The future of the american political establishment
by Andrew Braverman
After gaining a majority in both houses two years ago, the Grand Ole Party was poised for a period of unrestrained legislative and political dominance heading into the 2016 election. Their fortune drastically changed, however, upon the candidacy and subsequent primary domination of a certain toupe-wearing, loud mouth demagogue who is by now known and feared (or revered) by Americans from San Diego to Sarasota. Instead of the beginning of conservative dominance in American governance, the nation has witnessed a party-wide fracture. The populist waves rooted in the rust belt and South, but now resonating across the country, contrast starkly with the Republican establishment’s traditional platform. Working class discontentment with the nation’s economic outlook produced a ménage of (often inconsistent) policies, centered around strong protectionism—not unlike a particular leftist candidate capitalizing on similar discontent with Washington. The party’s main challenger, a Tea Party senator from Texas, is hardly an alternative. As Amy Davidson of the New Yorker put it, Cruz is a candidate that insinuates similarly deplorable policies rather than shouting them.
As the tumultuous scramble toward the general election rolls on, pundits are searching for any and every precedent out there that might offer some shred of explanation as to what this presidential race means. Avi Snyder, writing in the classically conservative National Review, compared the 2016 race to that of 1912. Trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt had grown unsettled at the ineffective term of his personally chosen successor, William Taft, and decided to compete against him for the Republican nomination. Roosevelt headed into the convention having won more states than Taft and a plurality of the popular vote. Despite Roosevelt’s success, the establishment supported a second term for Taft, who was given the nomination.
A disgruntled Roosevelt ran on the Bull-Moose third party ticket, splitting the conservative vote and awarding the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who won barely over 40 percent of the national vote. Republicans nationwide were outraged at the seemingly ignorant decision to deny Roosevelt the nomination, thus effectively ensuring the Democrats victory. However, Elihu Root, an aide to the RNC chairman, and his establishment cohorts were well aware of this, having decided instead that, “the result of the convention was more important than the question of the election.” Root figured that the man who was chosen to represent the Republicans was more significant in the long run than the party’s success in that particular general election.
Roosevelt was an outspoken skeptic of constitutionalism—in the words of Snyder, a “post-constitutional candidate…impatient with the machinery of constitutional government.” In order to preserve the constitutionalism that has defined the Republican platform since its inception, Taft, Root et. al. effectively decided to sacrifice the 1912 election in order to maintain that fundamental plank of the Republican platform.
This example is undeniably similar to what may happen in Cleveland this July at the RNC. If the GOP establishment does decide to deny Trump the nomination, he will likely run on his own ticket and split the Republican vote. Echoing 1912, this would hand the election to Hillary. While dealing the Republican Party a loss, this might be a small sacrifice for the party, which would be far worse off if Trump won the party’s nomination, considering his blatant rejection of constitutional precedents.
In the more recent past, the Presidential election of 1968 offers a lesson or two on what Americans may have to look forward to in 2020. As many remember, Richard Nixon beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey by less than a percent of the popular vote. What most forget is that ‘68 was the last time that an independent candidate carried a state. George Wallace, former governor of Alabama best remembered for his staunch advocacy of segregation, stole many a Southern Democrat vote and ultimately sparked the disintegration of the so-called “New-deal coalition” that had won the presidency for the Democrats from 1932 through 1968 (save Ike’s two terms in the fifties). The former Democrats of the South became reliable Nixon and Reagan voters largely due to the combination of this relatively Trump-esque third party run, along with Nixon’s infamous “Southern strategy.” Wallace’s calls for ethno-centricity embodied in his eerie words, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” appealed to similar groups of displeased voters—scared by the change and progression in our country—that Trump appeals to today.
Still, the populist branch of today’s American conservative party is particularly tough to analyze. It is far too early to know what ramifications Trumpism will lead to, primarily because Trumpism right now is effectively just Trump. A New York Times op-ed by Ross Douthat notes that, “he’s surrounded by has-been politicians looking for a second life, media personalities looking for an audience, and grifters looking to cash in” (think Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, etc.).
George Wallace’s populism gained affable political endorsements, as did Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, giving their movements a more concrete and predictable trajectory. Movements like Trump’s, reliant on personal charisma, are more given to fizzling out short of the election than more coherent fringe movements like Wallace’s or Roosevelt’s. That does not mean, however, that it won’t materialize into a widely-based nationalist contingency like those that have found increasing levels of political influence in Japan, Russia, Israel and France. If Trump dies tomorrow, the “dissafecteds” (as the Pew research center refers to “financially stressed” skeptics of government) that have propped up his campaign since Iowa are still here and still angry. They will still curse Republican elites who have ignored them for decades, and still harbor the frustration that finds a voice in Trump’s calls for prohibition of Muslim immigrants and the execution of terrorists’ families.
If the establishment fails to coalesce with these voters by slightly realigning party position away from entitlement programs and high-earner tax breaks, then they stand to lose a huge part of their constituency. They will lose the “dissafecteds,” the 30 percent of Republicans who would welcome tax spikes on the wealthy, according to a Gallup poll, just as the Democrats lost their southern constituents to George Wallace in ‘68. Many Americans think that the frustration of these financially stressed citizens arose during Obama’s tenure in office. While the Obama administration may have catalyzed their anger, he certainly didn’t plant it—Republican elites since Reagan did.
Donald Trump, and the perspectives that he has been voicing, have stolen the media show, leading many to think that there is only one major party experiencing such a splintering. But au contraire—Americans displeased with the current political climate can also be found rallying behind Vermont senator Bernard Sanders. His unapologetically “socialist” (Heavens no!) policy preferences have positioned him as far left as the American political spectrum can handle. As he has stuck around, disproving all the skeptical pundits doubting he would make it to Super Tuesday, he has dragged establishment candidate and successor to the Obama democratic legacy, Hillary Rodham Clinton, away from the center with him. Their platforms and voting record nonetheless convey two very disparate candidates. On one side, a populist contingency voicing hitherto unvoiced opinions, and on the other, a centrist establishment that has grown very frustrated with these newcomers. Sound familiar?
Hillary’s lead over Senator Sanders in the polls has shrunk from 55 percentage points a year ago to about eight now. However, she still remains on track to win the nomination, with Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight reporting a massive lead for her in Maryland; a smaller, but still comfortable; advantage in Pennsylvania, a slight lead in her home state of New York; a near two-digit advantage in New Jersey; and a single digit advantage in California.
According to Predictwise, a website that combines information from polls and betting markets, the likelihood of Clinton getting the nomination is 92 percent—a number that barely changed after the Vermont senator’s big victories in Washington and Alaska. Bernie has exacted concessions during his fight, re-aligning Clintonian politics on policies like free trade, while exposing a new force in the left by posing a major challenge to big money candidates and accumulating many individual campaign contributions. However, it is fairly likely that at some point in early June, Clinton will clinch the 2,383 delegates necessary to win the nomination and the Bern clock will strike midnight.
Looking towards November, according to polls from RealClearPolitics and The Washington Post, the aforementioned fragmentation of the American right will comfortably play into Democrats’ hands. The better a Republican is doing right now, the worse he seems to do in November in polls pitting them against either liberal candidate. Kasich is the only GOP member who stands a chance against Clinton or Sanders, while Cruz is favored in few polls and Trump loses handily to both Hillary and Bernie in almost every one. Since Kasich stands no realistic chance of winning the nomination (barring a long-shot brokered convention and potential entrance of a third party candidate), and Hillary is poised to win the left, it seems more and more likely a second President Clinton will be moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this winter. But four years later, after a third consecutive Democratic presidential term, what will that party look like? Will there be a cleavage like the current one on the right?
The last time the Democratic Party won three straight presidential elections (and only the second time since 1828) was the four terms of FDR, followed by the single term of Harry Truman, ending in 1952. Following this succession of victories, Eisenhower, a Republican, won a landslide victory carrying 442 electoral votes and 457 when he was reelected four years later. The Republican Party has only experienced slightly more success in winning more than two consecutive presidential elections. Given how much of a historical rarity this is, it is tough to do much more than speculate on what a Hillary victory in November would mean for either party, and even the two party system. However, there are certain political movements just now gaining a voice, whose effect it is impossible to deny. There is the new “alt-right,” spearheaded by Trumpian opposition to multiculturalism and suggestions of American exceptionalism that has fractured the right. But there is a new left of “Occupy” democrats, similarly disgruntled Americans led by Senator Sanders. Another Clinton term could possibly mean catalyzing both those movements, deeply dividing each party.
Politics in the United States has become more of a zero-sum game than ever. Apolitical cleavages, whether economic, ethnic or otherwise, have begun to trace the same dividing lines as political cleavages. This break in the Republican Party has been fomenting for decades. Tax cuts for the wealthy as a crucial party platform since Ronald Reagan stepped foot in the Oval office, coupled with the curtailment of entitlement programs, hardly appeases a core constituency of very blue collar, working class citizens. Trumpeting Citizens United, a decision solidifying the role of big money in the party’s function (thus alienating party members without much money), as a major victory for the party didn’t help either. Neither does over two decades of failed “trickle-down” economics and free trade advocacy.
This predicament raises the questionof whether or not the Democratic Party is headed towards a similar fate. If Hillary wins in eight months, which seems likely, it is probable that Bernie’s new American left will solidify. Almost a third of his supporters say they wouldn’t even vote for Hillary if she won the nomination. Bernie’s Occupiers will likely grow displeased during her tenure in office, at which point she will likely pursue more conservative policies than she is now (a centering process that she will begin as soon as she clinches the nomination). This means millenials, who consistently vote Bernie by a vast margin, will grow ever more “disaffected.” Congress, in 2018, may remain in Republican favor. 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for election that year belong to Democrats, and could be lost to the GOP.
The relationship between Hillary and many GOP elites (along with some Democrat elites) will grow worse, making the hopes of any collaboration between congress and the executive in the next four years even slimmer than they are now. In 2020, Trump may not be the poster boy of these blue-collar “dissafecteds,” but the so-called “alt-right” may be here to stay. GOP elite may try to reconcile with these Americans, but if they don’t, as is seeming more difficult and less likely, Trump will have instigated a party-wide rupture.
This doesn’t mean electoral command for the left, however. We’ve watched as the Democrats have slowly begun a disintegration of their own. Another populist contingency, jaded with the politicization and predictable immorality of “Washington,” has begun its own snowball, tipped over the precipice by Senator Sanders. For Hillary and her Party, alienating the 18-34 vote is like losing the Southern Democrats for Humphrey and his. America’s options on the ballot may diversify, constricting less and less to the platforms of the two parties in our system. The non-traditional policies of these two politicians will eek into congress, as legislators capitalize on the wave of disaffection sweeping the country. If you think the 2016 election has proven chaotic, wait for what’s in store four years from now.