Something utterly unforeseen could happen in this election cycle: the electorate could destroy one or both of the parties through primary voting.
Both the Democrats and Republicans are ‘hearing from ordinary America’, and the message is hostile. On the Republican side, voters are heavily favoring Trump, a sometime Democrat and independent only weakly identified with the Republican Party. On the Democratic side, voters have shown an unexpected interest in Sanders, a lifelong independent who is parasitically exploiting the Democratic brand. Meanwhile, the veteran politicians who have come up through the parties have had an unexpectedly hard time making inroads against the spoilers, a sign that the parties are badly out of touch with the times.
We hear about the ‘establishment,’ but what is it really? The parties, we are discovering, are impotent. There is little capacity for concerted action among party politicians themselves. If there were, they would have stopped these threatening insurgencies long ago, shutting out Trump and denying Sanders his putative connection with the Democratic Party.
Trump and Sanders are political bounders. Who are their friends on the Hill? How would either of them accomplish anything, were either handed the presidency? Who would their advisers be?
Yet, faced with such a sub-optimal outcome, the senators, governors, and leading congressmen within each party have exerted no discipline, done nothing in unison. Democratic governors and senators are not speaking out, urging voters to back Hillary. Leading Republicans watch helplessly as, with each gladiatorial debate, their candidates further damage and degrade the party. In the process, party feeling—that most basic of bonds—is being destroyed.
And all because Congress has failed to serve ordinary America. The national leadership of both parties, as embodied in Congress, has shirked its duties. Congress has not worked to create the virtuous circle of corporate responsibility, abundant skilled employment, and robust domestic consumption that would make our economy strong. It has not confronted our ridiculous trade imbalance with China. It has not resolved the issues around immigration and citizenship that are practically and symbolically urgent to millions of Americans. Finally, Congress has ignored the fact that it must rein itself in and show the American people that it cares about efficient and effective governing. Those who serve in the House and Senate have no sense of urgency—the urgency that both Trump and Sanders, for all their defects, are brilliantly communicating.
It’s wild and alarming to imagine the parties being destroyed from inside. If Trump wins the delegate race, for instance, others within the GOP will face a choice: either embrace him and his ideology, back a ‘protest’ candidate, or break away to form their own new party. Americans witnessed something of this sort back in the 1850s, when, over the course of a decade and in response to the festering problem of slavery, the Whig Party fell apart, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and the Republican party emerged out of nowhere, sweeping Lincoln to prominence and victory.
Nothing so cataclysmic has happened in our lifetimes. Yet, many signs indicate that the current party system is losing its salience because it has grown deaf to the people’s needs. In such circumstances, parties can become defunct with surprising speed. Trump, Sanders, and even Bloomberg understand that, for an intrepid candidate, the parties’ senescent condition spells personal opportunity. Any of these candidates, if successful, would force a dramatic shakeup within the parties, transforming the political landscape of the nation and the capital.
Image: from this source.
This artist’s sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows voters talking excitedly at an open air polling place in 1856. The caption reads ‘Scene at the polls. Boxes for the distribution of tickets. Everybody busy.’ At that time, voting consisted of obtaining a pre-printed party ticket and putting it in a ballot box. The three booths are labelled with the names of the three presidential candidates: Buchanan, the Democrat and victor; Fremont, the nominee of the new Republican (anti-slavery) Party; and Fillmore, who represented the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party. Though the Democrats were victorious, the Republicans’ success in carrying some northern and eastern states created the impetus that would bring the new party to power four years later.