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A tale of two parties: the challenges facing Republicans and Democrats in 2016

MinnPost photo by Karl Pearson-Cater
Both Republicans and Democrats have the potential to change, but their approach and the direction they are taking may not be where history suggests they should move.

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.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

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.

The Republicans

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 Democrats

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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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/13/2015 - 09:34 am.

    One suggestion

    “…reflect more powerful divides within the U.S. across race, class, gender, region and religion…” I agree, and it’s a pretty comprehensive list, but I would add one other factor: age.

    Intergenerational equity, along with all the other kinds of “equities” that have been given short shrift in recent years, seems to me to be a genuine issue, and one that neither party is currently addressing with substantial success. As a certified old person myself, it seems more than a little obvious to me that Millennials, or whatever we’re now calling those citizens who are under 40, are the future of the nation, and that future is increasingly culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse. I’m inclined to argue that Democrats are doing a better job of addressing and appealing to that diversity than Republicans, but the GOP has set the bar so low in that regard that “doing better than the Republicans” doesn’t represent much of an achievement.

    Tea Party types have demonstrated on multiple occasions that the welfare of the nation as a whole is of less concern to them than ideological purity and getting what *they* want, even if it’s at the expense of everyone else. It’s not a philosophy of government so much as it is a philosophy of resentment. While it’s easy to portray the Tea Party as neofascist, more and more the statements coming from Tea Party types strike me as – unlike genuine fascism – incoherent, and essentially not much more than reactionary anger. That said, however, they’re obviously reactionary in a very big way.

    I won’t be surprised if the Tea Party and/or it’s faux “philosophy” destroys the Republican Party, which is currently its only viable path to power. Should that happen, a diminishing group of angry white people will find themselves not just on the outside looking in, but so far outside that they’ll barely be able to see what’s going on in either the halls of government or the society as a whole. That would be a cause for celebration among many, myself included, were it not for the fact that the lack of a reasonable opposition will hand the reins of power, deserved or not, to an increasingly plutocratic Democratic Party that’s very nearly as much in the pocket of the 1% as are Republicans. The names may change – though even that isn’t guaranteed – but the syndrome of wealthy legislators, out of touch with the general populace, having their political influence purchased by even more wealthy plutocrats and corporations will continue, and will thus continue to provide fuel for the sort of resentment that created the Tea Party in the first place.

    None of this will be beneficial to either the ideal or the practical reality of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

  2. Submitted by William Lindeke on 10/13/2015 - 10:06 am.

    Back to the future

    It’s weird when voting for Hillary Clinton (of all people, and I don’t even dislike her) is the choice that seems LESS like going back in time to the 1990s.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/13/2015 - 12:45 pm.

    More Spin….

    “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.” D.S.

    Are not you talking about the “old white people” who will be debating on CNN tonight? Maybe “old Joe” will come to their rescue and try to reinvigorate the old, tired, backward, establishment, democratic special interest groups.

  4. Submitted by Josh Lease on 10/13/2015 - 04:32 pm.

    I have to strongly disagree with the premise of the article, which equates the political and strategic difficulties facing the Democrats and the Republicans. While this sort of “a pox on both their houses” analysis plays very well in the media and among many political cynics, the reality of the challenges facing the two parties isn’t particularly comparable.

    First, Bernie Sanders challenge to Hillary Clinton doesn’t mean she’s a weak candidate, and this early the process it’s almost certain that any serious candidate with a level of energy behind them would gain significant support. No candidate gets a free pass any longer, no matter how much institutional support they have or inevitable they seem. But the bigger point is there really isn’t a major divide in the party over the candidates that would cause their supporters to stay home, infuriated and bitter, if their preferred choice loses. Even the most dedicated are likely to support the party nominee in the end. The media investment in the “horse-race” is always going to ensure a level of competition, so the suggestion Hillary should have already swamped Sanders doesn’t fit. (you can only run so many “waiting for Biden” stories too) There’s also a suggestion implicit in this piece that neither Sanders nor Clinto are “good” candidates capable of energizing the party base, which seems absurd taken in the context of the race so far. Both candidates have managed to turn out crowds of support and raise money, while so far managing to avoid the clown show that epitomizes the GOP cattle call. The “email scandal” dogging Clinton is entirely manufactured by the NY Times in collusion with the House GOP…and no one cares because they recognize the BS.

    On the GOP side, however, you have a party in massive crisis in DC, demonstrating epic incompetence in governing which is helping drive a primary season where “outsider” candidates are leading the pack while demonstrating bizarre stupidity, unpalatable extremism, amazing incompetence, or a combination of all three! Clinton and Sanders are running professional operations, while most of the GOP candidates are balloons without a rubber band. The lengths that semi-reasonable candidates in the race are going to in order to try to catch the non-professionals in the race and/or push them back out of the show is piling up deficits that they will be unable to shake in a general election. The lunatics are running the asylum and it’s a much bigger problem for them as a party, both now and in the future.

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