By Jon Harris:
For decades, the American political scene has been dominated by the two party system. Voters were either Republican or Democrat, and today, that is mainly still the case.
There are of course several others—the Green Party, the Libertarians, the Socialist Party, and a few other groups on the fringe. Then there is that ever-growing group of voters who call themselves Independent. What has really influenced the party system are those groups within the two main parties. The Tea Party on the Republican side and the Progressives on the Democratic side have shown that they can—and will—affect elections and party platforms.
If you think back, the last time our system flirted with a real third party was back when Ross Perot ran for president. His Reform Party rang true with many Americans. Although the Reform Party faded away with Perot’s failure to win the election, the current political system is actually much different. The two parties are fractured, with large portions ready to bolt from the old organizations.
The election of Donald Trump, who ran as the ultimate outsider, resonated with those fed up with the two party system. This was evident on both sides, where voters went against conventional wisdom and supported this outsider—one who had never held a political office—over the normal Republican standard-bearers. On the Democratic side, the battle was always between two factions within the party. Those two sides of the same coin are the older and established Democrats, which Secretary Clinton appealed to, and those new and young progressive voters who flocked to Bernie Sanders, a very progressive and somewhat socialist-leaning candidate. It was clear that the familiar, normal presidential election was not happening this time.
So how did these two parties react? Well, the only clear example we have is the Democratic Party. They just went through leadership elections and for the most part stayed with the old geriatric leaders they have had for years. The Democratic Party can’t seem to get out of its own way. They have remained steadfast to policies and leadership principles that have not worked and have made their party almost irrelevant. The situation has become that dire and desperate according to some of their most trusted insiders. Tim Ryan, who challenged Nancy Pelosi for leadership of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, stated that the Democratic Party is no longer a national party. The Democratic Party has consistently gone after the same voter base with the same issues they have for decades. Their chosen candidate was not new, not particularly liked, and tied to old issues, old ideas, and more of the same.
On the other side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump, although not universally accepted by the Republican establishment, offered something very out of the norm and was not seen as part of the old Republican Party politics. Even if they did not know it, the Republican Party tapped into (maybe by default) the pulse of the voters. The voters were clearly saying they wanted something different, and in Donald Trump, they got it.
Now, as the parties dissect what the election and the outcomes are saying, they are reevaluating their tactics and results. The Democratic Party is turning in on itself. Fingers are pointing in all directions, but mainly at each other. (The mental picture of a circular firing squad comes to mind.) Top that with grabbing for every excuse imaginable for losing and the outlook just gets worse. The Democratic Party takes a breath, puts their head down, and trudges forward in the same direction with the same tactics as before. They have elected the same leadership that has handed them repeated defeats—leadership viewed by younger voters, the very voters they really need to attract, as somewhat out of touch. The Democratic Party seems to simply not recognize that doing the same things repeatedly doesn’t result in success. The Democratic Party is still relying on bringing in, and counting on, the minority vote, the unions, and the social elite of Hollywood. One group in particular that the Democratic Party has hung its hopes on is the Hispanic population. This is one of the fastest growing ethnic groups, and the Democratic Party counts them as automatic votes for their candidates. The problem with that assumption is that Hispanic voters are split and are not locked in at all. Couple that fact with historically low voter participation in the Hispanic community and the Democratic Party may be chasing a voter base that simply is not there.
On the Republican side, the party has been, in some instances, in conflict with itself. Many Republican politicians withheld their support for their own candidate. Speaker Ryan, although now appearing to be on board with the Trump presidency, was very visible and vocal in his less than enthusiastic support for Donald Trump. Even at the Republican Convention, not all speakers supported their own nominee.
What the two parties are missing is the largest and fastest growing voting bloc, the Independents. The biggest voter group, the center, has been left to choose the lesser of two parties that they no longer really fit into. The Independent voters are those who are tired of the normal party infighting, are generally younger, and are often referred to as the Millennials. The other very important thing about Millennials is that they vote, but only when they have a candidate they identify with. Parties that ignore the Millennial vote will alienate more than 20% of the electorate. No party can afford to give that large of a voting bloc away and have any hopes of winning an election. Millennials are socially adept; they have social networks that a lot of older voters and party officials don’t understand. This is why so many Millennials gravitated to Barack Obama and not Hillary Clinton. This was the case in both of Clinton’s presidential runs. If nothing else, Obama and his campaign were tuned in to the social media networks at the time, and he used them to his advantage.
Bernie Sanders took the social media campaign to new heights. He made social media a central point of his organization. He contacted millions of people for little cost and got his message out to his base. His network was nimble enough to adjust to the ongoing situation. This is an area where the mainstream Democratic Party was woefully behind. What both parties are guilty of is not adjusting to the feelings and direction of the voters. In many cases, the parties simply missed the point that old issues were not in the forefront this time. Donald Trump, with his very “in-your-face” campaign, as well as Bernie Sanders with his appeal to the Millennials, was clearly listening to the voters and not necessarily to their party professional experts.
What Did This Election Tell Us?
Bernie Sanders and the Independent Party are a clear indication that the political landscape is changing. Donald Trump is proof that it is not all about party affiliation. He won when half of his party leaders were fighting against him, even after he had won the nomination. The Republican Party stalwarts just couldn’t believe what was happening. They were not ready to admit that an outsider who followed none of the expected rules or scripts defeated their tried and true political machine.
There is a very real chance in the near future that another party will come to national status. The Independent Party, those in the center, or almost any organization that is astute enough to really study what happened in this election will make a real impact in the future of American politics. They will conclude that the old two party system has been weakened at its core and that an opportunity for a different direction is possible. Maybe next time, we will see a reboot of Ross Perot’s Reform Party. Common sense and center appeal will have a real chance to make something unexpected happen—again.
Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community.