Yes, we’re having a national election right now. Yes, there are two parties running. But no, they are not the two parties that you think. It’s not “Democrats” versus “Republicans.” This election is really between “Wall People” and “Web People.”
The primary focus of Wall People is finding a president who will turn off the fan — the violent winds of change that are now buffeting every family — in their workplace, where machines are threatening white-collar and blue-collar jobs; in their neighborhoods, where so many more immigrants of different religions, races and cultures are moving in; and globally, where super-empowered angry people are now killing innocents with disturbing regularity. They want a wall to stop it all.
Wall People’s desire to stop change may be unrealistic, but, in fairness, it’s not just about race and class. It is also about a yearning for community — about “home” in the deepest sense — a feeling that the things that anchor us in the world and provide meaning are being swept away, and so they are looking for someone to stop that erosion.
Wall People have two candidates catering to them: Donald Trump, who boasts that he is “The Man” who can stop the winds with a wall, and Bernie Sanders, who promises to stop the winds by ending our big global trade deals and by taking down “The Man” — the millionaires, billionaires and big banks. I don’t see how the country could afford either man’s plans, but they have a simple gut appeal, and there is overlap between them.
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Web People instinctively understand that Democrats and Republicans both built their platforms largely in response to the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal and the Cold War, but that today, a 21st-century party needs to build its platform in response to the accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change, which are the forces transforming the workplace, geopolitics and the very planet.
As such, the instinct of Web People is to embrace the change in the pace of change and focus on empowering more people to be able to compete and collaborate in a world without walls. In particular, Web People understand that in times of rapid change, open systems are always more flexible, resilient and propulsive; they offer the chance to feel and respond first to change. So Web People favor more trade expansion, along the lines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and more managed immigration that attracts the most energetic and smartest minds, and more vehicles for lifelong learning.
Web People also understand that while we want to prevent another bout of recklessness on Wall Street, we don’t want to choke off risk-taking, which is the engine of growth and entrepreneurship.
Because the GOP was out of the White House for the last eight years, the party’s base and leadership are the least understanding of the world in which we’re living. That is why the GOP fractured first and why some Republican Web People, particularly from the business world, are either sitting this election out or voting for Hillary Clinton.
Having been secretary of state, Clinton has been touching the world. She knows America has to build its future on a Web People’s platform, which was first articulated by Bill Clinton and, to this day, is best articulated by him. But Hillary has not always shown the courage of her own, or her husband’s, convictions.
So, rather than take on Wall People in her party — and saying to Sanders, “Socialism was the wrong answer for the industrial age, so it sure isn’t the right answer for the information age” — she is tacking toward Wall People. She is opposing things she helped to negotiate, like the Pacific trade deal, and offering more benefits from government but refraining from telling people the hardest truth: that to be in the middle class, just working hard and playing by the rules doesn’t cut it anymore. To have a lifelong job, you need to be a lifelong learner, constantly raising your game. To her credit, though, she chose a great running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, a Web Person with a soul.
My hope is that, for the good of the country, Republican Web People will, over time, join the Democratic Party and tilt it into a compassionate, center-left Web party for the 21st century. That would be a party that is sensitive to the needs of working people, appreciative of the anchoring power of healthy communities, but committed to capitalism, free markets and open trade as the vital engines of growth for a modern society and to providing every American with the learning tools to realize their potential.
I don’t see any chance of the GOP becoming a center-right party again soon. The Tea Party, Trump and Fox News have made its base too angry and disconnected from reality. So everything rides on the coalition that Clinton assembles. If America is to thrive in the 21st century, we desperately need a coalition that can govern smartly in this era of rapid change. Clinton has a chance to break not only the glass ceiling for women, but also the rigid walls that have divided our two parties. If she can pull that off, it will make being the first woman president the second most important thing she does.
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.