Ronald Reagan as Radical Realigner: A Historical Pitch for Bernie Sanders

I don’t have much to say about the horse-race political stuff that’s happened over the last couple of weeks. I’m still, at this point, going to vote for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders this spring, unless somehow neither of them are in the race by March. Right now, I’m leaning increasingly toward the latter, despite my very real concerns with the way he approaches conversations about racial justice and similar issues.

Neither is the candidate I hoped we would find. And I know that many folks who are going to see this are worried about Bernie being too far left, too far away from the median voter, or too disinterested in the Democratic Party to hold a coalition through Election Day.

But after doing my own worrying about Bernie’s consistent desire to place himself outside the current system, I’ve come to view it as an overall positive (even if it may have some individual negative consequences). And I actually do think it is politically valuable that he does not identify as a capitalist even when Warren does, even though I know it scares many voters.

If that sounds counterintuitive to you, I urge you to read on.


We’re living in year 40 of the Reagan era. Yes, we’ve had two Democratic presidents since then, but the entire political conversation during this period of time, from both parties, has been dominated by one baseline assumption. I’m referring, in this case, to the idea that the government is a poor choice for coordinating or administering things, unless there is no other option.

Obama was the most progressive president we had during this time. But even he framed the Obamacare discussion as a matter of limited government intrusion into private insurance. Whether he felt like he had to say these things or actually believed them is sort of immaterial: most Democrats, even those elected by wide margins up and down the ballot, framed everything in a Reaganesque manner.

This wasn’t really true before 1980. The vast majority of Cabinet-level positions are New Deal creations, largely tracing their roots to the 1930s or 1960s. The EPA, which has become almost an automatic target of GOP cuts whenever they control the presidency, was created by Richard Nixon in 1970. According to the first EPA administrator, Bill Ruckleshaus, tens of thousands of job applicants responded to the original position postings in an era when moving jobs was far less common than it is today.

Even for Republican presidents, even for conservative Republican presidents, adopting centralized systems was par for the course. But within the decade, a massive cultural about-face would be set in motion. And half a century later, two entire generations of people have known no political conversation other than one driven by a baseline assumption that the government is not the proper actor to do certain things. Indeed, since Reagan’s election, the only Cabinet-level positions that have been added are that of the SBA Administrator and the Secretary of Homeland Security, which in itself sounds like an anti-government talking point.

But how did that happen? And how can we reverse it now?


We think of the two-party system in the US as relatively evenly matched over the course of history. But that’s at least in part because the Democratic and Republican parties have managed to survive multiple periods of alternating dominance. The New Deal coalition was one such period.

FDR, and later his vice president, were relatively popular presidents that comprised a string of consecutive victories with no real analogue in their era (since Reconstruction ended, no party had won 5 consecutive presidential elections). The political zenith was in FDR’s first reelection, when the opposition only won 8 electoral votes. Truman, though, couldn’t sustain the popularity of his predecessor, and the Republicans used a popular outside-the-box candidate (Eisenhower) to regain power for eight years. The next election, between the sitting vice president (Nixon) and a young candidate from an old political family (Kennedy), was historically close, and it wasn’t until a tragedy in the upcoming term (Kennedy’s assassination) for Democrats to be able to pass big legislation and further consolidate their base for comfortable reelection.

Waning support for a seemingly neverending war, combined with an unpopular president, doomed the Democrats in 1968, and Nixon proved surprisingly resilient in his reelection. But Nixon’s heir apparent in 1976 (Ford) faced a steep challenge in striking the right balance to follow him. He faced a drawn-out primary fight with a massive outsider (Reagan) who aimed to yank the party out of the more moderate lane it had been taking, with the fight going all the way to the convention. Still, given that his out-of-nowhere opponent (Carter) had only carried 39% of the primary vote and was framing himself as an outsider, he decided to focus on his own experience, experience that the voters ultimately viewed somewhat differently.

Carter, of course, couldn’t recapture the coalition he had in his re-election bid. Reagan blew through a crowded primary field in his second attempt, and even though one of his moderate primary opponents mounted a third-party campaign in the general election, he managed to place the final nail in the New Deal coalition.

My apologies; this article is about the Reagan era. You’re right. Let me rephrase.

Reagan, and later his vice president, were relatively popular presidents that comprised a string of consecutive victories with no real analogue in their era (since WWII ended, no party had won 3 consecutive presidential elections). The political zenith was in Reagan’s first reelection, when the opposition only won 13 electoral votes. Bush 41, though, couldn’t sustain the popularity of his predecessor, and the Democrats used a popular outside-the-box candidate (Bill Clinton) to regain power for eight years. The next election, between the sitting vice president (Gore) and a young candidate from an old political family (Bush 43), was historically close, and it wasn’t until a tragedy in the upcoming term (9/11) for Republicans to be able to pass big legislation and further consolidate their base for comfortable reelection.

Waning support for a seemingly neverending war, combined with an unpopular president, doomed the Republicans in 2008, and Obama proved surprisingly resilient in his reelection. But Obama’s heir apparent in 2016 (Hillary) faced a steep challenge in striking the right balance to follow him. She faced a drawn-out primary fight with a massive outsider (Bernie) who aimed to yank the party out of the more moderate lane it had been taking, with the fight going (almost) all the way to the convention. Still, given that her out-of-nowhere opponent (Trump) had only carried 44% of the primary vote and was framing himself as an outsider, she decided to focus on her own experience, experience that the voters ultimately viewed somewhat differently.


The parallels are a little eerie, even if society has changed a lot in the 88 years since FDR’s election. But I think it’s easy to overread this data as well. Trump, like Carter, is definitely in a weak position, and there are signs that the Reagan coalition is disintegrating much like the New Deal coalition did. But that doesn’t mean that any nominee in 2020 is going to usher in a new era of political engagement. Folks like Biden and Klobuchar are obviously trying to play ball specifically on Reagan’s court. Their platforms focus on what’s “possible,” with the idea of the “possible” keeping one eye on all times on the mythical Reagan Democrat, a brand of voter that probably still exists but not nearly in the same way that it did 36 years ago, the last time Reagan was even on the ballot.

This creep toward the center is, or perhaps was, one of the fundamental tenets of the way that Democrats operated in the Reagan era. And since the birth of the 24-hour political news cycle, the idea of the persuadable voter in the center, known as the “median voter theorem,” has been accepted as gospel. But if we’re focusing on 1980 and onward, the parties have both been drifting away from each other pretty consistently. For the Republicans, it hasn’t truly mattered.

Democrats controlled both houses of Congress continuously from 1955 to 1981, but it was when Reagan was first on the ballot that the Republicans first won the Senate back, despite the presence of John Anderson, a liberal Republican who lost the primary to Reagan and then ran a third-party campaign in protest of Reagan’s conservatism, polling as high as 26% at one point. It would take another decade for Republicans to gain control of the House, but they did so in 1994 through the Contract with America, a very conservative list of proposed reforms that they would attempt to enact if given a House majority.

The Contract worked because it set the tone of the conversation in Republican-friendly terms. But it certainly helped that Gingrich, during the course of the 1994 midterms, could use the term “tax-and-spend liberal” as an easy insult, regardless of whether the label truly applied to Bill Clinton or not. And in doing so, he was standing on Reagan’s shoulders. Since that electoral success, Republicans have used the tag, which doesn’t even inherently carry a negative connotation, to repeatedly crush conversations about progressive tax policy and meaningful economic reforms. Even when they’ve been in the minority, they’ve been able to use this rhetoric to play offense for 40 years, and the machine is now good enough at forcing this issue that it can run well enough even with Trump at the helm. Indeed, while not much has actually been enacted since his inauguration, the most major piece of legislation is almost unquestionably the half-accurately named Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, a bill that embodies the logical conclusion of this Reaganesque framework.

Elizabeth Warren recognizes that this framework is inconsistent with improving our society. This is why she (rightfully) accused John Delaney (who is still running!) of using Republican talking points during the July debate. This claim, of course, would largely invalidate the positions of folks like Klobuchar or like Delaney, and so to them it could not possibly stand. Both Warren and Sanders took a lot of heat during the first few debates as a result, and they generally acquitted themselves both rather well.

But Warren, as well as each of these other candidates, still makes her main pitch with substantial nods to the Reagan framework, even if the surface-level pitch is to reject it. This is not an inherent flaw, necessarily, and her policies are still a major improvement from what we’ve seen in the recent past. But “I have a plan for that” is often code for “I have thought about how to pay for this”, and while Warren seems to have earnestly thought about this, one of the constraints in her thinking does appear to be the net-zero balance sheet that Republicans yell about but never have to put into practice, not while they’re on year 40 of playing offense.

I worry that this theory of change, one that fits more neatly into the Bill Clinton-Obama-??? progression than I think people realize, will waste the groundswell of leftist energy that has been building now for years. At one point in 2019, I thought very much otherwise. But Warren moved from “I support the Medicare for All bill” in early debates to a multi-phase plan that seems tailored solely to avoid Reaganesque criticism about taxing to fund Medicare for All. The new plan is essentially “a public option plus more stuff will happen in Year 3”, which I’m still not sure is any better than just a straight-up public option. Much of what I’m yelling about here isn’t always tied to specific policy positions, but this particular shift doesn’t feel abstract to me. I don’t want to feel like it might give us 12 more years of shying away from taxation and expanded government in the national conversation, but I have that worry.


Bernie, for all his faults, has demonstrated consistently and repeatedly that a Sanders presidency would attack this Reagan rhetoric directly and get some of the more sweeping reforms at least on the table and into the conversation. The “job guarantee vs. UBI” conversation happened, very briefly, at one debate, but these are both big proposals that, despite being a huge part of the national conversation during the New Deal coalition era, disappeared from mainstream policy discussions entirely until rather recently.

Interestingly, many of the second-tier candidates who have been on a debate stage at one point or another have expressed support for these programs. Julián Castro supports a UBI pilot. Kirsten Gillibrand supports a job guarantee. Cory Booker is looking for either or both. Regardless of their other policies, there is at least some growing understanding within the Democratic Party that this Reaganesque framing can (and should) be actively rejected.

We just need to bridge the gap, and with the way that politics has become nationalized, I think the quickest way there is to start at the top.


Despite all of this, I actually don’t think that this question is going to have that much of an impact on this general election; I still believe that any potential nominee (not just Warren or Sanders) is going to exit the convention with about a 70% chance to win the general election. But I think it’s going to matter a lot for the way we make policy over the next decade or more.

One of the major reasons I voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries is because the threat of a Michael Bloomberg third-party run felt not only real if Bernie won but also potentially devastating to the chances of Bernie reaching the White House. In reading more about 1976 and 1980 recently, though, I was shocked at just how much opposition Reagan had from moderate elements in his party, especially for somebody who is thought of as a massively popular candidate who bent the entire political framework to his belief system.

I’m going to reproduce my blurb about the end of the New Deal era from above, and change the names again.

“Trump, of course, couldn’t recapture the coalition he had in his 2020 re-election bid. Sanders blew through a crowded primary field in his second attempt, and even though one of his moderate primary opponents mounted a third-party campaign in the general election, he managed to place the final nail in the Reagan coalition.”

Obviously, nobody else in the field will fit the facts perfectly, since nobody else ran in 2016. But there’s virtually no way to replicate what Reagan did from the center, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s not just Reagan: since the current two-party structure emerged, the only three presidents (Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan) who managed to create a lasting realignment did so by pivoting far away from the center at the opportune time to do so.

We now have that opportunity again. It’s worth considering what we want to do with it. 

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