In contrasting ways, both the national Republican and Democratic parties are divided and dysfunctional, facing terrific challenges as they enter the 2016 elections. Their respective troubles speak to many issues, but among them is both a generational shift occurring in the United States and the failure of the establishment in the parties to keep pace with these changes.
Political scientists like to speak of critical party realignments. These are processes where parties redefine themselves, adopting new policies and coalitions to reflect the changing political landscape. Realignments are necessary for political survival. Yet in so many ways, what we are seeing with the Republicans and Democrats are realignments that are either going in the wrong direction or are stalled, thereby contributing to the problems they face as they enter 2016.
When Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “A house divided against itself cannot stand” speech in 1858 he was referring to a country torn by slavery, not a House of Representatives and Republican Party divided against itself. But that is exactly what we are witnessing now.
First it was the presidential race where the so-called establishment party candidates with governing experience (Jeb Bush for example) are losing to the outsiders (Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina) or to the hard right (Sen. Ted Cruz). But now the House of Representatives is a mess: Speaker John Boehner is leaving, Sen. Kevin McCarthy withdrew as a speaker candidate, and the Liberty Caucus of the House (aka the Tea Party) is looking to weaken the speaker’s position and pull the Republicans even further to the right — into even a more confrontational mode against President Barack Obama, Democrats, and really government and the institution of the House itself.
One thought it was bad enough that the Republican House could not accomplish anything in the last four years; now it cannot even rule itself. It is a party hugely divided against itself, and against its future.
The Tea Party has won. Its members have achieved a critical realignment of the Republican Party, remaking it in its conservative image. It took five years, but now they have enough clout to stalemate the party, if not perhaps completely take it over. Critical realignments of parties are good – they are ways to realign the base and policy preferences of the party so that it will be able to survive and reflect the changing and evolving political landscape. Yet the critical alignment of the Republican Party is retrogressive – it is a party taking itself backwards in time.
The new Republican Party is one that seems to represent not a new emerging demographic of America – one that is more multicultural and racially diverse – but one that is a throwback to its aging base, which will literally die off in the next few years. Phrased otherwise, the future belongs to the millennials, but the Republicans are still locked into the politics of the silent generation. They are adopting views on immigration, abortion, GLBT rights, and taxes that are clearly at odds with those views held by the millennials.
Moreover, they are hardly a populist party. Their views on GLBT rights, guns, and money in politics are in clear opposition to where public opinion in America is headed, and also to where majorities of their own members are in some cases. Throw in their views on taxes and it is clear that the new GOP is a plutocratic one, increasingly anachronistic and at odds with where history is headed. Contrary to the claims of some that the Republicans are the party of no, they actually do have an agenda. It may not be one that they can govern on, but they do seem to have an emerging and clear narrative, even if that narrative is one that is a throwback in time — to a world before the New Deal.
The best thing the Democrats have going for them is the Republicans. Yet the Democrats, too, are a divided party – just look at Clinton versus Sanders. Hillary Clinton is still leading in the national polls and has a ton of party regulars and leaders supporting her, but polls show little enthusiasm for her among many of her supporters. She is the safe candidate, although one that the polls again suggest may not be able to win over critical swing voters in swing states.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a base of the Democratic Party fed up with its institutionalism and elitism. Obama disappointed; he helped the banks and Wall Street and never did much for workers, unions, and middle class America. He now seems paralyzed in his waning presidency. Sanders offers something Obama, Clinton, and the Democrats have not had since 2008 – a narrative for why they should govern.
“Change” was great in 2008, but since then what has been the narrative for the Democrats? What is the message they offer for why they should stay in power and govern? Simply saying the Republicans are nuts is not enough. The lack of narrative cost Democrats power in 2010 and 2014 and it was only a weak Mitt Romney that saved them in 2012. Clinton has no narrative in 2016; Sanders does. He has pulled near even with Clinton in fundraising, still leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, and draws enthusiastic large crowds.
Clinton for now has huge advantages further down the line, even if Vice President Joe Biden enters the race. Clinton should be able to wipe out a socialist running as a Democrat, yet her failure to do so speaks to her weaknesses and to the dangers facing a Democratic Party establishment that has too quickly endorsed a candidate who, to many, may not be where the future of the party is. Clinton, like Bush, is yesterday, not the future.
Moreover, Democrats are counting too much on “demographics are destiny” in 2016. The demographics are against Republicans and favor Democrats, but one still needs a reason to get people to vote, and that includes offering a good candidate with views that will motivate and mobilize. Remember 2014 where we threw an election and no one voted? Clinton lacks the buzz that Sanders may have. The Democratic Party divide mirrors the Republican Party – establishment vs. outsiders, aging boomers vs. millennials. The problem the Democrats face right now is that while demographics are destiny, the leadership is fighting this destiny both by embracing policies and candidates who might not reflect this destiny, and by a failure to construct a narrative to take advantage of that destiny.
It is the best and worst of times for the Republicans and Democrats. Both have the potential to change, but their approach and the direction they are taking may not be where history suggests they should move. What also may be occurring is that the divides between and within these parties reflect more powerful divides within the U.S. across race, class, gender, region and religion. Lincoln may have been right in that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The divisions that we see politically reflect broader divides found in America society, yet neither the Democrats nor Republicans seem capable of addressing these divides.
David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.
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