This is how a political party dies: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders — and the collapse of our failed political elites

The left and right want a revolution, or an end to business as usual. Parties have died before — and could again

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published February 6, 2016 2:30PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump   (AP/Jim Mone/Reuters/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump (AP/Jim Mone/Reuters/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)

The Iowa caucus results may have brought a brief reprise from full-scale panic mode among political elites, but there's no denying that the terrain we're on now looks nothing like what anyone expected a year ago.

It's not just the babbling punditocracy that's been caught with its pants down this election cycle. As Nick Gass noted at Politico recently, Trump's resilience has confused and confounded political scientists as well—in particular by challenging the thesis of the “seminal 2008 book 'The Party Decides,'" as Gass calls it. The book's thesis is fairly straightforward—that for the last several decades, at least, it's party insiders, not voters, who determine parties' presidential nominees. By those lights 2016 was always going to be a Bush-Clinton battle of the political dynasties, so it's not just Trump, but Sanders as well who's threatening those certainties.

But we shouldn't be too hard on political scientists, even if things don't return to “normal.” Because there's one simple, obvious explanation for what's going on: the existing party system may be crumbling right before our eyes. As confusing and chaotic as the presidential race drama has been, it could be only symptomatic of something even deeper and more profound: the death and dissolution of one or both major political parties.

It's happened before, but long enough ago and nowhere near often enough for political scientists to have the sort of data they'd like to make sense of what's going on—if, indeed, that's what's about to unfold, as I think it might. So they really can't be blamed for not knowing what will happen next. Still, there is a way to make sense of party dissolution in American history, and it really may help to shed some light on what we're experiencing now.

From the 1790s to the 1860s, America had a number of parties that lasted for a least one election cycle, and six that elected at least one president. So let's do a review of different major American parties and how they died, to get a better feel for what that was like.

The Federalist Party was America's first political party, founded between 1792 and 1794 by America's fledgeling 1 percent, a coalition of bankers and businessmen who supported Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policies. It stood for a strong, fiscally sound central government, a national bank, protective tariffs, and good relations with Great Britain as reflected in the Jay Treaty (1794) and opposition to the War of 1812, which led some Federalists to extreme states rights positions that led to the brink of secession. But its downfall began well before that, with multiple issues, intrigues and personal rivalries that cost the Federalists the 1800 election and prevented them from ever winning again. The party continued to exist until 1820, when it fielded only a vice presidential candidate, but it was effectively dead much earlier, dying by degrees.

The Democratic-Republican Party was America's second political party and the second major party to die, although today's Democratic Party is clearly a successor, one of two parties to emerge when it split in 1828, and the only one to survive more than a handful of years. It was founded by Jefferson and Madison in response to the Federalist Party, and achieved political dominance by winning the 1800 election, after which it never lost until the Federalist Party was no more. But success can be as deadly as failure, and foreshadowings of its eventual fragmentation began as early as 1808, in the struggle to succeed Jefferson. Madison won the general election handily, but the nomination battle against Monroe and Vice President George Clinton was more difficult, reflecting factional differences, not just personalities. In 1812, Clinton's nephew, DeWitt Clinton, ran against Madison's re-election bid—also as a Democratic-Republican! The Federalists were so weak, they threw their support to Clinton, rather then run their own candidate.

Eight years later, when Monroe ran for re-election, he ran unopposed. But four years after that, the factionalism erupted as never before, with a four-way race among Democratic-Republicans, in which Andrew Jackson won a plurality, so the election was decided in the House, where John Qunicy Adams—son of the only Federalist president—won. Adams' presence in the party reflected not just its dominance, but also its self-confidence. After leaving the Federalist Party in 1808, having been U.S. senator, Adams was appointed as America's first ambassador to Russia by Madison in 1809, then became ambassador to Britain, and finally secretary of state. The Democratic-Republicans also adopted some policies first championed by the Federalists, such as protective tariffs and a national bank. This policy flexibility and expansiveness is one of the reasons the party flourished, while the Federalists withered, but the expansiveness proved too much for some—opposition to the national bank was a cornerstone of Jacksonian politics as the party split apart.

The next major party to die was the short-lived National Republican Party, born out of the alliance of Adams and Henry Clay, another of the four candidates in 1824. Still more of a party faction in 1828, when Adams ran and lost, they were a full-fledged party in 1832, when Clay ran and lost, clearly identified with his “American System” of national improvements and sectional integration. But after that the party quickly died by being absorbed into a broader, more diverse entity....

The Whigs were the next major party to die, torn apart by the question of slavery—or more precisely, the issue of slavery's expansion to new states—though they were never particularly cohesive in the first place. They were born in 1833 from the amalgamation of the ideologically coherent National Republican Party and the conspiracist Anti-Masonic Party—America's first third party, which made an 8 percent showing in the 1832 election—along with disaffected Jacksonians and former Federalists, many of whom had been politically inactive for a decade or more. Although they did have some ideological coherence in theory, in practice they were a grab-bag, to put it mildly. Their only successful presidential candidates were popular war heroes, mirroring Jackson, whom they despised: William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, both of whom died in office. After Harrison's death, his successor, John Tyler, was expelled from the party while president. Taylor's successor, Millard Fillmore, fared better: not expelled, but not renominated, either, due to the opposition of the party's anti-slavery faction. Instead the Whigs nominated a third war-hero candidate, Winfield Scott, who lost in 1852, shortly before the party broke apart.

Two major fragments emerged from the Whig's disintegration: the anti-slavery Republican Party, and the anti-immigrant American Party (known as “Know-Nothings”). At first the Know-Nothings did better in Congress, but Republicans did better in 1856, when the Know-Nothings ran Fillmore, who was not a party member, but still came in a distant third. Which is why the Know-Nothings don't make the list of major U.S. parties that died.

Shortly after the Whig Party died, the Democratic Party almost died as well—and from basically the same cause: the issue of slavery. In 1860, the party split into sectional factions. Northern Democrats supporting Stephen Douglas, who gained 29.5 percent of the vote, and Southern Democrats supporting Breckenridge, who won 18.1 percent. Lincoln won election with just 39.8 percent 0f the vote, while a fourth candidate, John Bell, won 12.6 percent as head of the short-lived Constitutional Union party, a fragmentary Whig offshoot. With Lincoln's election, the Southern states that supported Breckenridge quickly seceded, bringing on the Civil War, but by 1868 most were back in the body politic, with both major parties intact.

No major party has died since then—except for Teddy Roosevelt's “Bull Moose” Party, which was largely reabsorbed into the GOP in 1916, after Roosevelt's second-place showing in the 1912 election briefly demoted the GOP to third party status. The GOP's ability to recover from such a profound shock stands in stark contrast to the party history of the earlier era. If we want to understand why that long record of stability over the past 150+ years may come to an end—or at least why it might be worth considering—we need to first get a better understanding of the more stable era, how it falls into two distinct parts, and how it fits together with the more tumultuous era that preceded it.

The post-1860s stable party makeup makes it much easier to trace an underlying dynamic that also drove the era that preceded it: a succession of distinct “party systems,” marked by defining “realigning elections,” in which the makeup of the existing parties is significantly altered—if not destroyed and recreated, as it often was before the 1860s. Typically, a dominant party controls the government at first through several cycles, and sets much of the policymaking framework that endures, even though the subdominant party may gain traction after a while. Over time, unresolved issues, problems, tensions and unmet expectations build up, and new patterns of political alignment and tension emerge until they reach a point when another realigning election occurs to begin dealing with the backlog of unmet needs. There were two such party systems before the 1860s—one starting in 1800, the other 1828--and there were three party systems from then through 1968.

But in 1968 something unprecedented, something distinctly different happened—a change possibly as profound as what happened in the 1860s. Instead of a realigning election coherently reorganizing the two parties along new lines, we had what realignment theorist Walter Dean Burnham called a “dealigning election,” after which divided government became the rule, just slightly before the explosive growth of inequality and elite power that has blighted America ever since, with the asymmetric polarization of politics that has followed.

The dealigned state of American politics is what today's political elites consider normal—from political scientists to media commentators to officeholders, operatives, donors and all the rest. It's what shapes their whole view of the political world—not just what is, but what is imaginable. And yet, it's a profoundly atypical state that American politics is in.

From 1861 to 1896, for example, Republicans controlled the White House and Congress for 18 years, Democrats controlled them for two years, and control was divided for 16. From 1897 to 1932, Republicans controlled both for 24 years, Democrats controlled them for four years, and control was divided for eight. Then from 1933 to 1968, Democrats controlled both for 26 years, Republicans controlled them for two years, and control was divided for eight.

In sharp contrast, from 1969 to 2008, Democrats controlled both for six years, Republicans controlled both for under six years, and control was divided for over 28 years. Thus, the post-1968 period has been one long chapter in political party history without an integrated dominant policy view, a period in which the pressures of unmet needs have had more time and opportunity to build up than has historically been the case. And this has happened just at the time when government action has been most needed to respond to a rapidly changing world.

Which is why Barack Obama's 2008 election could have been so significant, in terms of shifting the entire political system back into a more traditionally functional mode. The multifaceted failures of the Bush administration created a profound political opening, reflected in the political results. Obama won election by almost 10 million popular votes, taking the electoral college 365-173, while winning Indiana and Virginia from the GOP for the first time since 1964. Democrats won a 21-seat wave election in the House, for a 257-178 total, and an eight-seat gain in the Senate for 57-41 margin (59-41 with two independent allies). Although just shy of what's needed to overcome a filibuster, there were still half a handful of Republican senators—Snowe, Collins, Specter and possibly Murkowski—who could be publicly pressured not to filibuster sufficiently popular proposals that Democrats might advance.

Obama's 2008 election represented a real opportunity for the dawn of a new multi-decade party system era of Democratic policy dominance, but Obama, as a creature of the divided government era, did not even aspire to such a goal, seeing “bickering” between the parties as the real obstacle facing the country, and setting out to overcome it by seeking compromise. Obama's consensus-seeking—rather than consensus-shaping—approach left him wide open for the GOP rejectionist strategy that followed, wrapped up in the false claim that it was he who would not compromise, when they insisted on repeatedly pulling sharply to the right.

Obama was so deeply imbued with the dealigned worldview of the post-1968 era that he never pursued the possibility of initiating an era of Democratic dominance—even when near-absolute GOP opposition made the path of bipartisan policymaking untenable, as his repeated bipartisan overtures were rejected again and again. Despite the fact that Obama typically began his policy negotiating from a position of “consensus” compromise, Republicans responded by portraying it in extremist terms, and the hapless political press duly fell into “he-said/she-said”/“both-sides-do-it” line. Thus, Obama's attempt to deal with the accumulated backlog of unresolved issues, problems, tensions and unmet expectations in a bipartisan manner, within the imaginative framework of the dealigned era was successfully mis-portrayed as a radical departure, when, in reality, only a radical departure could possibly have dealt with all that accumulated backlog. (A radical departure, I should add, which would first and foremost consist of restoring how our politics has usually functioned.) This is precisely the argument that Bernie Sanders is advancing today.

If neither party is prepared for such a radical departure, then one or both of them very well may die, because the American people demand it, even as the established frameworks of American politics fail to deliver for them—both the frameworks of intra-party organization, which evolve over time, and the framework of periodic inter-party/transparty reorganization, which used to occur via realigning elections.

The unexpected storylines of the 2016 election cycle so far are but superficial expressions of far more fundamental untold stories deep within the bowels of our collective public life. Even if the GOP thwarts Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton's almost unanimous support by the Democratic establishment keeps Sanders at bay, the profound elite failures of the post-1968 era cannot be wished away, including the chimera of elite bipartisan solutions. Sooner or later, something's got to give. If neither party is equipped to respond to what the people demand, it would be foolish not to expect a return to the more chaotic politics of the pre-1860 era.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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