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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

U.S. politics is veering toward a potential transformation in which both major parties are competing to capture a single constituency — millions of Americans, from schoolteachers to steelworkers, who have fallen on hard times.

The big picture: The party that successfully wins over this constituency in 2020, crossing gender, race, ethnicity and age, could hold power for a generation.

What's happening: In 2016, President Trump won on a political hunch — that a swath of the U.S. left behind by the forces of globalization was a winning base. Now his intuition has gained intellectual force, and major Republicans and Democrats are attempting to capitalize on the bipartisan anger that suffuses American politics.

  • "Millions of people feel left behind by the rapid social, cultural and economic changes under way. It’s clear the old ways no longer work and the party that is able to offer a better way forward will lead a new coalition on the scale of the New Deal and the Reagan Revolution," Sen. Marco Rubio tells Axios.
  • "Both parties are trying to come up with a 21st century economic doctrine that widens the winner's circle and finds ways to course-correct the obvious inequities and unaddressed externalities of our current system," says Bruce Mehlman, a leading policy lobbyist.

If this course sounds familiar, it's because Democrats have sought to own the space since FDR. For most of the intervening decades, they have.

  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ran on it in 2016, and Elizabeth Warren is running on a similar platform for the party's 2020 presidential nomination.
  • And 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has lit up the left with a full-throated call for higher taxes on the rich, free college, and Medicare for all.

But, after Brexit and Trump's election, the context has now changed. Republicans see that Trump's base has remained tight but relatively small: whites concentrated in down-on-their luck industries of decades-old boom economies will not command a presidential majority.

But a broader appeal could target low-salaried school teachers, nurses and other professionals, suggests Adam Tooze, an economic historian at Columbia University. "The shift is important, and if constructed the right way it could actually be majoritarian," Tooze tells Axios.

From the right and center, Republicans are already road-testing what a non-Trump workers platform could look like:

  • In a long piece last month in The Atlantic, Rubio made the case for aggressive government action to rebuild the middle class.  
  • Oren Cass, Mitt Romney's former domestic policy adviser, has attracted broad mainstream conservative attention with his manifesto, "The Once and Future Worker," which proposes an intellectual foundation for a Republican capture of the left-behind.
  • From the far right, Fox News firebrand Tucker Carlson again ignited conservative attention with a much-circulated Jan. 3 monologue that auditioned a platform to overturn and fix the system for white male disadvantaged Americans.

Mehlman, the lobbyist, draws comparisons to the Progressive Era, the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century, when a backlash against the Gilded Age produced a vast expansion of high schools, the direct election of senators, and the women's vote.

  • "What we face in the 21st century mirrors pretty closely what we faced in the beginning of the 20th century," Mehlman tells Axios.
  • "Populist energy got absorbed by both parties' reform movements. Both major parties evolved to reflect what citizens were demanding."

Go deeper

5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Sources say Beto plans Texas comeback in governor’s race

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks during the Georgetown to Austin March for Democracy rally on July 31, 2021, in Austin, Texas. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is preparing to run for governor of Texas in 2022, with an announcement expected later this year, Texas political operatives tell Axios.

Why it matters: O'Rourke's entry would give Democrats a high-profile candidate with a national fundraising network to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — and give O’Rourke, a former three-term congressman from El Paso and 2020 presidential candidate and voting rights activist, a path to a political comeback.

Texas doctor says he performed an abortion in violation of state law

Pro-choice protesters march down Congress Avenue and back to the Texas state capitol in Austin, Texas, in July 2021. Photo: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

A Texas doctor disclosed in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Saturday that he has performed an abortion in violation of the state's restrictive new abortion law, which effectively bans the procedure after six weeks.

Why it matters: Alan Braid's op-ed is a direct disclosure that will very likely result in legal action, thereby setting it up as a potential test case for how the abortion ban will be litigated, notes the New York Times.

Mike Allen, author of AM
6 hours ago - Technology

Axios interview: Facebook to try for more transparency

Nick Clegg last year. Photo: Matthew Sobocinski/USA Today via Reuters

Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs, tells me the company will try to provide more data to outside researchers to scrutinize the health of activity on Facebook and Instagram, following The Wall Street Journal's brutal look at internal documents.

Driving the news: Clegg didn't say that in his public response to the series. So I called him to push for what Facebook will actually do differently given the new dangers raised by The Journal.