also adopts a more economically populist stance, Democrats may find it more difficult to win voters on an economic message alone.
This increased strength of the Republican Party will affect what policies and messages Democrats can campaign on. For example, there are serious fears that climate change regulations will hurt middle class workers. Given the strong position of the Republican Party in electorally-important states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, campaigning for a Green New Deal will be electorally difficult.
Conversely, this shift in the GOP poses problems for libertarians. Economic conservatives need to find new ways of making budgetary restraint and entitlement reform politically attractive. Until they do, the GOP will continue to disappoint libertarians by signing historic deficits and launching trade wars.
Many have argued that the policies and aesthetic markers of the Republican Party are extreme and unappealing. Despite this, nearly half of voters chose the Republican Party in a high-turnout election. Labelling Republicans as extreme is utterly unhelpful because it clouds a cross-cultural fact pattern which points to the long-term stability of the GOP. The political right is skewing poorer, less educated, and less libertarian. This is not merely a Trump phenomenon. Both the fiscal right and the liberal left needs to come to grips with this political and electoral reality. The sooner they do so, the quicker they can formulate an electorally viable response.