Two despised frontrunners, two dying parties and a deeply broken system: How did we get here?

Trump and Clinton may be the two most hated frontrunners in history, dueling symbols of a duopoly in decay

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 17, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton   (AP/Gerald Herbert/Star Max/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton (AP/Gerald Herbert/Star Max/Photo montage by Salon)

To paraphrase a great American poet of the 1980s, this is not our beautiful house. We get a tiny breather in the political calendar this week, and it’s a useful moment to take half a step back from the most chaotic and disordered presidential campaign in living memory and ask ourselves the big question: What in the name of Jiminy Cricket is going on here? I spent the week digging into the past for clues to the strange dynamics of the present: To be clear, I did not conclude that Donald Trump is a new Hitler or that Bernie Sanders is a new Lenin, only that the parallels and the discontinuities were instructive.

So here’s what’s happening: Our political system is profoundly broken, and although many of us have understood that for years, this has been the year that fact became unavoidable. Both political parties are struggling through transparently rigged primary campaigns that have made that ludicrous process look more outdated than ever. Nobody cares about the Democratic vote in Wyoming and it’s not going to matter, but when Bernie Sanders dominates the caucuses in that empty, dusty and Republican-dominated state and wins seven of its 18 delegates, doesn’t that sum up the whole damn thing?

Both parties are also struggling to control long-simmering internal conflicts that have come boiling to the surface this year, and in both cases the leadership caste is wondering whether it’s time to burn down the village in order to save it. In the larger analysis, both parties are struggling to ignore the mounting evidence of their own irrelevance. One of them is struggling with that in a more public and more spectacular fashion at the moment, but the contagion is general. In my judgment, Democrats would do well to cancel the Champagne and refill the Xanax.

Despite the unkillable Whack-a-Mole candidacy of Sanders — who, as I argued this week, has channeled an insurgent and quasi-revolutionary class-consciousness that other politicians didn’t even know existed — we are likely to end up with a general-election campaign between the two least popular major-party nominees in political history. OK, I suppose we can’t know that for sure: We don’t have polling data to consult from the infamous election of 1828, when Andrew Jackson accused President John Quincy Adams of procuring hookers for the Russian czar and running a gambling den in the White House. (Adams accused Jackson of being a bigamist and an adulterer, and also hinted that he might be partly black, despite his overtly racist views.)

But I imagine you take my point: Jackson and Adams were intensely divisive figures who represented competing class and regional interests within the all-male, all-white electorate of the time, and were loved and hated accordingly. In fact, that election effectively marked the invention of the two-party system after several decades of chaos. If the past is prologue, we could be in for some excitement as that system implodes: The election of 1800 produced a constitutional crisis, by way of an electoral-college tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and then 19 more tied ballots in the House of Representatives before Jefferson was elected. At the opposite extreme, James Monroe ran for re-election unopposed in 1820, which must have made for a boring year on social media.

Numerous noteworthy American presidents or presidential candidates, from Lincoln to William Jennings Bryan to John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, have been divisive figures who excited strong passions on both sides and split public opinion roughly in half. Contention is the essence of politics. But what we’re facing this year, in a likely fall campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, is something different and quite likely without precedent that symbolizes the terminal decay of politics. It’s not contention; it’s more like universal distaste.

Of course polling data is not sacrosanct, and ambiguous perceptions like “favorable” and “unfavorable” tend to wobble around even more than voter preference. But by any standard the CBS/New York Times poll published three weeks ago was remarkable. It sort of blew through the news cycle and then out again, like an indigestible fast-food meal: more weird and crazy numbers in a weird and crazy year. But just take a whiff, and tell me it doesn’t smell like democracy dying on the vine. Donald Trump was viewed favorably by just 24 percent of the voters surveyed, and unfavorably by 57 percent, making him by far the least-liked major-party frontrunner since CBS began asking this question in 1984.

Who’s in second place, in this historic sweepstakes of hate? Hillary Clinton, in the same poll: She was viewed favorably by 31 percent and unfavorably by a mere 52 percent. I see you in the back of the room waving your slide rules, eager-beaver Democrats. And yes, you’re right: Every national survey so far, including that one, shows Clinton beating Trump easily. Math was never my strong suit, but 31 percent is more than 24 percent, as I understand it. But are you guys really going to act like that’s a cause for high-fives and #WeGotThis retweets and celebratory glasses of Sonoma Chardonnay? If that’s a silver lining, it’s made out of aluminum foil from the bottom of the cat box. We’ve got the second least-popular candidate ever — that’s what time it is! Winner-winner chicken dinner!

Just to review, those Trump and Clinton numbers are the two highest unfavorable ratings in the 32-year history of the CBS poll, and also the two largest “negative net ratings,” meaning the difference between the positive and negative numbers. The only previous candidate to come close was Bill Clinton in March of 1992, when he was surrounded by allegations of multiple extramarital affairs. (He came back from that minus-17 nadir to win the election, of course, but even at his low point his negatives were nowhere near as high as Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s are now.) In the previous eight presidential cycles, there has never been a poll showing both major-party candidates with negative net favorability ratings, let alone double-digit ones.

The nationwide Clinton-Trump hate-fest can be viewed as the continuation or culmination of a long-term downward trend that is easy to summarize: Americans don’t much like either political party or the people they nominate. There are peaks and valleys within that downward arc, to be sure, and significant deviations from the mean: Sometimes people dislike one party considerably more than the other (right now the Republicans are in the doghouse) and occasionally an individual candidate breaks through the antipathy, like Ronald Reagan in 1980 or Barack Obama in 2008. But the data suggests an awful lot of blah: At this point in 2004, John Kerry’s numbers were a smidgen negative and George W. Bush’s a smidgen positive; in the spring of 2012, Mitt Romney stood at minus-7 while Obama’s up-down balance was dead even.

I can only conclude that many people who are embedded within the two-party system glance at that kind of data and shrug it off as a meaningless aberration, because it doesn’t conform to their understanding of the world. They carry on pretending they haven’t noticed the gorilla in the room of American politics, which is that their parties are visibly crumbling beneath them. (To be fair, Republicans are having a tough time ignoring that this year.) The proportion of American adults who identify as either Republicans or Democrats is at or near all-time lows. Much of this seems paradoxical: Democrats hold roughly the same slim edge over Republicans that they’ve held in opinion polling for decades, yet according to this year’s Gallup poll, Democratic identification fell below 30 percent for the first time ever. (Another reason to cancel those “Emerging Democratic Majority” parties.)

Of course the X factor in this perplexing equation is independent voters, who have consistently been the largest chunk of the electorate since the early ’90s, and now represent more than 40 percent of the total. Mainstream political science generally behaves as if independents don’t matter or don't exist; there are only Democratic or Republican “leaners” who for mysterious reasons choose to stand aloof from either party. There’s some crude validity to that when it comes to gaming out electoral scenarios, no doubt, but not when it comes to considering American politics as a system that no longer works, and that most people despise. As the CBS poll reveals, that big unaffiliated chunk of the electorate is where both Trump and Clinton have overwhelmingly unfavorable numbers, and where both parties are perceived with undisguised hostility.

It’s also independent voters who decide presidential elections, a political truism that has typically led both parties to nominate boring, middle-ground candidates who are just barely acceptable to the ideological base but not too scary for the apocryphal suburban swing voter. But that really hasn’t worked too well, at least not since the devious triangulation regime of Bill Clinton. Who was, after his own stealthy fashion — I mean this sincerely! — one of the most destructive presidents in recent history. If President Kerry and President Romney accomplished great things, I guess I missed them.

What independents “really” want, and whether it’s useful or possible to make any general statements about them, is a bigger question than I can hope to answer here. It’s safe to say that by definition they are dubious about the Republicrat duopoly, and many of them are eager for alternative options. Independent voters overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008, when he ran as a non-ideological agent of historic change, and they have been the bedrock of Bernie Sanders’ support this year. If all the Democratic primaries and caucuses had been closed to independent voters in 2008, Obama would probably have lost to Hillary Clinton. To turn that question upside down, if there were a nationwide open primary between Clinton and Sanders, the outcome would be very much in doubt. Indeed, the Sanders demographic is strikingly similar to the Obama ’08 demographic, with the obvious (and fatal) subtraction of most of the African-American vote.

If there’s a Democratic advantage amid the carnage of 2016, it resides in another paradox whose long-term consequences are unclear. What Jeb Bush recently and plaintively described as “regular-order democracy” has been conclusively demolished on the Republican side, where the nominee will presumably be one of two men who are loathed by the party leadership and nearly certain to lose in November. The Democratic process, on the other hand, has functioned approximately as it was designed to — as witness that result in Wyoming, where Sanders won roughly 56 percent of the vote and came away with 39 percent of the delegates. The establishment candidate with all the corporate dollars and the deep institutional roots is (probably) going to vanquish the crowd-funded rebel outsider, although not without a few hair-raising plot twists along the way.

At this point, it looks as if the Democrats’ mainstream candidate, although widely disliked, is less terrifying to independents than either of the prospective Republican nominees, who have all but announced that they only want the votes of self-righteous and constipated white men. But that is entirely a testimonial to Republican confusion and disorder; anyone who tries to spin it as evidence of Democratic strength and clarity and forward thinking is deep in Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s Land of Perpetual Denial. It’s conceivable — not all that likely, but conceivable — that the Republican civil war of 2016, and the purge that is likely to follow, will permit the GOP to rebuild a viable party before the oncoming Democratic crisis can be resolved.

Poll after poll has suggested that Clinton would be in deep trouble against John Kasich, who has won exactly one primary and could only win the Republican nomination in a contested convention with multiple ballots (and an unknown number of felony assault charges). You can’t say anything is impossible this year, but no convention in either party has been seriously contested since the Republican gathering of 1976, and none has gone to a second ballot since 1952. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio also polled well against Clinton; they and Kasich would all be leading contenders in some third-rail, Koch-funded pro-business party that was less overtly hateful and racist and misogynist than the neo-Confederate monstrosity of the contemporary GOP. That party, I am sorry to say, would probably win the election this year.

If much of this analysis seems contradictory or incoherent — independents love the anti-establishment message of Sanders, but not the anti-establishment message of Trump; they’d probably support a center-right old-school Republican over Hillary Clinton — that’s because American politics don’t make sense, and are driven by subterranean fears and desires more than logic or reason. Clinton supporters will say, of course, that she has been unfairly pilloried by the BernieBros as a tool of Wall Street and a political land shark with no ideological soul, and that the real reason so many people to her right and her left hate her is widespread misogynist resentment toward a powerful and ambitious woman. My own perspective is that both things can be true, but never mind.

There could definitely be a dark historical irony at work here, if the year we elect our first female president — rather late in the day, it must be said — is also the year when our political system enters a period of unmistakable and perhaps terminal decline. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, it won’t happen because America has gotten over sexism or because the Democrats have forged a pathway to the future. It will be because she was nominated by the party that is dying slowly and somewhat politely, rather than the one that just blew itself up in public with a suicide vest. It will happen because many people will conclude they’d rather have a president they don't particularly like or trust, but who is pretty much a known quantity, than a third-rate comic-book supervillain. Of such choices, history is made.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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