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The Crack Up: Is the Two-Party System Splintering?

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The 2016 presidential election has been a roller-coaster ride with the last two establishment-party candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, shoving and pushing, snapping, slapping and snarling their way to the finish line.  How the November election turns out is an open question.

One good thing that might come out of the fractious primaries, conventions and final election is that the two-party structure that controls the U.S. political system might fracture, if not fragment, into something unanticipated.  If so, a new multi-party system might emerge and change the nation’s political landscape.

The election’s winner, whether Democrat or Republican, is likely to usher in a period of unexpected instability, even disruption, as the parties seek to regain control over the electoral system, the American voter.  They may fail.  Both parties are poised for possible break-up, but along very different ideological lines.

The Republicans have been splintering since the 2010 election when the rightwing Tea Party insurgency captured a significant slice of the Congressional delegation.  They ushered in a period of legislative gridlock that has soured the American public on the do-nothing Washington.

Trump’s presidential run has further fragmented traditional Republicans, but in unanticipated ways.  Conventional party “moderates” and “conservatives,” like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, respectively, have been jettisoned.  An opportunistic huckster, a 21st century P.T. Barnum, is reconfiguring the party’s identity.  Many mainstream stalwarts are jumping ship, refusing to support the candidate.  Nevertheless, he is appealing to an apparently large and receptive segment of dissatisfied white working- and middle-class males, let alone some of the 1 percent.  Whether Trump wins or loses, a very different Republican Party is likely to emerge.

The Democrats were destabilized by the disruptive 1968 Chicago convention, when the whole world was watching; in the race of the two VPs, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey.  It collapsed following the ‘72 election when Nixon routed Sen. George McGovern (SD).  Mr. Clinton’s victory in ‘92 reconstituted the party, establishing the formative neo-liberal period of globalization when the U.S. flourished; a Mrs. Clinton victory in 2016 might codify economic and social stagnation, furthering Pres. Obama’s new normal to nowhere.

Bernie Sanders unexpected popular appeal, especially among younger voters, disrupted the Clinton machine’s well-scripted plan.  The WikiLeak revelations as to the complicity of party officials in attempting to suppress Sanders campaign only confirmed what most people already knew — the game is rigged.  In 2016 election’s new-speak, all Democrats are “progressives.”  How long after the truce between Clinton “liberals” and Sanders “radicals” will the progressive fiction of unity prevail?

Pres. Obama’s 2008 campaign was based on the promise of “hope” and, over the last eight years, hope has dissipated from American politics and life.  Trump, a masterful fear monger, has caught the spirit of this disillusionment, proclaiming that he alone can “Make American Great America.”  Clinton champions unity among the nation’s divergent populace — whether in terms of racial, class and gender sectors — and has called for a program to stay the course.

Both candidates — and their respective parties — are sitting on ticking time bombs, of profound economic instability and social insecurity.  No one knows what’s coming.  Most threatening, incipient movements threaten to disrupt the political order.  Something altogether new might be in the works.

* * *

Today’s U.S. political system was fashioned out of numerous incidents of disruption that occurred over the last two centuries.  Three factors have driven this disruption — internal party splits, third-party alternatives and charismatic insurgents.  Each disruptive episode is uniquely distinct and offers valuable insight into the formation of the nation’s political culture.  The fragmentation that might follow from the 2016 presidential election could prefigure a fundamental realignment of political power in U.S. politics.

Two of the most consequential political disruptions in U.S. history set the parameters of modern American life.  The first involved the collapse of the Whig Party and the rise of the (original) Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, defining the Civil War era.  The second involved Theodore Roosevelt’s break with the (modern) Robber-Baron Republicans in the pre-WW-I era that set the stage for the rise of the Progressive movement, followed by the Great Depression, F. D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and rise of modern state capitalism.

Among third-party threats, two stand out.  In 1856, the Know-Nothing’s American Party backed Millard Fillmore for president and secured nearly 1 million votes, a quarter of all votes cast.  A century later, in 1948, racists Southern Democrats launched the “Dixiecrat” that, a quarter-century later, would become part of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and remake the Republican Party.

With regard to party fragmentation, two campaign splits stand out.  In 1964, many moderate Republicans, including Governors Nelson Rockefeller (NY) and George Romney (MI), opposed conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential run.  In 1972, McGovern’s electoral defeat marked the party’s near collapse until Clinton’s ‘92 neo-liberal resuscitation.

Finally, the insurgent Eugene Debs, the nation’s leading socialist at the turn of the 20th century, challenged the corporatist political system.  He ran for president five times and was sentenced to a 10 years prison term for opposing U. S. entry into WW-I.  Ralph Nader continued this tradition, but never – including the 2000 presidential election – achieved the level of support that Debs received.

* * *

A possible break-up of the traditional two-party system might involve, for example, the two parties morphing into four parties.  In this scenario, each major party would split into two factions, establishment and radical, whether of the left for Democrats or right for Republicans – whatever left and right might mean.  These parties will likely include Libertarian and Green parties, but also a host of single-issue, far-left groupings as well as white, Christian nationalist.

A clock is ticking; the current political system is being squeezed by the demands of a new capitalist global order.  In the U.S., how this possible political realignment works out – or if it doesn’t – depends on changes in demographics and economics.  The changing composition of the American people, of ethnic makeup, age-cohort and social class, is one axis of tension; and the social economy, of wages and growing inequality, is a second.

The U.S. might well be a “better” — more politically representative — country if it fragments along lines suggested by European democracies.  At least more voices would be added to the political mix, thus giving expression to the complexity of the social and economic realignment remaking the nation.

The great tyranny of American democracy is that the 1 percent continues to rule.  The 1 percent wrote the Constitution and, as two leading economists of the colonial economy, Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert, report,  “Around 1774, the top one percent of free wealthholders in the thirteen colonies held 12.6 percent of total assets, while the richest ten percent held a little less than half of total assets.”  Two-centuries later, in 2010, the 1 percent still controls Congress as well as 35 percent of the nation’s wealth.  It’s time for change.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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