For a while, when the outcome of the GOP presidential campaign was still in doubt, it appeared the Republican convention in Cleveland might be a messy brawl. Now, as Bernie Sanders insists on staying in the race and his followers seethe over what they claim is a rigged contest, it looks as though the Democrats may churn up a hot mess in Philadelphia.
The parties used to exert a great deal of control over the process. This year, they have been upended by powerful forces that are not going to subside any time soon.
Changes have been eroding their influence for years. As primaries and caucuses were given a bigger role in choosing delegates, voters gained a bigger voice. The Internet and social media opened up new avenues for candidates to connect with citizens. Super PACs attracted and spent funds that once would have gone to the national committees.
Despite all that, the parties and their most prominent elected officials always mattered a great deal in presidential contests – providing valuable endorsements, discouraging long-shot interlopers and steering candidates toward the center of the political spectrum to attract swing voters.
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Back in 2008, one party’s idea of a maverick was John McCain, and the other’s insurgency was mounted by Barack Obama. Though each was slightly unconventional, they were respected officeholders with solid party credentials.
Compare them with this year’s upstarts — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each of whom represents a radical break with the past. Trump is not exactly a lifelong Republican. His guests at his last wedding included Bill and Hillary Clinton, and he couldn’t vote in the 2012 New York GOP primary because he missed the deadline to change his party affiliation. Sanders has been elected to the House and the Senate multiple times, but not as a Democrat — he was an independent.
Neither is overly attached to his party’s established policies. Trump denounces the free trade deals championed by one Republican president after another, shows little interest in budget-cutting and is skeptical about the military alliances that conservatives think are vital for world peace. It would be a stretch to say Trump’s thinking is coherent, much less coherently conservative.
Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, while most Democrats have generally been reluctant even to embrace the term “liberal,” and his spending plans are off the charts. Most Democrats have a high opinion of both Bill Clinton and Obama; Sanders regards them as disappointments at best and corporate sellouts at worst.
What Trump and Sanders really represent are not two parties but two recent anti-establishment political movements — the tea party, which arose in 2009, and Occupy Wall Street, which emerged two years later.
Each was the product of citizens’ disgust with bank rescues of major corporations, government failures (the 2008 financial crisis, the Iraq War) and political gridlock in Washington. Both movements fed on widespread disappointment with an economy that no longer delivers robust growth or broad-based gains. This year, the simmering discontent re-emerged to fuel the Trump and Sanders campaigns.
This could be a moment when the parties are redefining themselves. Republicans may be putting aside their doctrines of small government and free markets to converge behind curbing illegal immigration, taking a more aggressive tack on terrorism and spurning “political correctness.” Democrats could give up the pragmatic approach of their past two presidents in favor of unabashed government activism, no pretense of spending limits and income redistribution.
It could also be a moment when one party or the other comes apart. Many conservatives see Trump as a repudiation of the GOP’s core principles, and some are looking for a third-party candidate, perhaps a Libertarian. Assuming Sanders loses the nomination, his followers could walk out of the convention, spurn Hillary Clinton and even gravitate to the Green Party. The party whose nominee loses in November will be particularly up for grabs.
This campaign has been traumatic for party stalwarts who didn’t notice the volcano that was about to erupt. Don’t be surprised to see rivers of lava.
The above editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune.