Is the American Party System About to Crack Up?

Roundup
tags: election 2016



Rick Perlstein is the national correspondent for The Washington Spectator and the author, most recently, of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014).


What are the prospects for a realignment of American politics? On the Democratic side, practically nil. The presidential front-runner—the one with the endorsements of 15 out of 18 sitting Democratic governors, 40 out of 44 senators, and 161 out of 188 House members—is running a campaign explicitly opposed to fundamental transformation. Her signature campaign promise—no new taxes on households making $250,000 or less—renders serious change impossible. The chance for her opponent to win the nomination approaches mathematical impossibility. He is running as a “revolutionary.” But governing is a team sport. If, by some miracle, Bernie Sanders entered the White House in January, he would do so naked and alone—in command of a party apparatus less prepared ideologically, institutionally, and legislatively to do great things than at any other time in its history.

One side promises competence. The other promises the impossible. This is the Democratic Party in 2016.

And the Republicans? Senator Ted Cruz, believe it or not, was also a candidate of continuity, the nearly pure product of a conservative-movement Petri dish. His father was an evangelical pastor from one of America’s most reactionary immigrant communities. Cruz received his tutelage in the thought of Milton Friedman and Frédéric Bastiat while still in high school; he also memorized the US Constitution, was a champion debater at Princeton, and worked as the conservative movement’s all-but-official Supreme Court litigator in his years as solicitor general of Texas. His creepy extremism is precisely the extremism we have known in the Republican Party ever since Barry Gold- water in 1964. His electoral coalition was Goldwater’s—which, blessedly, in our increasingly younger, browner, and leftward-leaning nation, means it was always going to be very hard for him to become president.

That leaves our orange-maned wild card—who, for the same reasons, will also have a very hard time winning a presidential election. But if there is any chance of a fundamental realignment in American politics, it would come from the candidate to whom none of the familiar rules apply. Donald Trump has primed millions of his followers to believe that a corrupt national establishment—a conspiracy of politicians, the media, and business—has stolen their birthright as Americans. The techno-sociology scholar Zeynep Tufekci, studying Trump’s social-media following, notes that his fans treat him as the sole source of truth and authority: In their view, “every unpleasant claim about Trump is a fabrication by a cabal that includes the Republican leadership and the mass media.” Recently, Robert Costa and Bob Woodward of TheWashington Post asked Trump what he would do in his first 100 days as president. The candidate replied that he would focus on trade deals. “What about economic legislation?” Costa asked. Trump responded, “Before I talk about legislation, because I think frankly this is more important—number one, it’s going to be a very big tax cut.” He spoke, in other words, as if tax policy isn’t a product of legislation, but rather gets handed down by presidential fiat.

Trump has also announced the litmus test for his first Supreme Court nominee: a willingness to prioritize his crushing of a political rival. (“I’d probably appoint people that would look very seriously at [Hillary Clinton’s] e-mail disaster because it’s a criminal activity.”)

If Trump wins the presidency, we’ll have elected an aspiring dictator. In that event, speculation about the fate of the conservative movement, let alone the Republican Party, would be quite beside the point. But if Donald Trump loses the presidency, we’ll still be left with those millions of followers—many of them violent—trained by Trump to believe that their American birthright has been stolen from them once more. The only thing that will stand in their way is the strength of our constitutional system. One must hope it proves very strong indeed. The alternative is a sort of realignment that none of us want. ...




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