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Insurgents Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders challenge the parties

The White House as seen through the fence

The White House as seen through the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue at sunset on Oct. 20, 2013, in Washington. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Mandel Ngan

Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, a reliable funder of GOP candidates, says he might consider supporting Hillary Clinton. Ron Paul, the former congressman who has sought the presidency as both a Libertarian and a Republican, praised Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders for stances against wars and crony capitalism.

The 2016 presidential election feels less and less about Republicans and Democrats and more and more like a battle of the powerful who benefit from the status quo versus the ones disenfranchised by it. So are we on the edge of a political revolution and at the end of the two-party system? History suggests a recalibration is more likely. But right now, sweeping segments of both parties are supporting the outsiders promising to tear down the system.

Billionaire and serial party-switcher Donald Trump and longtime independent Sanders have between them garnered more than 19 million votes. The huge crowds for both are demonstrably more passionate in their preferences than those supporting Clinton, Sen. Ted Cruz or Gov. John Kasich.

There are fundamental changes brewing in our politics, the kind that come along only every few generations. From abolitionists to civil rights crusaders to Vietnam War protesters to trust busters, outsiders with a cause have redirected our parties and our policies time and again. But for the past 150 years, the Democratic and Republican parties have been able to respond to changing politics, by subsuming movements like the Dixiecrats and the Progressive Party and changing to suit the demands of outsider movements.

The insurgencies led by Trump and Sanders seem to have a lot in common. Their followers share anger: a belief that the political establishment does everything for rich contributors and nothing for common people. Both assail international trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership, which boost corporate profits (and lower consumer prices) but kill a lot of secure, high-paying jobs. Both address Americans who fear the loss of good careers and upward mobility through education that built this nation. And both lament the disastrous military adventurism Republicans and Democrats supported in the Iraq War after 9/11.

Trump, unlike many GOP leaders, supports a smarter government rather than just damning the idea of government. But Sanders supports a bigger government, providing more for our citizens and levying higher taxes on the wealthy, redistributing their money to those down the income scale.

These two movements and leaders also differ in whom they blame. For Sanders and his devotees, the bugaboo is big business and Wall Street. For Trump and his followers, crony capitalism is part of the problem, but so is “them,” by which he means immigrants here illegally or lazy people or Muslims or anyone different from his followers.

How did we end up with two populist movements? Both parties became increasingly ruled by corporate interests and lost touch with the needs of voters. For Democrats, that shift made the views of Sanders sound revolutionary until millions of Democratic donors and voters showed how mainstream they were. For Republicans, that shift meant sacrificing government services, the environment and the roads and bridges voters value in favor of lower taxes on corporations and the rich, less regulation and trickle-down economics.

How many political parties do we need? Two responsive ones would likely fulfill the needs of most voters. Two parties unresponsive to the needs of average Americans won’t. In pulling Clinton toward the demands of Sanders supporters, the Democratic Party seems already to be recalibrating, and polls suggest it’s paying off. She’s the heavy favorite to be the next president. But if she turns on the people’s platform and swings to the “center” for the general election, it’s possible that the younger voters Sanders is engaging in politics would turn on her.

The Republican Party faces a bigger challenge: Whether Trump wins or loses, it will have to find a way to reconnect with average voters the way he has and present a conservative message that isn’t beholden to the country-club set or evangelical extremism.

Trump and Sanders resonate because they are telling voters to demand a competent federal government that isn’t for sale to the highest bidder and which fosters opportunity and a better future. That’s what the parties need to do, too.

In the past, these two parties, between them, have managed to represent the views of the people fairly well. But the world is changing. The Internet and social media are empowering everyone to participate in the political process. Automation and globalization have turned economic expectations upside down. Fear is rampant, and opportunity can seem to be vanishing. We need parties ready to meet these new challenges. Whether that means we need new political parties depends on how well the old ones adapt to serve us.