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For more than a decade, I have been fascinated by how the Tea Party has fundamentally deconstructed — and then begun to reconstruct — the modern Republican Party. No longer is the GOP controlled at its core either by corporate interests or their aristocratic friends over at the country club. It is now being run by "movement" conservatives at the grassroots level who, despite election losses in 2014 to more "establishment" Republicans, clearly dominate the narrative in the early Republican presidential primary process.
A similar uprising has been quietly brewing on the left as well for the past few years. The heart and soul of the Democratic Party is up for grabs right now as a grassroots uprising is shifting the narrative from issues important to establishment Democrats to those being championed by "movement" liberals, like social justice and income inequality.
This dynamic is playing out in various levels of government. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn't suddenly have an epiphany on minimum wage when he appointed a Wage Board to justify and execute a significant increase. He was trying to outflank more progressive New York politicians such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and battle for the affections of organized labor and its affiliated activist networks who propelled the mayor to victory in 2014.
Rahm Emanuel's late-in-the-game effort to ram a minimum wage increase through in Chicago wasn’t a cause he had supported for a long time. His support for a dramatic minimum wage increase was pure politics and an effort to stave off an unexpectedly strong challenge from a progressive alderman and darling of the grassroots social justice activists (as well as their green tea-sipping funders) who inexplicably forced Emanuel into a runoff that he eventually survived. Seeing that scenario and making sure they were not next on the hit list, other mayors quickly got out in front of the issue to cover their flanks, namely Francis Slay in St. Louis, Sly James in Kansas City, and Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles.
At the presidential level, the same scenario is playing out. Whether you are a fan of Hillary Clinton or not, she has a well-deserved reputation for often blurring the lines of where she actually stands on some complicated issues (the recent Trade Promotion Authority issue is a case in point). Do you really think a Wall Street-friendly, establishment Democrat would have come out so forcefully and quickly for a $15 minimum wage had it not been for the looming and growing presence of Bernie Sanders and potentially Elizabeth Warren? Clinton would have eventually gotten there, but not a year ahead of the primaries.
The establishment Democrats who came of age in the 1990s (Clinton, Cuomo, Emanuel, etc.) are on the run and being hounded at every turn by movement activists (de Blasio, Sanders and Warren) who are now controlling the narrative so much so that after 20 years in hiding, many Democrats are no longer afraid to utter the word “liberal” in public.
On the right, it has been interesting to watch the boots kick around the suits for the last 10 years. Now, on the left, we get to watch the Volvos getting run down by the Vespas.
While our two-party system is alive and well, we have evolved into a new electoral reality that encompasses five voting blocs: Tea Party conservatives, establishment Republicans, non-affiliated independents, establishment Democrats and “Green Tea Party” liberals.
In Europe or South America, this would be called “coalition government.” In 2015 America, we call it gridlock. Activist fringes are hamstringing the leadership of the two parties and they have become increasingly unable to speak on behalf of anyone — most notably the growing number of independents in the middle.
Politically, this is a positive development if you are on the ideological edges. If you are in the pragmatic middle, like most Main Street merchants and small-business owners, you are becoming increasingly distanced from political relevance.
A dozen Republican presidential candidates are about to enter the debate season and it is likely that the vast majority of the issues they will discuss will focus on border security, gun control, gay marriage and foreign intervention. Main Street issues like economic growth, opportunity and job creation will be relegated to second-tier status and given minimal lip service.
We romanticize the legend of Route 66 and lament that it was marginalized by the interstate highway system and slowly atrophied away. Main Street merchants are increasingly in danger of the same fate — being bypassed by the new wave of political travelers speeding for the coasts of political ideology.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.