On Monday, if you were paying attention, you caught a glimpse of our ultrapolarized future.
Specifically, you saw two speeches from two candidates on opposite ends of the ideological divide. First was Hillary Clinton’s marquee speech on the economy, in which after months of silence, she addressed a major question of her candidacy: Was she committed to the neoliberal path of her husband’s administration and her first campaign, or would she follow the progressive economic zeitgeist of the present-day Democratic Party?
The answer, in short, is that she’ll follow the zeitgeist. “The defining economic challenge of our time is clear: We must raise incomes for hard-working Americans so they can afford a middle-class life. We must drive strong and steady income growth that lifts up families and lifts up our country.” At the same time, said Clinton—distancing herself from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—“Today is not 1993 or 2009. We need solutions for the big challenges we face now.”
To that end, Clinton wants a constellation of interventionist policies that directly use government to raise incomes, regulate financial firms, shape the pre-distribution of wealth, and secure middle-class families. Among her proposals are tax reform to encourage long-term business investment instead of short-term spending (like higher CEO pay); comprehensive immigration reform to bring undocumented workers into the formal economy; new federal investments in renewable energy and medical research; paid family leave, earned sick days, and subsidized child care; higher minimum wages and protection against wage theft; enhancements for Social Security and the Affordable Care Act; middle-class tax relief and greater support for young, contract, and low-income workers; and finally, new measures to strengthen and expand Dodd-Frank financial reform.
Even with the missing details and unanswered questions—where does Clinton stand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, does she support a Bernie Sanders–style financial transactions tax—this is a progressive vision, informed by the last five years of liberal populist activism, from Occupy Wall Street to the rise of Elizabeth Warren. Once a Democratic Leadership Council Democrat who cut her teeth in the age of Reagan, Clinton is now near the helm of a party that’s turned left from its 1990s centrism toward a neo–New Deal liberalism.*
Mirroring this nod to the left of the Democratic Party was Scott Walker’s wave to the right wing of the Republican Party. On Monday evening, in his home state, the conservative Wisconsin governor announced his campaign for the White House. “Americans deserve a president who will fight and win for them. Someone who will stand up for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Someone who will stand up for our religious rights and all of our other constitutional rights. Someone who will stand up for America.”
If Clinton gave an agenda for liberal America, Walker sketched a wish list for its conservative counterpart. As president, Walker wants to devolve Medicaid to the states; repeal the Affordable Care Act in full; drill for oil, including completing the Keystone pipeline; cut taxes on “job creators”; and reduce regulations across the board.
Likewise, he wants to bring key Wisconsin policies to the country writ large. “Since I’ve been governor,” said Walker, touting his record, “we passed lawsuit reform and regulatory reform. We defunded Planned Parenthood and enacted pro-life legislation. We passed Castle Doctrine and concealed-carry. And we now require a photo ID to vote in the state of Wisconsin.” He continued: “If our reforms can work in a blue state like Wisconsin, they can work anywhere in America.”
Beyond concrete policy ideas, Walker stuffed his speech with red meat. He blasted public assistance—“The people I’ve met tell me that they didn’t come here to become dependent on the government”—and touted America as a place where “the opportunity is equal for all, but the outcome is up to each and every one of us,” as if the poor are poor because of their effort (they earned it) and not their circumstances. He praised supply-side economics and promised that tax cuts would “grow the economy,” despite the poor results in Wisconsin. He touted mandatory drug tests for welfare recipients, and denounced Common Core as a “nationwide school board.”
Walker is a top-tier contender for the GOP nomination. If he wins, he won’t just bring a conservative agenda; he’ll bring one from the hard right that aims for the vulnerable (cuts to services), plays to resentments (voter identification and drug tests), and appeals to his base of working- and middle-class white men.
These dueling speeches are clear: There is no middle ground or overlap between Walker’s America and Clinton’s coalition of blacks, Latinos, women, and young people. Which means that there’s no amount of “leadership”—of rhetorical restraint, of triangulation, of closed-door maneuvering—that would yield a “governing majority” that’s capable of serious progress. Indeed, there’s no national—or at least, no bipartisan—agreement on what “progress” means.
Like Obama in 2008, Clinton has promised to bring the country together, but this divide is solid. If she’s elected president, she’ll face the same entrenched opposition as her predecessor. Which, in a way, makes Walker a bit of fresh air. He has no pretenses. “For years, the conventional wisdom was that Americans want divided government,” said Walker in 2013. “I think they’ve seen in the last few years that that’s not necessarily a good thing.” What works, he said? Unified, one-party control. And that’s what he promises. He says he’ll fight for conservatives, and he’ll win.
Correction, July 14, 2015: Due to a production error, the photo caption in this article originally misstated that Hillary Clinton is on the right of the photo illustration. She is on the left; Scott Walker is on the right. Due to an editing error, this article also misidentified the name of the Democratic Leadership Council. (Return.)