America’s fractious political system is undergoing a stress test. Will we find fissures that can be mended, or deep fault lines that will implode our two major parties? And is it all for the best?
Trouble has been brewing for a while. Some in America have lost their optimism about their country and the world.
Many voters feel voiceless, divorced from the idea that government works for them. They see a system in which politicians answer to the biggest donors. Many voters live in districts gerrymandered to favor one party, making their votes irrelevant and typically producing candidates who take more extreme positions. Add the despair among those excluded from a slowly improving economy that favors higher-skilled workers.
The frustration mounded like kindling. And the anti-establishment fire was lit in 2016 by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination, and stoked by the eventual winner, Republican Donald Trump. The center didn’t hold, and Trump’s victory emboldened those on the extremes.
Among Democrats, interest in running for office is sky-high. The party is raising huge amounts of money, but the battle for its soul rages on. The Sanders-Clinton left-center schism hasn’t been settled.
That was obvious last month when Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb won a special election for a House seat in a suburban-rural Pennsylvania district where Democrats have not been competitive. Lamb delivered a more conservative message that resonated in his community — and was excoriated by national Democrats on the left who said he doesn’t represent the party’s values.
It’s happening in New York, too. Despite achievements like a higher minimum wage, paid family leave and free public college tuition, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is considered insufficiently liberal. So he’s pulled left in primaries, by Zephyr Teachout in 2014 and Cynthia Nixon this year.
On the Republican side, Trump is remaking the party as a cult of personality — his. The GOP is no longer organized around core principles. Its most important precept is loyalty to Trump, an unprecedented and dangerous development. And it’s led many longtime Republicans to unprecedented and dangerous behavior — like overlooking Trump’s attempts to weaken the judiciary and attack the FBI and intelligence agencies.
In the House, the far right Freedom Caucus is the tail that wags the dog. Its members consistently wring concessions from more moderate peers. With the early retirement of Speaker Paul Ryan, who sought to cut some of the entitlement programs Trump’s base wants, the GOP is no longer the party of small government.
As Republicans splinter over Trump, the Democrats are trying to repole their big tent. However, it’s not certain that insurgents will accept a deal this summer from the Democratic National Committee that would reduce the influence of unelected superdelegates, most of whom supported Hillary Clinton, in exchange for reforming the state caucuses dominated by Sanders.
Meanwhile, party registrations decline and the pool of independent voters continues to grow. Will the disaffected be receptive to a third party — one located at the center — offering a legislative agenda that appeals to most centrist Democrats and Republicans?
The nation has had strong third-party candidates. Former President Theodore Roosevelt finished second in 1912, grabbing 88 electoral votes for the Progressive Party. Ross Perot, an independent, won 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992. The power of a message often depends on the messenger; 2020 could be a time when the right messenger with the funding to get on enough state ballots makes a third party viable.
New York has third parties. But most stand for nothing but their own welfare, serving as tools for the major parties. That’s due to a rotten state law that allows candidates to be endorsed by multiple parties. It’s a mockery of democracy that robs voters of real choices.
Buffeting the political stress test are powerful forces whose influence in this evolution is a significant unknown.
Supporters of a two-party system say dissent in both parties will quiet if the economy continues to improve, while others see the deep cultural divides in this nation speeding up the decline of binary choices.
Some changes are essential. District lines must be drawn more fairly; two cases before the Supreme Court could provide guidance. Big money must be drained from politics through campaign finance reform. Our social media platforms must be fortified from illegal interference.
For the current system to remain intact, Republicans and Democrats must convince voters that the parties serve them and the nation.
In 2018, in the age of Trumpism, when the Democrats have no unified agenda, the days of monolithic major parties seem over. The upcoming congressional elections might provide some answers, but our political system is still in for a very wild ride.