I am a student of history. That’s what I do. I love it. I love the digging and the finding. I love the aggregation of large amounts of information and working to put the pieces together into a story that makes sense of all of the stuff. Piles of papers, notes, clippings, books, texts, documents, in the last year these have become my life.
I know it is going to be some time, quite a long time, until a historian is really able to make something coherent out of the mess that is the 2016 campaign season, but I am going to put forth a thought as a jumping off point.
Let me say first that I do not think the two-party system is going anywhere anytime soon. The only way that such a thing might happen would be if as older party loyalists pass on, younger generations, such as millennials, refuse the temptation to power that the two major parties provide. The easy part is resisting the temptation. What proves infinitely more difficult is organizing any coherent opposition, and for that to happen one must find a group of people with similar interests and ideas large enough to successfully shift the balance of power. With the splintering of various degrees of laissez-faire, libertarian conservatives, socialist-leaning liberals, and moderate pragmatists who do not allow a particular ideology to frame a debate on a particular issue making up a plurality of the electorate, especially over the last few years since 2012, it seems that the time is right for a real challenge to the two-party structure. However, due to multiple divisions among unaffiliated voters, it is improbable.
Conservatives lost their chance when the Republican party failed to heed the words of Barry Goldwater concerning its adoption of Christian conservatism that began with the rise of the Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell in the 1970s and the Christian Coalition of the 1980s-90s. Liberals have not yet lost their chance, but are working on it as the Democratic party perpetually juggles an infinite number of issues that always need to be addressed right now and places them all under the umbrella term “progress.” This is all assuming that the two parties continue appealing to their present constituencies.
Which brings us to the theory of realignment. This is not to suggest that this will be a realigning election, yet there are those that believe it could very well be. What I am illustrating is the fact that the two parties, though structural institutions, are fluid and forever amending themselves in order to garner more voter support. Fact number one that has to be remembered is that the primary goal of a political party is to win elections. In order to do so, a party must attract voters, and the only way to do that is to make the party attractive to the most voters possible in a given district, state, region, or country (the beauty of federalism). This one principle must be remembered when talking about political parties.
During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic party managed to splice together a diverse coalition of the white working class (labor unions), urban-ethnic minorities, African Americans, and traditional southern Democrats with memories of the Old Confederacy. This coalition managed to hold together throughout the Depression, World War II, and into the 1950s and 60s. With the progression of the civil rights movement, which had been carried on parallel throughout the period, the coalition reached its breaking point at the height of the movement, from the Brown decision in 1954 on integration and ultimately the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, respectively. White racial conservatives in the South and middle-class moderates nationwide began leaving their party and joined the Silent Majority that supported Nixon who preached, not without a little irony, the same law and order mantra heard from the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. The realignment began in the late 60s and culminated in 1994 with the Republican takeover of Congress, three decades after passage of the CRA and forty years after Brown. Since Nixon’s election, Democrats have struggled to build a lasting coalition as strong as that built by FDR.
The story is really much longer and much more interesting than presented here, but this is all to say that the parties are always on the move, always looking for ways to attract new voters, and always seeking a way to win elections.
So in a nutshell, these are (some of) the historical forces at work that make third-party contests so difficult in American politics, which brings me back to my original point, making sense of this mess that has become the 2016 campaign season.
For the Republican party, it seems too simple. The party has been absent from the executive branch for eight years and is desperate to regain power. The most blatant demonstration of the historical forces at work within the party is the nominee’s choice for vice president. Donald Trump’s choice of Mike Pence, an unapologetic Christian conservative with distinctly differing social views than Trump, clearly shows the strength of Christian, social conservatism within the Republican party, without which the party cannot succeed in its continued want for power. Yet, many Republicans still are not on the Trump bandwagon, and conservative independent voters seem less than excited about the party’s ticket, not to mention traditional conservative intellectuals such as William Kristol, George Will, and Charles Krauthammer.
For Democrats, the party finds itself divided much in the same way the Republican party divided during the 2008 and 2012 elections with the rise of the Tea Party. Many find themselves, for one reason or another, dissatisfied by the party. With the party’s chase for middle-class votes, working-class Democrats (primarily white) find themselves wanting things that the party is not giving them. Party loyalists lay the blame at the feet of the opposition, but that is only because the opposition has had more success in swaying public opinion in its direction and rallying those voters to the ballot box in their favor. The party has been working for nearly fifty years to figure out how best to maintain its new coalition, made up of a diverse array of people from all walks of life and origins, and the primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has shown the divisions not only within the party, but among unaffiliated liberal voters the party wants to, and needs to, attract. The selection of Tim Kaine as Clinton’s running mate exemplifies the party’s strategic attempt to hold its constituency together. He is a southern Democrat (Barack Obama is the only Democrat not from the South who has succeeded in a national campaign since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, whose running mate hailed from Texas) who proclaims strong Christian values and gives a nod to the business community, while advocating for the rights of minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos, as well as the LGBTQ community.
On the surface it all seems simple, but the study of society, especially one as culturally diverse as the United States, is rarely as simple as it seems. I have been working on a question concerning this for a solid year, and I am still finding pieces that fit somewhere in a puzzle that has no clear image as a guide to the solution. Different ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, genders, generations, and class interests (just to name a few) all bring varying points of view into social discourse and fuel the political dialogue necessary in order to bring to fruition the idea of self governance. Just like the two-system, society is fluid and ever-changing. The President stole a bit of my thunder in his convention speech when he noted the framers’ cause of forming not a perfect union, but a “more perfect Union,” a union that is always looking for ways to make itself better. Can the two parties maintain their power and stave off the challenges presented by disaffected voters in order to achieve this noble purpose? It is too early to tell, but, as I said before, it seems probable.
At the moment, a plurality of voters claim no affiliation to either of the parties. How will the parties react, and, in turn, how will voters respond? I am suffering from campaign fatigue, but I will more than likely continue to pay attention, especially come November when I cast my vote. It will not be my vote I am thinking about, though. I will be looking at everyone else’s, too.