There goes the party

Bill Clinton was supposed to be at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn to talk about his wife. But in the fashion of a former president who remembers what it’s like to be in a good dogfight, he couldn’t resist taking on her nettlesome rival. The pews of the small wood-lined church, a pillar of central Brooklyn’s black community, were not entirely full, and the reporters packed into the back weren’t as plentiful as they were in Clinton’s heyday. And yet, despite sounding hoarse, his whirl of gray hair long gone snow-white, Clinton summoned a hint of his old vigor to try to take down Bernie Sanders.

Delegates take the state signs as souvenirs at the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

“Sometimes in this primary I get the feeling that the gentleman who’s running against Hillary is running harder against President Obama and me than he is against the legacy of the Bush administration,” he said. “You know, after he’s been a Democrat a little while longer he’ll get used to it. He’ll realize, you know, our party is the best hope we got.”

Bill Clinton, once the boyish embodiment of Baby Boomer manifest destiny, was doing what a lifetime of political programming had taught him to do that day: call attention to Sanders’ status as a poseur Democrat in a party primary and ridicule his unwillingness to play ball with the two-party system. The jab came from a man who, at 69, is five years younger than Sanders. But Clinton might as well have been 100 as far as this simmering political moment is concerned.

It’s been only been a couple of decades since the heart of the Clinton era, a time when a self-described democratic socialist who never joined the Democratic Party could not have seriously run for president—certainly not when the economy was humming, memories of the Soviet Union were fresh, and party machinery, with few exceptions, successfully squelched outsider candidacies.

But 2016 is a lot different than 1996, and America’s two major political parties could emerge as the biggest losers in what already has been an extraordinary electoral year. “The fact that you’ve had someone who is not a part of the Democratic Party run so far and succeed so much is quite outrageous in terms of American history,” said Gil Troy, a presidential historian at McGill University.

And that’s before we even start to think about Donald Trump.


In this fractured social media age, with distrust of all establishment institutions at a historical apex, global instability bleeding into the national consciousness, and the economic recovery little more than a myth for many Americans, the idea of two hierarchical political parties determining the course of an election seems as outdated as pay phones and smoking on airplanes. Voters don’t trust them anymore than they buy into the idea of a middle-aged man telling them how to see the world on the evening news.

“There’s a huge number of Americans who are deeply frustrated with our current system and are looking for some way to change it and are not quite sure if it should be Trump, who’s from a more unconventional background, or Bernie,” said Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, the only senator to endorse Sanders. “But they know the system is rigged.”

There seems to be no doubt that 2016 represents a radical change. The internet has created new ways for voters to organize themselves and donate cash without the guidance of parties. Millions in the Democratic primary chose a lifelong independent to be their president, someone who once said the Democratic Party was “ideologically bankrupt.”

And, more importantl Trump seized the Republican nomination from the cadre of elected officials, donors, and operatives who traditionally controlled who could run for president. Trump, a billionaire real estate developer and reality television star, has donated lavishly to Democratic candidates, invited Hillary Clinton to his wedding, and at various times endorsed single-payer healthcare, ready access to abortions, and foreign policy prescriptions that have more in common with Noam Chomsky’s worldview than Dick Cheney’s.

We can’t exactly know what this presidential election will mean for the American political system beyond 2016. The pivot points of history aren’t always known to their actors; it may take several years, if not decades, of hindsight and revision to determine if this year represents a great rupture or an anomaly. The presidential system we’ve devised doesn’t incubate third parties, and all the upheaval in 2016 isn’t likely to produce a viable socialist party on the left or a separate National Front-style insurrection on the right. In name at least, the two major parties will almost certainly continue to exist has they have since the 1820s, field candidates, and war with one another, like Orwellian superstates, in perpetuity.

Even though neither national convention will be contested, with Trump the presumptive nominee for the GOP and Clinton the standard-bearer for the Democrats, they will almost certainly be fraught with plenty of intrigue and frustration for party leaders hoping to project a unified front. The Democrats will have an easier time because they were able to crown the candidate they wanted in the former secretary of state. In an ideal Clintonian world, she would pivot to the center for the general election. Sanders and his supporters aren’t likely to slink away quietly, though, setting up the possibility for a loud squabble over the party platform enshrined at the national convention.


None of this compares to what’s to come at the Republican National Convention. Granted, had the nomination not gone to Trump, the mass protests from his supporters could have made Cleveland a replay of Chicago in 1968. Now, the protests will come from within, with party statesmen like the two Bush presidents vowing not to attend. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is expected to chair the convention, has refused to endorse Trump, and Trump has not ruled out revoking his ceremonial privileges. Never before has a party nominee so struggled to secure the backing of his leaders, and the spectacle in Cleveland promises to be awkward, if not excruciating, for the rank-and-file Republicans who crave a traditional nominee.

“The party is not deciding. The authoritarians activated by Trump are deciding,” said Matthew MacWilliams, a political consultant and Ph.D candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he is writing a dissertation on authoritarianism. “There will be an internal war within the party after the election. The question is, will Trumpism replace Republicanism in the Republican Party?”

No one like Trump has ever won the nomination of a major party. Though candidates who didn’t hold elected office before the White House like Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover have emerged, they were esteemed figures welcomed by party insiders. (Eisenhower was credited with nothing less than helping win World War II.) Trump, the ultimate showman, was known best for slapping his gold-plated name on as many casinos and golf courses as his money would allow and shouting “You’re fired” to contestants on The Apprentice, and is the kind of figure the Founding Fathers feared most when they devised an Electoral College to serve as a check on the unbridled will of the people.

Few reporters, donors, or party officials took him seriously when he announced he was running for president last June. Soon, he was rampaging through the primaries, dominating in almost every quadrant of the country, sweeping states in the Deep South, Northeast, and Midwest. Mixing xenophobia with economic populism - Trump has won many fans by denouncing GOP-friendly free-trade agreements - has been a winning formula.

“There are a lot of people very desperate for change and very dissatisfied with Obama’s policies and with the state of affairs in Washington,” said Katie Packer, a former Romney aide who leads an anti-Trump super PAC. “They’re willing to buy a lottery ticket. They’re not sure he can do the job but no one else has done the job.”

Trump’s success has been so stunning in part because of how consistently he has violated GOP orthodoxies and the sacred cows of presidential campaigns. He shuns teleprompters, pollsters, and consultants, preferring to trust his whims and a media spotlight that never leaves him. No front-runner has ever won with so few endorsements: most members of Congress, for example, refused to back him in the primary, even as it was increasingly clear no one could overtake him. Trump’s top rival, Ted Cruz, also failed to land the backing of his Senate colleagues. Traditionally, endorsements from party insiders were a measure of strength. No longer.


At the same time, he has made a mockery of the one policy endeavor where party elites hoped to inch leftward to win over younger voters and minorities: immigration reform. Trump has railed against immigration, promising to erect a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims from coming into this country. His candidacy, in addition to exciting millions of rank-and-file Republican voters, has attracted and rejuvenated white nationalists on the fringes of the body politic, and his hesitation in disavowing the support of David Duke, a former Klansman, was seen by some as a wink and a nod to the most racist elements of his remarkable coalition. Trump’s incendiary candidacy both represents a triumph of grassroots democracy - voters across America soundly rejected candidates (like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) preferred by party elders - and a chilling nod to something darker, with Trump’s strongman tactics resonating most with people who prefer an unabashed top-down approach to governing.

While there’s been much talk of Trump obliterating the Republican Party - he’s reviled by some conservatives for either his insults toward minorities and women or his various liberal positions - it’s not utter destruction that his candidacy portends. More so than ever, thanks to the polarization of the electorate, parties are ideologically uniform: liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats are going instinct, and Trump’s volatility won’t rewrite decades of movement away from consensus, though pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions of the party may emerge to war with each other.

If Trump, with his toxic negative favorability ratings, costs Republicans many House and Senate seats, he would have helped cull the party’s most moderate members in blue states and swing districts, and probably left intact its strongest ideologues. Down the ballot, the party of Trump - if it’s to become that - will still be overwhelmingly conservative and united in its hatred of Democrats. There’s a chance Trump’s candidacy unites Democrats and Republicans in their hatred of the GOP standard-bearer, but there’s little incentive for the parties to get along. Hardliners like Cruz will be leaders in the Republican Party for years to come, while an emboldened left pushes the Democratic Party to enact as much liberal legislation as possible if the Democrats hold the White House and retake the Senate. There’s not much hope of the polarization ending.

Fewer people today proudly self-identify as Democrats or Republicans. (Polls now put the number at only about a quarter of the electorate.) Rather, according to research by Emory University political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, Americans increasingly define themselves by their dislike of the opposite party, a phenomenon known as negative polarization. Voters may call themselves independents, but most have sorted themselves into one of two camps with little chance of being swayed. Political parties can draw strength from this reality, building out machines with like-minded foot soldiers and winning elections by appealing to the most passionate elements of their respective bases. It’s the Sanderistas versus the Trumpians.

What’s been disorienting for the Republican intelligentsia is how their desires have run into seemingly intractable conflict with what most of their voters want. For decades, elected officials and party leaders had crafted a particular vision for Republicanism in America: a smaller government paired with a muscular foreign policy and uncompromising conservatism on social issues. A Republican who supported gay marriage or disagreed with the Iraq War or wasn’t militantly against entitlements wasn’t really a Republican at all; this was the power of a political party to enforce discipline. The future belonged to Paul Ryan and his clones, and the Tea Party revolution of 2010 only seemed to validate this idea. The actual insurrection went unforeseen.

“The Republican Party has in a way relied on the cultural populism of its base while sort of ignoring some of their tendencies toward nationalistic and protectionist economic and trade policies,” said David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University. The party, Greenberg added, will “have to accommodate those outside the Beltway voices.”


Now the Republican establishment - or what’s left of it - will have to come to terms with Trump as the face of the GOP. The Republican National Committee’s so-called autopsy of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to President Barack Obama concluded that Republicans needed to embrace immigration reform to win national elections in the future. Instead, thanks to Trump’s efforts, Republican voters have demonstrated they detest this idea. Even if Trump loses to Hillary Clinton, he will have wrenched the terms of the debate away from party elders like Reince Preibus, the RNC chairman, and Romney, who denounced Trump but couldn’t stop him.

“The Republican voters, they’re just for Trump now,” said Carl Paladino, a former New York gubernatorial candidate and Trump supporter. Paladino maintained that if the GOP had managed to wrest the nomination from Trump “it would be the end of the Republican Party.”

“It won’t exist. People will not go out and vote,” he said.

Paladino may exaggerate Trump’s singular ability to create or destroy a political party that has existed for 160 years, but he is right that presidential politics are far more personality-driven than they once were. Troy, the presidential historian, dates this phenomenon back to 1960, when the swashbuckling John F. Kennedy entered the White House. A hyperactive, internet-fueled news cycle, coupled with cable networks’ desperate need for new fodder to generate ratings, has only amplified this trend.

“It’s a reflection that we are in the age of celebrity politics,” Troy said. “Parties on the presidential level function as empty shells and broad signifiers of left and right—it isn’t the party discipline and party commitment of the old days.”

Democratic and Republican voters have united in their shared distaste for party power structures that have been a feature of American democracy for centuries, and it’s important to remember the Constitution says nothing about establishing political parties. The modern primary system, with state-by-state primaries and caucuses determining nominees, was only introduced in the 1970s, and since then there have been cries to make the process more democratic. The cries are now bloody howls; for Democrats, it’s the fact that superdelegates, elected officials and other elites, can support any candidate they want, even if their states vote differently. For Republicans, it’s an arcane delegate apportionment process that varies by state and once seemed to favor those, like Senator Ted Cruz, who knew every rule. Though political parties always set their own rules for primaries and conventions, the once obscure scramble for delegates angered Republican and Democratic voters alike, since the byzantine allocation rules don’t always reflect the popular vote.

Activists are still convinced the fix is in, even if parties no longer have the power to fix an election. Superdelegates were created to scuttle candidacies like Sanders’ but Clinton has enough pledged delegates to stop him anyway, and it’s likely that a popular revolt would spook the Democratic Party into handing Sanders the nomination were he actually the pledged delegate leader. And for all of Cruz’s delegate scrambling, fetishized by the political cognoscenti, Trump still won.

There is, of course, one important difference between how the Democratic and Republican parties are functioning right now: one successfully anointed a party-approved insider, and one didn’t. Democratic elected officials and donors settled on Clinton years ago, as early as the dawn of Obama’s second term, and effectively ended the possibility of a conventional candidate challenging the former secretary of state in a primary. While few would doubt the sincerity of Vice President Joe Biden’s words, it was not only his son’s death that deterred him from challenging Clinton. It was the Democratic Party’s ability to close ranks around Clinton and ensure Biden would not have access to the pool of establishment donors and operatives he required.

But Sanders, operating outside the realm of conventional two-party presidential politics, wasn’t deterred, raising $40 million in some months through mostly small, online donations. Even if Sanders couldn’t defeat Clinton, he’s forced her to the left, and the millennials open to socialism are sure to impact the way future Democratic candidates interact with the electorate.

Either way, sincere faith in how the two parties operate is at a nadir. The way Sanders backers have fulminated against the primary process, particularly the use of superdelegates, should force the Democratic establishment to rethink its approach, said R.T. Rybak, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

“What I hope comes out of this election is a significant rethink of all things up to the Electoral College,” Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis, said. “When the majority of people vote for someone in a state, people expect a majority of delegates to be for that person, and it is very strange to people when they’re not.”

“The fact is that the system is antiquated,” he added. “Let’s fix it.”

A week after losing in New York, Sanders was in Springfield, Ore., for a campaign rally, his message noticeably altered. If Sanders’ candidacy was never about simply ensuring the Democratic Party’s dominance over the GOP, it was becoming an explicit call for the party to embrace his vision, borne out of a lifetime of thriving outside the party.

“The Democratic Party has to reach a fundamental conclusion: Are we on the side of working people or big-money interests?” he asked the Oregon crowed, according to the New York Times. “Do we stand with the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor? Or do we stand with Wall Street speculators and the drug companies and the insurance companies? Now our job is not just to revitalize the Democratic Party, not only to open the doors to young people and working people—our job is to revitalize American democracy.”

This essay first appeared in “The American Voter,” a special election issue by Reuters.Click here to see the complete issue or download our tablet-friendly apps:  iTunes   Google Play

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.