Populism, Foreign Policy, and Party Politics Ahead of the 2020 Elections

December 20, 2018

The outcome of the recent U.S. midterm elections was largely in line with predictions, but this made them no less significant. In what many have argued was a vote against President Donald Trump, the Democratic Party picked up 39 seats to take control of the House of Representatives. The Republican Party held the Senate, but certain races were more closely contested than anticipated. I recently sat down with Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard’s editor at large, and Neera Tanden, the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, to get their take on the elections and the future of the two parties. Beyond unpacking the direction of U.S. party politics and making predictions for the next presidential election, we also discussed the implications of each party’s foreign policy agenda, as well as the staying power and impact of certain populist elements in U.S. politics.

Steven Keil: What key lessons should Democrats take from the midterm elections, and what do they mean heading into the 2020 presidential election?

Neera Tanden: Well, I think the most important lesson is that Democrats have to do two things. One, excite and bring out the base of the party, which is African Americans, Latinos, and Millennials. But, really, also a big change in this election is how much suburban voters – particularly college-educated white women – became the base of the Democratic Party. But also, the success in the Midwest points to the importance of reaching out to working-class people, particularly working-class women. And so there was a strong coalition that really came out on election day for Democrats, and now they have to prove themselves.

Steven Keil: A similar question to you, Bill. What are the main implications for the Republicans following the midterm elections, and what will the results mean for the party as we head toward 2020?

Bill Kristol: You know, I think thoughtful and intelligent Republicans who really look seriously at the results see that Trumpism in the Republican Party is a recipe for decline. I mean, you just can’t get a majority in the country reliably with a Trumpist message, and indeed you have a decreasing number of people signing onto it. Trump drew an inside straight in 2016. He pulled off the Electoral College, but the erosion was pretty serious in 2018.

Republicans won the national House vote in 2016 by about a point. They lost the national House vote in 2018 by about eight-and-a-half points, it looks like. That’s a pretty big swing. There was a big turnout in 2018. The 2020 electorate will probably be a little more Democratic; it usually is in presidential years. As the Republican coalition becomes older, whiter, less well educated, those are declining parts of the electorate. So, I think the medium-term and long-term prognosis is not good. Intelligent Republicans know that. On the other hand, Trump’s the president. Parties are usually loyal to their own president. There are a lot of incentives for senators and representatives to try to get along with the administration that’s in power, and so that cuts the other way.

Steven Keil: That answer leads me right into my next question. Do you see populism as currently experienced in the Republican Party as a more lasting fixture in U.S. politics, and if not, why?

Bill Kristol: Some kind of populism is a lasting picture in U.S. politics, and it’s always part of the mix. Sometimes it explodes a little bit and becomes dominant, or semi-dominant for a year, or two, or three. It’s never in modern times exploded in a way as to carry someone to the presidency. That’s the big difference. We’ve had populist rebels in primaries against incumbents. We’ve had populist governors and senators causing a ruckus, and sometimes doing some damage, sometimes, occasionally doing some good, maybe by calling attention to an issue that’s been neglected.

We haven’t had a populist – maybe a better word, in this case, is a demagogue – as president, and I think that’s a very different thing. Populism is always around. There are kinds of populism that are more or less strident, more or less belligerent, more or less intolerant, and sort of susceptible to demagoguery. But again, a populism with discontent, anxieties, concerns, just good old-fashioned bigotry, and prejudice is always there. If you have a country where the leaders of both parties mostly lean against those trends, that’s one thing. If you have a country where the leader of one party, who is also the president, exaggerates or amplifies or caters to those aspects of populism, that’s a very different thing.

Steven Keil: This naturally leads to a similar question to you, Neera. How can Democrats adequately respond to the populist elements within the party without causing serious clashes with the party’s center?

Neera Tanden: I think what’s really important to note is that Democrats really did vote in their primaries for candidates who could win pretty moderate districts. And so there were clashes between some on the left and more moderate voters in primaries, as there should be. There should be a robust debate about the future of the party in primaries. But I’d say, whether it’s more moderate districts in Kansas or Houston, or other places, you find that Democrats found candidates who fit the district, and then ultimately those candidates won in the general election. I think going forward we have to have a mixture of policies – ideas that really can excite people to come out. But I also recognize, and I think a lot of people have to recognize, that Trump is a motivating factor for Democrats.

Steven Keil: Now switching to international relations, what are the elements that would likely define a Democratic foreign policy, should the Democrats retake the White House in 2020?

Neera Tanden: I believe actually defending democracy is going to be a much more critical discussion in the 2020 debate. With the rise of authoritarian populism around the world and actually democratic countries producing anti-democratic leaders, I hope for anyone who is president that they will focus on democracy and support for democracy almost to the point that we did during the Cold War. The 21st century, I think, is going be a competition between authoritarian systems and democratic systems. Whether it’s China or Russia, they will be competing with the United States and Europe for which model of government is really going to be the dominant one in the 21st century. And I think the United States has to work to defend the institutions, principles, and concepts of democracy not only internationally, but domestically as well.

Steven Keil: Bill, the final question goes to you and is also on foreign policy. Do you think that the current tendency in Republican foreign policy toward conservative nationalism is permanent? Or do you think we’ll see a pivot back to greater and more constructive international engagement in the future?

Bill Kristol: Again, that tendency has always been there. It’s usually been channeled into a kind of support for more of a conservative internationalism. There’s the nationalist side that’s always been a part of it obviously. If you went and interviewed individual voters during the Cold War, they wouldn’t sound quite like Dwight Eisenhower, or like Henry Kissinger, or even like George Schultz, let’s say, or Ronald Reagan. They might have a more nationalist “we’re for America, we’re against Russia” sort of point of view. But, again, it’s very different when that’s a subordinate part of a coalition or a subordinate part of an argument in foreign policy than when it becomes dominant. And we haven’t had obviously someone who says literally “America first” and embraces that tradition as president since the “America first” movement. Incidentally, the Republican candidate in 1940 ran against that.

Again, I come back to the point that it’s a huge country, with a lot of different trends, and a lot of different traditions and points of view, and social and economic things going on, to put it inelegantly. But it’s very different when a president starts abiding that. And what I don’t know is that after four years of a president saying “Forget them. These trade deals are horrible,” I don’t know how much of the country, how much of the Republican Party says, “Well, that was kind of an odd little interlude and now we’re back to understanding the case for free trade. We’re back to understanding more broadly the case for the international liberal order – which America has been at the core of and has done a pretty good job for the world for 70 years.” How much does that come back? It could. People aren’t foolish, and they sort of look around the world, and you see that that’s the case, I think. But how much do people say, “Yeah, that was way back when, but now we’re in a different world, and we’re in an ‘America first’ world, and not in a free trade world, and not in an ‘America stands by its allies’ world.” So, I worry about Trump having a longer-term effect on the Republican Party. As I said, those trends have always been there, but when they’re amplified and given a megaphone by an incumbent president, they can get much more powerful.

This piece is a part of GMF’s Understanding America project, which examines social and political developments in the United States, and their impact on the future of U.S. global engagement.