Ideological rebels seem to be at the forefront in U.S. party politics, displaying parties that appear to be on the verge of splitting.
A split seemed highly likely in the Republican Party in 2016 when Trump managed to conquer all other candidates to run for President, even those candidates with more significant endorsements than his own. Trump was called “immoral”, “insane”, and “a fraud” by some of his fellow Republicans.
In a similar trend, Bernie Sanders nearly shattered the establishment of the Democratic Party when he appeared as a candidate for the Presidential elections, even as he was rejected by party insiders last year. Previous presidential nominees like Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton have both expressed their dislike of him. Sanders eventually forced the favorite candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker to drop out of the presidential candidate’s race, partly because of a passionate base of Sanders supporters.
Sanders eventually lost to Joe Biden, who eventually beat Trump in the elections. However, his early whirlwind successes indicate a new era that benefits politicians who have a rebel-like appeal and a passionate base; even if the candidate is not supported by elite groups within their party.
What has changed within parties?
In the past, presidential candidates were chosen through a process that ensured establishment-approved candidates in both parties. This was done using a lot of clout and money to successfully align various interest groups, organizations within the parties, and the media to shape the public’s taste in the chosen candidate.
Political observers say it has become more difficult for parties to steer candidates by forcing public opinion through the hundreds of available media outlets. Candidates today can build niche audiences through a variety of channels, including social media. This allows them to have a direct relationship with their audiences, and no one can influence who sees them or not. Candidates can also easily raise awareness for their issues and huge amounts of necessary funds for their campaigns. Bypassing the elite within a party has become so easy.
Increasing numbers of candidates are now running in Presidential campaigns each time and many seem to be outsiders to other party members. One example is Trump, who never even considered himself a Republican until a few years ago. Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg, two of the Democratic Party candidates in 2020, were also not Democrats a few decades back.
What does this mean for the Democratic Party?
One thing that united the Democrats over the last few years is their hatred for Trump, but the party has had underlying tensions which many observers feel are a threat to the party unity. Left-wing progressive factions flourish within the party, and many people also wanted to see a woman of color in the lead.
However, many consider the biggest problem within the party to be the rift between the ideological left and its ideological center. Biden leads the latter, whereas Sanders is the leader of the former camp. Even though Biden’s win has secured his place as President of the U.S., the deep-seated ideological fissure within the party could lead to a break-away.
Deep divisions like this are not something new in U.S. party politics, but realignments are becoming more difficult and parties appear less adaptable than in the past.
One of the reasons is that the parties are more nationalized as they must respond to issues in real-time in the current media environment. Threats within one party sometimes serve as unifying forces in the other one.
One way or another, the party system in America always evolves. In its history, it has had three different party systems, and this system has been around the longest, since the 1850s. However, the parties have also undergone regular transitions. The last was in 1980, and this has been the longest period without a transition in the parties.
The country has a unique electoral system that requires two dominant national parties to help structure the political competition and elections. The two parties use coalitions to build a governing majority because of the need to include the interests of as wide a majority as possible. Coalitions have one problem; they are hard to maintain for long. Allies on some issues may be unable to agree on other issues.
As the principles fray over time, new ideologies are needed to prevent future problems. Demographics also change, and they alter the balances of power within parties but also between the two parties. But voting loyalties are sticky. In a two-party system, breaking from a coalition is not always an option because ideologies are not always met on the other side.
Typically, a major event usually breaks a coalition up. This could be an economic depression or a major racial conflict. One crisis or another may inevitably force a governing ideology that will be more acceptable, creating a new coalition with members from the other party.