The 2016 presidential election feels less and less about Republicans and Democrats and more and more like a battle of the powerful who benefit from the status quo versus the ones disenfranchised by it. So are we on the edge of a revolution and the end of the two-party system? History suggests a recalibration is more likely. But sweeping segments of both parties are supporting outsiders promising to tear down the system.
Billionaire Donald Trump and longtime independent Bernie Sanders have between them garnered more than 19 million votes. The huge crowds for both are demonstrably more passionate in their preferences than those supporting Hillary Clinton, Sen. Ted Cruz or Gov. John Kasich.
The insurgencies led by Trump and Sanders seem to have a lot in common. Followers of both share anger: a belief that the political establishment does everything for rich contributors and nothing for common people. Both assail international trade deals that boost corporate profits but kill a lot of secure, high-paying jobs. Both address Americans who fear the loss of good careers and upward mobility through education that built this nation. And both lament the disastrous military adventurism that Republicans and Democrats supported in the Iraq War after 9/11.
Trump, unlike many GOP leaders, supports a smarter government rather than just damning the idea of government. But Sanders supports a bigger government, providing more and levying higher taxes on the wealthy, redistributing their money to those down the income scale.
These two movements and leaders also differ in whom they blame. For Sanders and his devotees, the bugaboos are big business and Wall Street. For Trump and his fans, crony capitalism is part of the problem, but so is “them,” by which he means immigrants here illegally or lazy people or Muslims or anyone different from his followers.
Point of no return?
How did we end up with two populist movements? Both parties became increasingly ruled by corporate interests and lost touch with the needs of voters. For Democrats, that shift made the views of Sanders sound revolutionary until millions of Democratic donors and voters showed how mainstream they were. For Republicans, that shift meant sacrificing government services, the environment and the roads and bridges voters value in favor of lower taxes on corporations and the rich, less regulation and trickle-down economics.
Two parties unresponsive to the needs of average Americans won’t suffice. In pulling Clinton toward the demands of Sanders’ supporters, the Democratic Party seems to be recalibrating. The Republican Party faces a bigger challenge: Whether Trump wins or loses, it will have to find a way to reconnect with average voters the way he has and present a conservative message that isn’t beholden to the country-club set or evangelical extremism.
In the past, these two parties have managed to represent the views of the people fairly well. But the world has changed. The Internet empowered everyone to participate in politics. Automation and globalization turned economic expectations upside down. Fear is rampant, and opportunity can seem to be vanishing. We need parties that meet these challenges. Whether that means we need new parties depends on how well the old ones adapt.