More often than not, political pundits and commentators are quick to describe any given presidential election season as being somehow “game-changing” or “paradigm-shifting.” Yet, the forces and figures at work in the presidential election of 2016 have already reshaped the American political landscape in ways that are irreversible, much more so than in previous election seasons. In many ways, this election has already defied conventional political norms in the United States, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the weakening of the two major parties in America. The presidential election of 2016 may test the limits of tolerance in the United States, but it has already tested the limits of American politicians’ loyalty to the two parties.
There are already a variety of sociological developments at work in the United States that have contributed to the continued weakening of the Democratic and Republican parties; most importantly, these developments revolve around the relationship between new, young voters in America and the parties. Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University, wrote in U.S. News & World Report this March that “today’s young voters have grown up in an age of social media. Millennials both expect and prefer loose networks that allow individuals to personalize their views and form and shift relationships freely. That’s bad news for political parties – hierarchical organizations with officers, rules, official platforms and membership criteria.” However, while Professor Levine’s assessment may explain the rise of a candidate like Bernie Sanders, with his massive following among young progressives, it doesn’t necessarily seem to account for the success of a candidate like Donald Trump in defying the established norms of the Republican primary process.
In April, Philip Terzian wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he attempted to explain why a pugnacious candidate like Donald Trump was able to enjoy such immense success within the Republican party’s primary, even while demonstrating open contempt and suspicion towards many of its most respected leaders. Terzian essentially argued that the modern Republican presidential primary has been “over-democratized,” that it has become too impervious to the influence of tested “establishment” party leaders. After complaining that “the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower now entrusts its delegate-selection process and presidential choice to the influence of TV debates and to primaries (often in states where Democrats can and do cross lines to cast a ballot),” Terzian went on to write that “there are no superdelegates at Republican conventions to save the process from itself—or in 2016 to save the GOP from Donald Trump.”
There are several ways in which the limits of party loyalty in the United States have been tested in this election season. First, in the early stages of the Republican primary, Donald Trump’s incessant threats to launch an independent bid for the presidency seemed to paralyze the leadership of the GOP, prompting party chairman Reince Priebus to encourage Republican candidates to, in advance, pledge their support to whomever the nominee might eventually be.
Second, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were able to enjoy immense success in their respective parties’ primaries and caucuses even as they did not receive comparable support from elected officials within either party. According to the FiveThirtyEight “Endorsement Tracker,” Donald Trump was endorsed by only eleven members of the U.S. House, one U.S. senator, and three state governors; he easily outlasted rival candidate Marco Rubio, who had been endorsed by forty-four members of the U.S. House, eleven U.S. senators, and four state governors. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has managed to earn millions of votes in the Democratic presidential primary, despite not even being a member of the party until last year and in spite of receiving the endorsements of only eight members of the U.S. House and one U.S. senator. In this election season, there has been a notable incongruence between what each party’s “establishment” wants and what the grassroots forces in those parties want.
Third, the loyalty of the Republican “establishment” to its party’s presumptive nominee and of grassroots Democrats to their party’s chairwoman both appear to be tenuous. While many leading Republicans are still expressing concern over the likely nomination of Donald Trump, many leading Democrats are quite less-than-supportive of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the embattled chairperson of the Democratic National Committee. The pressures unleashed thus far in the course of the presidential election have placed immense strain on the internal structures of both major parties.
Jonah Goldberg wrote for the Los Angeles Times several months ago that “as party power has declined, the relative strength of special interests has grown. Outside groups often have more money and flexibility than the parties.” In this new political environment, the role of parties as a means of organizing like-minded voters is certainly worth questioning. What purpose should a political party serve in the United States, especially given that developments in this presidential election season have cast light on the weaknesses within the parties that exist today? Leonid Bershidsky was certainly correct when he wrote for Bloomberg View that “there are more distinct constituencies and more ideologies in U.S. society than the current system recognizes. Yet the political machinery and the behavior of presidential candidates is based on the rigidity of a two-party system.” I believe that one of the fundamental questions of this election season is this: can the two major political parties in America accommodate the forces unleashed by candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, or are the limits of party loyalty simply too rigid? The answer to this question could have a lasting effect long past the elections in November.