For the first time in 80 years, a presidential election has changed the way we think about politics.
Since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, American politics was basically viewed on a horizontal line going from the far left to the far right. As voters, we thought about where we fit on this spectrum and where the candidates were on it: Democrats on the left, and Republicans on the right.
This worked especially well in framing primary contests. In primaries, there is usually a candidate of the far end of the line who argues he is an ideological purist, versus a candidate more from the middle of the line who argues he is more practical and electable.
But the presidential election between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton cannot be explained along this left-right continuum, and neither could their primary campaigns. This election was much more about a vertical line. It was about up versus down, and the haves (education level, income) versus have-nots.
Clinton, a Yale Law School graduate, former first lady, former US senator, and former US secretary of state was the perfect representation of the upper part of the up/down line. Trump, while he had the “up” pedigree, based his campaign on appealing to the down part of the line. After all, the premise of Make America Great Again is that, at the moment, the country is not so great. His voters considered their personal lives and agreed with Trump.
It also explains why, in the swing state of New Hampshire, a traditionally Democratic city like economically depressed Claremont went for Trump, but an affluent, traditionally Republican town like Hollis voted for Clinton.
Claremont and Hollis bucked their respective voting trends because the presidential contest was not driven by a left-versus-right axis. Yes, there were ideological left-right differences on taxes and social issues, but Trump was not a particularly ideological candidate. He talked about dramatically increasing government spending on infrastructure, the military, and, of course the massive and expensive project to build a wall along the border.
Additionally, Clinton’s message was not centered on liberal or left-of-center policies. Instead, her message was that Trump was simply unfit to be president, either because of his lack of government experience or some of the comments he made about other people.
But, as the 16 candidates who challenged Trump in the Republican primary can attest, none of that mattered. Trump lacked government experience and declined to speak in a politically sensitive way — and those were the very things his supporters loved most about him. In many ways, Trump just carried a message from those on the bottom in America toward those in the political elite who were at the top. Voters were left with the decision: Did they want someone to competently run the system or blow it up entirely?
It didn’t matter to Republican primary voters that Trump supported abortion rights until recently, once supported a socialized government-run health care system, or was previously a Democrat. Nor did it matter that he changed his mind on whether to increase taxes on the rich during the campaign, or that he bashed President George W. Bush over foreign policy.
It didn’t matter because these primary voters were not thinking about who was more conservative or moderate, but rather who was representing the political class and who wasn’t.
Clinton’s primary win over Senator Bernie Sanders featured the same dynamic — except in her case, the establishment won the nomination. While Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, did take positions to the left of Clinton, he ran a populist campaign against the system. For example, Sanders wanted Democrats to change their party rules and advocate for change in the campaign finance system because he said both items benefited the well-connected.
As a result of this election, we now have four political parties in America. We are no longer a collection of red states and blue states. We are red rich states, red poor states, blue rich states, and blue poor states (or areas).
This means that elections for a while will be more multifaceted and complicated. Candidates will be judged by where they are on the left-right horizontal axis and on the up-down vertical axis.
What’s more, there’s also a backdrop behind this axis that shows two major facts about American political life: race and the urban-rural divide. Both of those matter a lot, but they are static. African-American and Latino voters mainly support Democrats, the same way that rural America votes Republican, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
What is changing is that a generation of politics will see class as a major defining feature, in addition to ideology.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.