“Politics as unusual” could be the theme of this year’s presidential race. The tension among various intraparty factions has risen to a level not seen in almost 50 years, garnering as much media attention as the battle between Democrats and Republicans and culminating in the nomination of two of the most unpopular candidates to ever run for the nation’s highest office.
What’s the average voter to make of all this?
We asked two University of California, Irvine experts to provide some context and perspective: Louis DeSipio, professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies and director of the campus’s Jack W. Peltason Center for the Study of Democracy; and David Meyer, UCI professor of sociology.
For more than 100 years, elections have been pretty orderly, with the Republican and Democratic parties firmly entrenched as the dominant players. What triggers the type of chaos we’re seeing this year within the major parties? Why hasn’t this happened more often?
Meyer: Democracy is messy. It’s a mistake to see the relatively orderly conventions and campaigns of the past few electoral cycles as the norm. Our history is full of lots of disruption and unrest around all kinds of elections. American-style political parties work to incorporate and moderate unrest generally and challenging movements in particular. Sometimes this is very unruly, as we saw at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when antiwar and civil rights activists faced exclusion. The Republican Party is now deeply divided over several issues, including immigration and trade, and must be unified in order to win the election.
DeSipio: We’ve seen chaos in the last 100 years, though less so in the recent past. Divisions within the parties often manifest themselves in the primaries and, most notably, at the party conventions.
Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate a compromise candidate in 1924. Discord within the Democratic coalition in 1948 led to a three-way split in the party. The 1968 Democratic National Convention saw riots in the streets and acrimony on the floor. And in 1972, George McGovern won the Democratic nomination so late that it was 3 a.m. on the East Coast before he gave his acceptance speech.
These controversies highlight an important characteristic of U.S. party politics: While the names of the two major parties have remained the same since the 1850s, the coalitions that constitute them have varied considerably. What we are seeing now in both parties are battles over what they’ll stand for and who they’ll represent.
There have been stories comparing the 2016 Republican Party to the 1848 Whig Party. The nation and the electorate have changed dramatically since the 1848 election. Are these comparisons truly meaningful?
DeSipio: Not really. No matter how divided the Republicans were in their presidential primaries this year, and whatever effect the Trump candidacy will have on the party in 2016, 2018 and maybe 2020, the party will survive and is quite strong by many measures. Approximately 39 percent of the electorate identifies as or routinely votes Republican. The U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and a majority of governorships and statehouses are controlled by Republicans, and until the death of Justice [Antonin] Scalia, conservatives – made up largely of Republicans – had controlled the Supreme Court since the 1970s.
While they certainly need to be attentive to demographic changes that have eroded their dominance in presidential elections and portend some future weaknesses at other levels of office, Republicans are much stronger than the Whigs ever were, let alone at the end of the Whig Party.
Meyer: The point is that political parties aren’t necessarily forever. The Whig Party fell apart over slavery and immigration. We expect that contemporary parties will be more resilient, but the Republicans are facing similar tensions between social conservatives and business conservatives. Obviously, much has changed over the past 160 years, but the difficult tasks for political parties are pretty much the same.
Has there been another time in history when both parties were simultaneously contending with such high-profile intraparty squabbling?
Meyer: The Democrats aren’t really engaging in such high-profile squabbling, and it’s an analytical mistake to view the two parties as mirror images. The Democrats hosted a spirited contest between two candidates who had served in a number of different government positions. Hillary Clinton, who won the nomination, was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, who didn’t. Their differences on issues are well within the boundaries of normal political disputes in the party. Such disputes happen all the time.
In contrast, Donald Trump is an outlier, and the Republic Party has been unable to manage the insurgency he rode to the nomination. Each party has run ideologically committed candidates in the past, such as Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972, but they were also committed to the party. Republicans’ inability to handle the challenge Trump presents to party leaders with longstanding commitments to free trade or international alliances, for example, is what’s unusual.
DeSipio: I don’t see the 2016 Democratic Party cleavage as being comparable to current divisions within the Republican Party. The Democrats will certainly see a generational change – in 2020 if Secretary Clinton is defeated in November and in 2024 if she wins and seeks reelection.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have an ongoing battle between religious and fiscal conservatives that has been present since the 1990s and a new populist coalition within the party that Trump speaks to. How they balance these interests and maintain traditional levels of support from each while reaching out to newly emerging voters – millennials, minority communities, independents – will determine the future of the Republican Party. The Republicans continue to have a great deal of strength in a majority of the states but have a disadvantage in the only national race, which is for the presidency.
Are there any positive political outcomes for the parties and/or the country as a result of these types of identity crises? What are the most harmful effects to the parties and/or the country?
DeSipio: Periods of intraparty division force the parties to rebuild their coalitions and to incorporate elements of the electorate that have been neglected and/or to advocate around issues that had been neglected in the past. This can end up inflicting long-term weakness on a party, such as the Republicans experienced after 1932, or building a new dominance, like the Democrats saw in the 1990s.
Democracy benefits when the electorate feels that the system is effective, which happens when more people, representing a broad array of interests, come to be incorporated into party coalitions. There is always a risk, of course, either that the parties can’t build sustainable coalitions or that a leader will undermine democratic principles to win or maintain power.
Meyer: Some may view the heightening of the visibility of longstanding tensions between Republican leadership and some voters in the party as a positive. Maybe the party will realign and reorganize. But dangers are everywhere when the presidential nominee of a major political party seems to legitimize nativism and racism and ignore the Constitution.
Could anything happen in the 2016 election that hasn’t happened before? If so, what? If not, why not?
Meyer: It would certainly be something new if Donald Trump, who has never held elective or\appointed office in government, won the presidency. If that doesn’t happen, one of the main reasons will be because a sufficient share of Republican leaders and voters put aside partisan loyalties out of some sense of obligation to the country.
DeSipio: Secretary Clinton is the first woman nominated for the presidency by one of the major parties. Should she win, Bill Clinton would not only be the first “first gentleman,” but also the first former president to be married to a president. By historical standards, the Trump candidacy is also unusual. He has no previous elective office experience or service in a command role in the military. Should Trump win, Melania would be the first foreign-born first lady since the 1820s, and he would be the first twice-divorced president.
How would you put the party politics of the 2016 election into perspective for the average citizen?
DeSipio: The nation has become increasingly polarized over the past 20 years, with a high share of the electorate already committed to one candidate or the other. The election will be determined by a small share of the electorate – maybe 20 percent nationally – who are uncommitted, so campaigns will be focusing an incredible amount of outreach on these voters. The primary function of the parties between now and November is organizational. The battles over the souls of the parties will resume after the election.
Meyer: The Republican Party is broken. American political parties have two key jobs: forming legislative majorities to pass laws, and recruiting and running candidates for office. Right now, divisions within the Republican Party have prevented it from implementing policy nationally and running a candidate that has full party support. Trump was able to exploit Republican divisions, and if he loses, someone will try to fix it and put back together a viable national party. If he wins, the party will be redefined in his image.
-Pat Harriman, UCI
-pictured: David Meyer (top, courtesy of Steve Zylius), Louis DeSipio (side right, courtesy of Kristy Salsbury, UCI School of Social Sciences)