America is About to Have an Overdue Political Party Realignment.
Many of us might not realize it, but today’s “Democrat vs Republican” duopoly that dominates mainstream American electoral politics is not a given- our party system has been different before, and it will be different again, likely soon. As entrenched and unshakable as it might seem, history teaches us that America’s party system has seen an on-average once-in-a-generation reorganization as a result of demographic and ideological shifts reflecting new policy priorities.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders each played a pivotal role in laying the foundations for what will come to be America’s next great party system shift, changing the nature of the Republican and Democratic parties respectively so much that there’s no where left to go other than an outright reorganization of our political party system altogether.
And it’s about time.
Part 1: American Party Systems: A Brief History
The United States began its first presidency without a political party. George Washington not only ran the nation for two terms unaffiliated with any party, but famously warned against them in his farewell address.
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” — George Washington
John Adams wrote not long after:
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Another founding father, Alexander Hamilton, wrote:
“Nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties.”
Early warnings against political factions went unheeded. Following the only independent presidency in US history would begin an American tradition that has dominated to this day- the duopoly of two major political factions, as John Adams feared. Every generation, however, the makeup of that duopoly has shifted, with new parties emerging and old ones fading away or shifting, creating what has been dubbed new “Party Systems.” Understanding the trend of party systems will help us to understand what is happening right now.
The First Party System began with the election of 1796. The Federalists, headed by John Adams, were pro big business and strong central government, supportive of conservative England, against the French Revolution and supported by northern businessmen, bankers and merchants. The Democratic-Republicans- led by Thomas Jefferson, were supported by southern artisans and farmers, were pro-states rights and favored Revolutionary France. The Federalists collapsed in 1815, sparking what would come to be known as the Era of Good Feelings, where for almost a decade the Democrat-Republican party was the only show in town, and there was a reduced emphasis on political party affiliation. President James Monroe even wanted to end political parties outright in the name of national unity.
Then came the election of 1824
This election is one of the most contested in history, so much so that it had to be decided by the House. The factional tensions that arose within the then-dominant Democratic-Republican party led to the party fracturing. The winner, Andrew Jackson, started off as a Democrat-Republican but his presidency went on to launch the 2nd party system. Out of the remnants of the old Democratic-Republican Party, he would go on to found the Democratic Party. Jackson made many political rivals, especially for his role in the dramatic Bank War, which led to the dissolving of the Bank of the US (the forerunner to the Federal Reserve) and the development of public state banks. His opponents would coalesce under the newly formed Whig Party, which was socially conservative and pro-business. The Democrat/Whig divide would mark the great political duopoly of the 2nd party era. As the 1850’s approached, new political questions were forming, especially around slavery.
In 1860 the anti-slavery Republican party burst onto the national scene- with the election of Abraham Lincoln, ushering in the 3rd party system. Every election from then on would be between Democrats and Republicans, but over time the parties’ composition, who supported them, and what they stood for changed enough that we think of those shifts as creating new party systems.
After the Civil War, the parties were an odd mix, the former Confederates were Democrats, rightly seeing Republicans as responsible for ending slavery, but as the Republicans shifted towards being an anti-immigrant party, northern immigrants shifted towards the Democratic party, beginning the demographic and cultural shifts within these two dominant parties.
The Fourth Party system officially began with the election of 1896, but its seeds began in 1892, when the Populist Party formed in the southern and western parts of the US, which had a generally anti banker and plutocracy leaning with a platform of regulating farm prices and railroad shipping rates, and supporting a national income tax. They won a few congressional elections, but eventually merged with the Democrats for the election of 1896.
The Progressive Era and the fourth party system brought a change in the composition of electoral politics. This era, which lasted into the early 1930’s, was marked by attacks on political machines, regulations on big business, antitrust laws, women’s suffrage, labor movements, worker’s rights, the establishment of the Public Bank of North Dakota and credit unions, and other similar progressive policies. Following the rise of the People’s Party, the Socialist Party was created in 1901, and then in the election of 1912, former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt came roaring back to make a historical 2nd bid for the presidency under his newly formed Progressive Party, which under Roosevelt’s brand of “New Nationalism” would mark the only time in American history a third party would win 2nd place in a national election.
The rise and fall of the People’s, Socialist and Progressive parties taught us that in American presidential politics, 3rd parties haven’t won due to how American elections are structured. That doesn’t mean they’re inconsequential though. While the progressive zeitgeist of the fourth party system was never truly reflected at the highest echelons of power in the United States, it still served to galvanize local and state politics, inspire the masses to organize from the grassroots, and get the mainstream parties to drift leftward. Today, for example, the Green New Deal, proposed by Democrats after the 2018 midterm elections, was first proposed on the Green Party platform in 2006.
The great depression began in 1929 after years of pro-business Republican policies leading to a boom-bust cycle that finally imploded in that year, ensuring that by the upcoming election of 1932, the people would be clamoring for something different. The pattern of years of Republican domination in politics was upended when Franklin Roosevelt, after barely winning a contested democratic convention, defeated the Republican incumbent in a landslide, carrying 46 states in the general election on his New Deal platform. The Democratic party under FDR’s leadership so shifted its priorities that a new party system was born.
The New Deal Democratic Party and it’s big government leftward lean would reverberate through the Voting Rights Act and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative. It is during this era that New Deal Democrats brought in a wider coalition of progressives and the working class, southern farmers who were drawn to New Deal farm policies and Catholic immigrants and African Americans who would now be shifting their support away from what was once the party of Lincoln. This “New Deal Coalition” would more or less solidify the demographic makeup of the Democratic party for generations.
Unlike the previous five party systems, there is no clear electoral event to delineate the sixth. But it is widely interpreted to have begun in the 1960’s when the South, a former Democrat stronghold, became firmly Republican and the party generally increased in strength, into the slowly morphing cultural shifts of the 1990’s. Whereas the national parties were once mostly aligned based on class, today they are aligned more on social values. For example, white working class men, who were once a demographic stronghold for progressive democrats, are now more likely to vote Republican along cultural lines, while many in the middle and upper economic classes are social liberals who vote Democrat.
Part 2: The State of Affairs Today
This equilibrium was upended by the 2016 election, when Trump trounced the Republican Party establishment on his unconventional nationalist agenda and Bernie Sanders, a Progressive and New Deal style Democrat posed a credible threat to the Democratic front-runner and galvanized a new progressive movement, which has only been strengthening since. Bernie forced the mainstream democratic establishment to reluctantly contend with calls to free college, universal healthcare and regulations on the big banks due to their growing grassroots following.
In 2016, the Republican Party can consider to have had a significant realignment, both as the result of long-term trends and the Trump factor. Whether these seeds of disruption are headed towards party restructuring (as happened during the Southern switch) or outright dissolving to make way for a successor party (as happened to the Federalists and the Whigs) is yet to be seen.
As for the Democratic Party, the path is different, but the destination seems similar. Internal contradictions indicate lack of long term viability for status quo preservation. The party has settled into two distinct camps: the “Moderate” and “Progressive” wings as they call themselves, or the “Corporate” and “Radical” wings as they call each other, respectively. In the case of the Democrats, it’s clearer that the likelihood is much higher for party destruction. Disillusionment with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party grew in 2016 when Sanders supporters felt muscled out by the Party machine via superdelegate tipping of primary elections that many considered outright rigging.
Progressives bided the years under Trump’s administration. “Hindsight,” they said, “is 2020.” The Bernie campaign would come roaring back from the grassroots, with rally crowds and volunteer door knockers and phone bankers far outnumbering his opponents, spurred by the influence of the newly arrived Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a new generation of Berniecrat that would come to epitomize the millennial progressive wing of the increasingly fracturing Democratic Party.
Biden, a generally uninspiring ultra-insider, was coronated by the Party. When the 2020 primaries saw a Sanders surge in early voting states with an increasingly likely prospect of the Biden campaign collapsing, opposing candidates under the mainstream Democratic banner simultaneously dropped out to throw their support behind Biden just before Super Tuesday in order to stop Sanders. Then, the Coronavirus caused a worldwide, historic, earth-shattering social and economic upheaval for the ages, and then Bernie dropped out and endorsed Biden.
While elements of the mainstream-minded Democrats pronounce “blue no matter who,” and pledge to support whoever the candidate is because “they are better than Trump,” the Progressive wing of the party has now reached a fever-pitch of impatience. To vote anything “no matter who” is a total repudiation of the very purpose of voting itself, which is to exercise the power of choice towards a candidate that reflects your values. With what progressives feel is a back-to-back betrayal of their movement, there is significant disillusionment and in echo of 2016’s “Bernie or Bust” sentiment, a #neverbiden wing of Bernie supporters are committed to standing their ground, regardless of mainstream Democrats’ threats that that will help Trump’s chances in November. That rationale, they feel, is blackmail.
Bernie’s role, ultimately, was not to become president and reign over a Democratic-Socialist administration of the country from the top-down, like Roosevelt. His role was more cultural and nuanced, but no less profound-it was to inspire a leftward consciousness shift, galvanize a grassroots movement, and ultimately, in the end, lay the seeds for the destruction of the Democratic Party. Remember, Bernie Sanders is himself not a Democrat. From the beginning of his political career in 1981 until 2015, just before his 2016 candidacy, he was registered Independent, and only switched to run under the party banner. Yes, he pledged loyalty to the party, and endorsed Hillary and Biden after his losses, but he did so as political chess moves to keep his role as a power player on the inside while his legacy winks and nods to the grassroots. Make no mistake, this was an infiltration. That’s why Party insiders fought to the hilt to keep him out.
2020, or maybe 2024, will join the ranks of 1796, 1824, 1860, 1896 and 1932- years where a decisive election caused an irreversible party realignment and the birth of a new Party System.
Bernie’s role echoes the role of the left during the progressive era, a force that didn’t quite take power at the top, but which nonetheless sparked a grassroots cultural shift that made progressive policies comprehended, sought after, and eventually achieved.
The rise of the progressives led to a shift from the 3rd to the 4th party systems. The Great Depression led to rise of the 5th party system. The transition from the more amorphous 6th party system to the upcoming 7th party system has not only the rise of progressivism fracturing the Democratic Party, but an unfolding economic crisis, Trump’s realignment of the Republican Party, and a cultural divide centrifugally widening by radicalizing social media bubbles. It’s the perfect storm.
There has been a long-brewing disillusionment with the duopoly that is only now coming to fever-pitch. For over a decade, “Independent” has been the fastest-growing party affiliation.
While the Democratic party, riding the coattails of its New Deal legacy, is assumed to be the “party of the working class,” the sixth party system has seen the Democratic Party as sympathetic towards Wall St. as its supposed rival, while many working class voters flocked to Trump, plutocrat member of the elite, in an ironic protest against the elite.
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum” -Noam Chomsky
There is no longer a party based on class interests, merely liberal and conservative culture and lifestyle- class, except for within the emerging progressive wing, has been left out of it, and that means the center will not be able to hold for long.
Now, #demexit is trending, and what began as a hole in the Democratic dam in 2016 is culminating into a full on Democratic Party crisis.
…and the Republican Party is facing its own crisis of identity as #ileftthegop is beginning to trend.
In 2012, Jesse Ventura published DemoCRIPS and ReBLOODicans, a book that likened the political parties to thuggish gangs. He’s called for the outright abolition of political parties and for their conversion into political action committees, as well as removing party designations from ballots, which would force voters to educate themselves on policies rather than blindly following a “D” or “R”. He echoes the sentiment of Washington, Adams and Hamilton in their aversion to parties, or ‘factions’ as they called them. Perhaps the 7th party will see the rise of a new conservative party and a rising Progressive Party that completes the job Teddy Roosevelt started, or perhaps the 7th party will be an outright political paradigm shift away from our party system altogether. The way the roaring 2020’s is starting, anything is possible.
America’s two party system has transformed before, and it will transform again. It’s degenerated into a duopoly of narrow corporate interests and is already on the inevitable throes of upheaval. Why wait? Many of us have known this for some time but clung on to a sliver of hope that the party might come to serve our interests. With the epic upheaval of the Coronavirus, the massively organized and inspired grassroots, and the 100% loss of hope that progressives have for the Democratic Party, the iron is as hot as it’s ever going to be.
“That which is falling should also be pushed.” Nietzsche
Today, I’m pleading with you to be bold and help build a new system from the ground up. I look forward to my follow up- when a progressive party has gained real traction and I then plead with the progressive leaders inside the Democratic establishment, like AOC, to jump ship. Once the dominoes start falling, the New Era will have begun.