The Nation continues in this most befuddling trend of the 2016 election, seriously wondering if the 2-party system as we currently know it is about to fall apart. The answer is clearly no. Even the prospect of major realignment within the political parties is remote. Just because there is more grassroots insurgency against elite rule than normal does not mean the whole system is collapsing. To me, this reeks of journalists spending way too much time at cocktail parties with other elites bemoaning their loss of status. In any case, The Nation asked three people to discuss this issue. Daniel Scholzman has the best essay, because he pretty much dismisses the whole idea of realignment, while discussing that if the Republican Party was to really alienate its supporters, it would benefit the Democrats but would also greatly complicate the Democratic coalition because it would become much more ideologically diverse by attaching millions of conservatives to it.
Given the pyrotechnics of 2016, these prognoses may seem mundane. A fundamental realignment along the lines of 1860, 1896, or 1936, however, would require not just movement in a few voter blocs or on issues such as trade, but a change in the basic divide between the parties’ competing positions. That’s a remote prospect. The New Deal still casts a long shadow, and party politics will likely remain a battle over the size and scope of government.
Danielle Allen sees the rise of social media promoting blocs within the political parties as the likely outcome. Tracing this over the last 15 years, she connects both the right and left-wing insurgencies to organized interest blocs within the parties, predicting that the future holds more division, with control going to those who can unite forces.
Speculating on what the future holds for America’s political alignment requires thinking through a complex array of factors: voting rules, political egos, the time horizons of charismatic leaders, questions of succession, the intensity of various ideological commitments, and a famously mutable public opinion. What we are most likely to see is more of the new normal: incredibly bitter fights among plurality-sized groups for total—if temporary—control of one of the major parties. Will this also worsen gridlock at the national level, thereby exacerbating the intensity of those intraparty battles and further destabilizing our political system overall? If these dynamics play out simultaneously in both parties, the most unified side will triumph.
Maybe. I think that’s extrapolating way too much from the 2016 election, an election where a) the Democratic Party will almost certainly unite after Clinton officially wraps this up and b) the Republican Party is not particularly divided except around the candidate of the insurgency. The reality is that most Republican voters want a hard-right candidate of some sort. A future candidate uniting the Trump and Cruz factions is hardly impossible. It might be that Bill Kristol and Jeb Bush have nowhere to go in this new Republican Party, but the wealthy Republican elite are a tiny number of people. They don’t really matter outside of the Beltway.
Rick Perlstein’s essay rightfully points out the dangers of Trump and the potential for dictatorship if he were to win, which might be overwrought but is not impossible. But his analysis of the Democratic Party in 2016 is just a howler.
What are the prospects for a realignment of American politics? On the Democratic side, practically nil. The presidential front-runner—the one with the endorsements of 15 out of 18 sitting Democratic governors, 40 out of 44 senators, and 161 out of 188 House members—is running a campaign explicitly opposed to fundamental transformation. Her signature campaign promise—no new taxes on households making $250,000 or less—renders serious change impossible. The chance for her opponent to win the nomination approaches mathematical impossibility. He is running as a “revolutionary.” But governing is a team sport. If, by some miracle, Bernie Sanders entered the White House in January, he would do so naked and alone—in command of a party apparatus less prepared ideologically, institutionally, and legislatively to do great things than at any other time in its history.
One side promises competence. The other promises the impossible. This is the Democratic Party in 2016.
Does Rick Perlstein understand the history of the Democratic Party apparatus? Less prepared ideologically, institutionally, and legislatively to do great things than at any other time in its history????? Um. How about than the 1880s? Or the 1920s? Or even the 1950s? Was the Democratic Party more ready to lead change when it was controlled by Dixiecrats? When it was nominating John C. Breckinridge or Horatio Seymour or John Davis to the presidency? When Senate committees were controlled by people like James Eastland or John Sparkman, by which I mean up until the late 1970s?
The Democratic Party has an apparatus has never been farther to the left than it is today. That doesn’t mean Hillary Clinton has a great vision for the future and isn’t in fact promising competence. And it doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party is ready to fulfill the failed promises of the New Deal and Great Society. But as an institution, the Democratic Party has never been less constrained by conservatives than in the present.
In any case, the two-party system, looking something pretty close to like it does today, isn’t going anywhere.