Welcome to the new era of US politics, where extremism reigns

Ronald Reagan's fusionist ideology has been replaced with Trump's populism
Ronald Reagan's fusionist ideology has been replaced with Trump's populism - Getty

In the hothouse world of Washington, DC think tanks and lobby groups are like Broadway musicals. Some are long running, others only exist for a short time, but there are always new ones appearing while others go out of business. The news that any one think tank is closing its doors is rarely newsworthy. Exceptions occur when a long-running ‘show’ closes its doors, the shuttering telling us something about a deeper shift in politics.

Something of that sort happened a few weeks ago, with the news that the libertarian organisation Freedom Works was closing down. Since its foundation in 1984, Freedom Works has been a major institution in the network of conservative-libertarian policy groups that dot the American landscape.

It was a vehicle for what was called the “fusionist coalition”, the combination of economic liberalism (low taxes, deregulation), constitutional traditionalism, and social conservatism that dominated Republican politics from the middle 1970s onwards and drove the victories of Ronald Reagan and both the older and younger Bush. During the Obama administration it became strongly associated with the emergence of the grassroots Tea Party coalition, supplying it with intellectual and economic analysis. Now all that has gone, and Freedom Works is no more.

This is not simply a matter of incompetent leadership or internal disputes that can derail formerly-flourishing organisations. Rather, it is the working out in a single institution of a profound shift in the nature of Right-wing politics in the United States.

As a Politico report makes clear, the closure follows more than a year of declining revenue and staffing woes. Both of these had the same source – the transformation of the Republican Party through the impact of Donald Trump – or rather the wider social and political transformation that he represents. Freedom Works’ donor base fragmented, with some feeling it was not sufficiently in line with the MAGA agenda while others felt it was pandering to it too much. By trying to appease both sides the organisation ended up alienating both kinds of donor.

The same pattern was replicated in internal staff relationships, with an influx of younger populist employees looking to align the organisation more explicitly with Trump while others voiced increasingly strong objections. The big divide according to the Freedom Works’ president, Adam Brandon, was between the largely libertarian leadership and the Trumpian membership. Trying to accommodate both tendencies brought serious pushback from staff.

Freedom Works was looking to rebrand itself and reach out to moderate suburban voters – essentially the 16-20 per cent of voters who combine fiscal conservatism with social liberalism and who reject the doctrine of MAGA. This however did not work, as the target audience rejected Freedom Works as too Right-wing, tainted by any even tenuous association with the new Republican party.

This is the working out in microcosm of a more general transformation of American politics. The Reagan coalition is dead. The two halves that made up fusionism now increasingly find themselves on opposite sides, moving from being friends and allies to increasingly bitter opponents and enemies. A more fundamental paradigm shift has occurred, sublimating the conflict between big versus small government to questions of identity, culture and America’s place in the world.

These new divides cut right across the old Reagan coalition. Suburban voters who are receptive to calls for fiscal prudence, deregulation, and lower taxes will not accept a party that promotes economic nationalism and foreign policy unilateralism, much less strong cultural conservatism.

The appeal of tax cuts no longer overrides their distaste for these other agenda items, which they now see as primary divides. On the other side, those who see Trump as their spokesman are increasingly hostile to much of big business, to free trade and particularly freer immigration. These factions cannot be reconciled: they are diametrically opposed.

So, the old fusionist coalition of Ronald Reagan is done for. A similar process is happening on the other side of the aisle among Democrats, with increasingly bitter divisions between mainstream liberals and progressives now impossible to ignore. American politics is near the end of a major reshuffling, with new enmities and friendships springing up and producing surprising bedfellows and major fallouts. The next few years will be interesting.