Given that all of his opponents have dropped out of the race, it now seems clear that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party nominee for President of the United States in the 2016 general elections. The party convention in July may yet hold a few surprises, but if RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’s Twitter feed is any indication then party leaders are already marshalling support for a unified party behind him.
Meanwhile, the battle for the Democratic nomination wages on (for now), with longtime presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton fighting off the momentum of the once-unlikely contender Bernie Sanders with a fistful of superdelegates. That convention, too, may be more interesting than most when it rolls around in August, but barring significant changes in party rules it seems that Sec. Clinton will prevail.
What’s true in both parties is that divisions of support run deeper in this year’s election than they have for generations, and the challenge of uniting commitment based on party affiliation is perhaps harder than it has ever been.
I think this may actually be a good thing; not necessarily for this election, but for the political process in years to come.
Looking Back at the Two Parties
The two-party system that reigns supreme in contemporary American politics is not constitutionally-based; in fact, it seems that the nation’s founding fathers discouraged the preference of party:
“This spirit [of party], unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.”
Nevertheless, partisan politics emerged early in U.S. history, and by the 1850s the two parties that prevail today were pretty well solidified—though, interestingly, for its first half-century the Democratic party was known for pro-business/pro-farming, strong favor of individual rights, anti-tax, and even anti-public school stances—positions traditionally considered to be strongly “conservative” in nature; meanwhile, the early Republican party was regarded as the “progressive” party until the early 1930s. Needless to say, both parties have generally swapped roles on the conservative–progressive spectrum.
Whither the Third Party Candidate?
While the presence of additional parties, including numerous minor parties, has been at least a nagging annoyance in many elections of the past several generations, they are a relatively recent phenomenon in U.S. politics (with the exception of a few minor socialist/communist parties that arose in the early 20th century). The Libertarian Party (est. 1971) was the first on the scene, followed more recently by the Reform Party (est. 1995), the Constitution Party (nee U.S. Taxpayer’s Party, est. 1991/renamed 1999), the Green Party (est. 2001), and others.
Apart from a few “spoilers” such as Ross Perot (Reform Party) in 1996, who was claimed by some to be the reason why Republican incumbent President George H.W. Bush lost, and Ralph Nader (Green Party) in 2000, who was said to have done the same for Democratic nominee (and sitting Vice-President) Al Gore, the “third party” candidates have been wholly ineffective in their bids for the office of president. No candidate since Andrew Johnson (in the 1868 election, running as an independent) has been elected who was not affiliated with either the Republican or the Democratic party.
Dissent within the Ranks
As the aforementioned spoilers—and other recent movements with similar effect—indicate, however, the nuances of political convictions and preferences have shifted the structure of American politics such that, under the right circumstances, the days of the longstanding two party system may be coming to an end.
Take, for example, the Tea Party movement. Beginning in 2009 (largely in response to policy initiatives by recently-elected President Barack Obama), this movement took its cues and spirit from the Boston Tea Party protest, itself a preamble to the American Revolution. The movement led to rallies and protests focused on limiting the role of government, concerns about government spending, and the reduction of taxes. While its prominence has declined somewhat since the 2010 mid-term elections, Tea Party conservatism waged considerable influence in recent elections as well as in the restructuring of the Republican party. Moreover, Tea Party-endorsed candidates have unseated incumbent Republicans in state and congressional elections.
This movement is evidence of the fracturing within the dominant parties, which the 2016 elections offer further demonstration of. The Republican party has long been a coalition of diverse perspectives, conveniently aligned for political purposes. There are Republicans who are essentially fiscal conservatives, paying lip-service to other conservative ideals but evincing moderate or even progressive values in non-fiscal areas. Likewise, there are Republicans (and Democrats as well) whose predominant concerns are the limiting of governmental reach and power—Tea Partiers and otherwise. And there are Republicans who value social conservatism above all else, sometimes even distilling their political aims to one or several specific issues.
The Democratic Party has, thus far, largely avoided more obvious divisions like what the Republicans see clearly; recently, however, the lines of dissent have begun to appear. Just as the Libertarian movement is party-agnostic, so too are tendencies to place greater emphasis on fiscal concerns, social issues, and the like (though the particular values espoused in each vary greatly from their conservative counterparts). The DNC is just as vulnerable to dissent as the GOP.
And, of course, there are voters of all stripes who are suspicious of political “insiders” who, they fear, are merely part of the big political machine, none really all that different from the others despite party affiliation. If the appeal of Donald Trump has taught us anything, it is that this group is larger (and warier) than perhaps anyone realized.
Which Brings Us to…
These circumstances—and the convictions, preferences, frustrations, and collective distaste that led to them—will likely make for a popcorn-and-ringside-seat spectacle in presidential politics this fall. But they may also present us with an opportunity.
Both parties are feeling the pressures of the dissent named above. A year ago, few Democrats would have questioned the likelihood of broad partisan support for a Hillary Clinton nomination; now, though, so many Democrats “feel the Bern” that its difficult to imagine a scenario where Bernie Sanders isn’t held forth as a viable independent candidate. In the Republican camp, the “outsider” has worked his way deep into the heart of the party—but, with two months left before the convention, there is plenty of time for an independent conservative to emerge as well.
Faithful members of both parties are — potentially or actually — facing the decision to vote outside of their party, in many cases for the first time ever. The possibility of three or even four candidates, each with strong support despite the fact that only two would have the endorsement of the dominant political parties, is a reality in 2016.
Therein is our opportunity. Maybe it’s time for a clean break along the fracture lines. Perhaps the day of the two-party system is behind us, and the era of an American multi-party system lies ahead.
Can you envision a presidential election where multiple parties are represented with relative equality? Where you may find a candidate with whom you agree on 80% or even 90% of their positions? Where there are three or four—or even six or seven—viable candidates to choose from?
Such a system would have its own issues, of course; the possibility of a president-elect who garnered no more than, say, 35% of the popular vote is fairly appalling to everyone, of course. But this could be handled easily by replacing the current primary elections with a broad general election, followed by a mandatory run-off election of the top two, should no single candidate receive at least a 51% majority. (This would have an added advantage of thwarting any “spoilers” as well.)
So many voters are scanning the landscape, fearful; “none of the above” may be on their minds this election season. But the demise—or at least, the decrease in prominence and power—of the major parties may be the best thing to come out of this year’s presidential. Here’s hoping we will all benefit from a broader selection of choices in elections to come.