Politics & Policy

Both Parties Are Coming Apart at the Seams

Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally in Detroit, Mich., March 4, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty)
We could see three-quarters of Americans dissatisfied on election night.

For a long time, the question “why doesn’t the United States have a multiparty system?” had an obvious answer: Unlike other Western democracies, America’s political factions coalesced into the two major parties, noisily agreeing to move the country in a generally more conservative or a generally more liberal position. These factions may have chafed at each other, but they generally saw each other as irritable (and irritating) allies, not enemies indistinguishable from the opposition party.

Until now.

There have always been primary fights and rivalries, but the fights within the Democrats and Republicans this cycle are as intense as the partisan divisions were in past ones. More important, they’re not just about personality or style. Within the parties, primary voters are choosing among extremely different visions and policy ideas. Chunks of each party are looking at their traditional allies and asking just what interests and ideas they really have in common any more.

Heading into Tuesday’s primaries, more than 15.8 million people have voted for the five leading candidates. Each candidate has won anywhere from a quarter to a seventh of all the votes cast so far.

Hillary Clinton (4.2 million votes, 26 percent): Hillary’s candidacy is the closest option to the status quo of the Obama presidency. But even Bill Clinton acknowledges the current discontent, declaring: “Millions and millions and millions and millions of people look at that pretty picture of America [Obama] painted, and they cannot find themselves in it to save their lives.”

As Andrew O’Hehir wrote recently at Salon, the Hillary Clinton vision is one in which the current problems can be rectified by a “competent and compassionate administrator.” (Ambassador Chris Stephens could not be reached for his assessment of Clinton’s competence and compassion.)

In this branch of the party, denunciation of corporate greed and Wall Street is mostly pro forma; many Democrats work on Wall Street and for corporations, too. You can find the best Treasury secretaries there. (“Hillary Clinton won’t rule out appointing a Wall Street veteran to the top economic post in the White House,” CNN reported last month.)

This faction of the party focuses most intently on boutique issues such as climate change, gun control, alternative-energy subsidies, and it most enthusiastically touts amnesty, open borders, and mass legalization.

Bernie Sanders (2.7 million votes, 17 percent): In Sanders’s vision, Hillary Clinton and her supporters are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The political and economic systems of the United States in 2016 don’t need better administration or tinkering; they need a radical, far-reaching overhaul. An abused underclass of millions of people need government to step in and start providing what capitalism has utterly failed to provide: free college tuition, Medicare for everyone, subsidized child care for working parents, expanded Social Security benefits. Pay for it all with a top tax rate of 52 percent, hike estate and inheritance taxes up to 55 percent, and apply the Social Security payroll tax on all income above $250,000.

Sanders supporters describe Hillary Clinton and her supporters with terms such as “oligarchy” and contend that the relatively pro-business, not-quite-so-radical approach has left Democrats with frustratingly small minorities in Congress and a wipeout in governors’ mansions and state legislatures.


Donald Trump (3.6 million votes, 22.7 percent): The Trump coalition is a previously unusual combination of of those who are drawn to conservative-sounding pro-American rhetoric, liberal-sounding love of big government, and tough-sounding strong-executive pledges. For most traditional Democrats, Trump’s biggest promises of a border wall and complete deportation of all illegal immigrants would never fly. But Trump’s casual dismissal of the Constitution and eager embrace of trade tariffs would never attract most traditional Republicans.

To Trump’s followers, his election would be a toppling of the old regime that has kept them from fulfilling their life’s dreams.

In the Trump faction’s vision, Ted Cruz is part of the Washington establishment because he is a senator. For Trump and members of this faction, there’s barely an acknowledgement of Congress; there’s no promise to introduce a bill and then do the painstaking work to ensure its passage; promises are made with the breezy “we’re gonna,” and the fulfillment of the promise will come so fast, “your head will spin.” Everyone is expected to fall in line and salute: “Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price, okay?”

Perhaps even more important than Trump’s policy mix is his stylistic rejection of politics as usual. Most politicians ignore hecklers; Trump declares he wishes he could punch them in the face. When a protester scuffled with his supporters in Michigan, Trump declared from the lectern: “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court.” Decorum and refraining from profanity are dismissed as “political correctness.”

To Trump’s followers, his election would be a toppling of the old regime that has kept them from fulfilling their life’s dreams. Anything less would be a tepid disappointment at best and most likely, one more stab in the back from corrupt elites.

Ted Cruz (2.9 million votes, 18.3 percent): The Cruz campaign attempted to weld together two of the Republican party’s most energized blocs: the religious right and the Constitution-minded limited-government Tea Party. Unfortunately for Cruz, neither movement is as strong or unified as it was in past cycles. Neither Jesus Christ nor the Constitution are as central to America’s thinking as they were in the era of Ronald Reagan.

Members of Cruz’s faction see the Obama presidency as one of the worst calamities to befall the United States in their lifetime. Kicking off his campaign, Cruz declared, “Today millions of young people are scared, worried about the future.” He went on to paint a grim portrait of Americans under assault by their own government, a federal government that “wages an assault on our religious liberty,” that “works to undermine our values,” that “works to undermine our Second Amendment rights,” and that “seeks to dictate school curriculum through Common Core.” Cruz voters see their man as the personification of a long-overdue pushback against an aggressive, deliberately provocative band of leftists who took over Washington in January 2009.

From the perspective of the Cruz voters, Trump would represent another narcissist in the Oval Office, dictating policy with runaway executive orders, and Rubio would represent the “Establishment” — the same squishes and wimps unwilling to stand with Cruz when he pulled out all the stops to fight Obamacare.

Marco Rubio (2.2 million votes, 13.9 percent): To some Republicans, Rubio represents the natural evolution of the Tea Party from a protest movement to a governing party, a near-ideal face and vision for the GOP in the 21st century.

On paper, the policy differences between Cruz and Rubio are the smallest, but the stylistic differences are enormous. Sunny optimism, inclusive coalition-building, good humor — Rubio fans see their man as exactly the invitation most Americans need to try out conservative ideas and policies. Free-market economics, the rule of law, protection of the unborn — Americans will be receptive to these philosophies as long as the most prominent advocate isn’t a scowling, angry, finger-wagging jerk.

Sure, Rubio offers as many denunciations of the Obama administration as Cruz does, but, in his telling, the most dire menaces to American life are abroad. Where Cruz dabbles in non-interventionism, Rubio sees a world beyond our shores that is besieged by the forces of evil. He sees global disorder exacerbated by an indifferent and incompetent Obama administration, and allies that are begging for American leadership to battle state and non-state threats that are the stuff of nightmares.

To the Rubio faction, Trump is a nightmare himself, a toxic brew of Putin-schmoozing, lack of interest in foreign affairs, intermittent knee-jerk cries of “bomb the s—t out of them,” and exhortations to seize our enemies’ oil fields. Rubio supporters think that President Cruz would at least move policies in the right direction. But they also fear that getting Cruz to the presidency, up against the formidable Clinton machine, would be a heavy lift.

#related#For each of these factions – Clinton, Sanders, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio – the other four alternatives offer almost nothing. This is a formula for widespread dissatisfaction on election night — and a new president with almost no mandate on January 20, 2017.

Will the Democratic and Republican parties break up? The enormous logistical challenges of building a new nationwide party from scratch make it unlikely that any faction will want to completely break away. But with such intense and irreconcilable divisions about the role of government, policy priorities, and just what the country needs, the two parties are already broken. And neither one looks likely to be genuinely united any time soon.


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Colin Powell, R.I.P.

Colin Powell, R.I.P.

We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.