Political divisions, which seem obvious today, were still ill-defined in 1912. Amid a still-ongoing political pole-shift, Woodrow Wilson was something of a novelty—a progressive Democrat. His greatest challenger, Theodore Roosevelt, a former Republican, was a capital-‘P’ Progressive. Third- and fourth-place candidates were the still-Republican William H. Taft and socialist Eugene V. Debbs. Within a matter of years, the political realignment was nearing completion and the last of the progressives had left the Republican Party and, after briefly creating their own party, found a new home in the Democratic Party.
More and more, it looks as though a similar pole-shift is happening again. Once-obvious divisions are becoming blurred and once-blurred divisions are coming into focus. But instead of progressives leaving the Republicans and flocking to the Democrats, immigration restrictionists and economic protectionist—which both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are at the end of the day—seem to be fleeing both parties. Rather than flocking to another political party, “the orphaned vote,” as they have been described, are flocking to political mavericks within the existing parties.
For roughly a quarter century, almost as long as I’ve been alive, two families have dominated the American political landscape. 2013 was the first year in nearly a quarter century in which neither a Bush nor a Clinton worked in the White House—George H W Bush (1989-1993), Bill Clinton (1993-2001), George W Bush (2001-2009) and Hillary Clinton (2009-2013). But much more important than the Bush-Clinton duopoly is the wave which it has ridden. A wave which seems to be finally crashing.
For the last quarter century or so, Democrats have wanted a protected market and an open border, Republicans have wanted an open market and a protected border and compromise (bipartisanship) has meant protecting neither the market nor the border. Instead, both have nominated a Bush, a Clinton, another Bush and likely another Bush and/or another Clinton. Increasingly, it looks as though Democrats and Republicans are not only campaigning against each other but against themselves.
Make no mistake, I don’t support voting against (or for) someone because of their name, but the name is not what interests me—their politics is. Bush and Clinton aren’t in hot water because people don’t like their last names. They’re in hot water because people don’t like their politics—GATT, NAFTA, the TPP, etc. One need only look at those leaving the parties.
In the 1992 presidential primaries, immigration restrictionist and economic protectionist Pat Buchanan (a Republican until 1999 and again since 2004) won nearly three million votes, nearly a quarter of the vote. In 1992 and 1996, Texas billionaire Ross Perot, an independent, won roughly 18 percent and 8 percent respectively by running almost exclusively against the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 2012, Virginia Representative Virgil Goode—a Democrat, an independent, then a Republican—ran for president for the Constitution Party and had recently endorsed Donald Trump—a man of many parties. Rather than switching between one minor socialist party or another (there are many), independent democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has seemed content to caucus with the Democrats, a party to which he has never truly belonged. Recently, Jim Webb, a Democrat since 1988, gave up on the Democratic nomination and is now flirting with the idea of running as an independent.
The two party system only works if both parties are reasonably distinct. When it comes to trade and immigration, they are losing their differences.
Trump and Sanders, as well as politicians like Buchanan, Goode and Webb switching or simply leaving parties, could be signs of a healthy political pole-shift. I like them all. Whether this trend of immigration restrictionists and economic protectionists either leaving the two parties or rallying around the two most formidable restrictionist and protectionist candidates in decades, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (yes, Sanders too), continues, I do not know. Quite frankly, I’m enjoying it.