In country after country, the rise of anti-immigrant parties or movements is forcing many supporters of traditional center-right parties to recalibrate. Culturally moderate or somewhat liberal, these voters are either turning toward parties they previously shunned or, in some multiparty systems, pushing their leaders to abandon longtime alliances.
The first type of reaction is what we’ve seen in the Anglosphere. In the United States, Britain and Australia, the tradition of a strong two-party system often forces voters to choose the party they dislike the least. Prior to populism’s rise, upper-income, educated urban or suburban voters tolerated life in the center-right party. Now they are choosing the center-left.
In the United States, Democrats control the House because millions of former Romney voters switched sides, even in onetime GOP strongholds such as Orange County, Calif., and suburban Dallas and Houston. In the 2017 British general election, former Conservative Party voters in similar areas flocked to the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats. And urban moderates angry about last year’s conservative revolt against Australia’s moderate Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have voted for independents or the opposition Labor Party in recent special and state elections.
The reordering is underway in multiparty systems, too. Sweden recently ended a four-month deadlock over who would become prime minister when two center-right parties — the Center and Liberal parties — switched sides and backed the incumbent Social Democrat. They had refused to deal with an anti-immigrant populist party, the Sweden Democrats, whose support was required for the four traditional center-right parties to elect a prime minister. And in Germany, the pro-immigrant Green party is now the second-largest in the polls, largely because educated supporters of the leading center-right parties have been shifting their votes in reaction to the rise of the anti-immigrant populist Alternative for Germany party.
This movement creates problems for both the traditional right and the traditional left. For the right, losing these voters makes it impossible to form a majority. British Prime Minister Theresa May discovered this when she lost her majority in the 2017 election, and the continued revolt against a hard Brexit by Tories who still represent high-income voters has thrown her government into crisis. Conservative parties also can’t form a majority if they move decisively to the center, as many of their voters want a hard populism policy and are willing to defect if they don’t get it.
The left also has had its expectations upended. The former conservative voters moving to new parties don’t suddenly abandon their beliefs because they switch sides. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven had to agree to lower taxes and introduce some labor-market reforms to win the conservative parties’ support. This cost him the support of the Left Party, a traditional ally. In Britain, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure to support a second Brexit referendum, something the anti-Brexit former Tory voters want. But doing so would break faith the party’s traditional working-class base, many of whom voted for Brexit and stuck with Labour in the last election because the party promised to uphold the referendum’s results.
In the United States, the Democrats are about to find that they cannot avoid these challenges, either. Progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) already think that many incumbent Democrats are not leftist enough for their tastes. Many Democratic presidential contenders are signing on to progressive causes such as impeaching President Trump, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement or dramatically increasing domestic spending. Trouble is, the former Republicans who gave them a majority aren’t on board with the progressive agenda.
Trump won in 2016 because voters like these reluctantly backed him over Hillary Clinton. Exit polling found that 18 percent of all voters did not like either candidate on Election Day. Prior surveys showed that these voters were disproportionately educated, suburban, Republican-leaning men. Those earlier surveys revealed these voters were torn, with a clear majority as late as mid-October professing support for a third-party candidate or saying they were undecided. On Election Day, however, they held their noses and backed the Republican, whose policies they preferred by a 47 percent to 30 percent margin.
Republicans are rubbing their hands in glee in anticipation of a coming Democratic train wreck. Pretty much everyone I know thinks Trump is going to be reelected, in large part because they think the Democrats will pick the most vocal, resistance-style nominee on offer. They know that if that happens, millions of anti-Trump suburbanites will throw their hands up in disgust at having to once more make a choice they deeply despise.
Which way would these voters break? Trump could try to win them over, but that risks offending his hardcore base. Conservative Ann Coulter has already attacked Trump for his conciliatory address Saturday, tweeting: “We voted for Trump and got Jeb.” Moving to the center to get former Romney voters back splits the Republican coalition, too.
We often talk as if all of our political divisions center on Trump. They don’t. Cultural change, mass migration and the power of transnational entities are reordering politics across the globe. Nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argued that history arises through a conflict between a thesis and an antithesis, which results in a synthesis resolving the original conflict. If populism is our thesis and counter-populism is our antithesis, then we are in the middle of our search for a synthesis. What that consists of and who determines it will create the conditions that the United States will live through for much of the next few decades.