In his classic book Dynamics of the Party System, James L. Sundquist developed a theory of how party alignments change around new issues. As a winner-take-all system, (also called “first past the post” or FPTP), the U.S. is hard-wired to have only two dominant parties at a time. However, one party can disappear, as did the Whigs when slavery realigned the party system before the Civil War. Alternately, labels and some supporters of the existing parties can remain, but along a new line of separation on a key issue, which Sundquist calls cleavage. For example, the Civil Rights Movement accelerated a shift in the party alignment, with African-Americans and white liberals lining up solidly behind the Democrats instead of being split as before, and white Southerners defecting to the Republican Party.
Sundquist sets forth five criteria for realignment:
- Breadth and Depth of the Underlying Grievance
Trump’s signature issue is immigration, Sanders’ is breaking up big banks. Sanders hits a nerve: the 2009 bank bailout bill passed Congress easily and was supported by both major-party Presidential nominees despite being massively unpopular with the American people.
On the other side, Trump’s base is older, working class whites with a high-school education or less. These voters took a terrible beating in the Great Recession. Trump’s appeal seems to pin blame on government officials, other business leaders besides himself, and, most notably, immigrants for colluding to deny American citizens better opportunities.
- Capacity to Provoke Resistance
Here, the case for either Sanders or Trump being agents of realignment is less clear. As Sundquist notes, “The strength and determination of the resistance depend directly, however, not on the grievance but on the remedy proposed.” Will voters warm en masse to Sanders’ democratic-socialist policies including a tax on financial transactions to pay for his proposals? On the other hand, outside the hot-button issue of immigration, Trump’s policy positions are non-ideological and hard to nail down.
Sundquist writes that existing party leaders can head off realignment if they “have the skill and motivation to handle the issue in a way that will check the growth of the polar blocs, and if the issue is the kind that allows such handling…
Sanders’ opponent Hillary Clinton is working furiously to brand herself as a progressive. If Clinton is the nominee, one of the challenges she and her supporters face is how to incorporate Sanders’ base and their ideas into the party. One such overture is her proposal to more aggressively-enforce the Dodd-Frank law as an alternative to breaking up banks.
Republicans appear to be in more disarray. With a handful of exceptions, most Republican leaders have no intention of helping Trump if he wins the nomination. The conservative standard-bearing National Review magazine dedicated an entire issue to denouncing Trump.
Trump’s positions on immigration and Islam are more extreme, but not on the opposite side of most Republicans. Yet Trump also supports bank and auto-industry bailouts, a massively expensive public-works project building a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico (nearly 2000 miles), national health insurance, and a host of other expensive government programs and interventions in the market that could hardly be called conservative. Meanwhile, he ignores other conservative hot-button issues like abortion rights.
In short, so far the Republican Party has not been successful at co-opting Trump’s issues and his supporters.
- Division of the Polar Forces Between Parties
Democrats are decidedly more pro-immigrant than Republicans. However, there is a minority in each party that disagrees—most notably, 31 percent of Republicans believe immigrants make society better, while, on another dimension, 34 percent of Democrats believe immigrants make the economy worse. There is certainly fodder for a partisan realignment.
Sanders’ issue with the banks definitely hits a sore nerve. Just 26 percent of Americans express confidence in banks — a huge drop from previous decades and reflective of a general distrust of other institutions. Is this strong enough to drive voter behavior? One problem: as noted above, Americans may split over solutions — Republicans are much more likely to identify government regulations as part of problem, yet Sanders’ proposed solutions involve additional regulations and enforcement. Thus the issue tends to break along existing party lines rather than reshape them.
- Strength of Existing Party Attachments
If Trump and Sanders share one thing, it is their outcry against “the establishment.” Yet, the candidates are hardly mirror images of one another. As Nate Silver points out, Sanders is largely working to push the Democratic Party to the left along the existing left-right spectrum, whereas Trump is “all over the place” on other issues besides immigration. In short, Trump’s supporters are more likely to scramble the existing ideological divide.
In conclusion, here are some key questions for thought:
- If Hillary Clinton is nominated, how effective will she be at incorporating Bernie Sanders’ issues and supporters into the party?
- If the Democratic Party moves to the left, either by nominating Bernie Sanders or by co-opting some of his issues, will the “only centrists can win” conventional wisdom prove to be a debunked historical artifact, or the simple-math reality of every election?
- Will the U.S. party system realign along the issue of immigration?
- Is Donald Trump’s support idiosyncratic, or is it revealing a deep political cleavage that cuts across existing party lines?
- If the party system does realign, will pro-immigration Republicans feel comfortable defecting to the Democratic Party, particularly given the push by Sanders supporters to move left on other issues?
- While third parties are a hard sell in any FPTP system, might the U.S. develop a smaller but potentially tie-breaking third party like the British Liberal Democrats, who also exist under winner-take-all rules? Which party would lose more supporters to the new party? Would the new system mobilize those currently not voting or voting infrequently?
- Will this year’s raucous caucuses (and primaries) lead to a re-thinking of the direct primary/caucus system, in which a small minority of passionate participants choose party nominees that may be out of step with most voters?
It may be too soon to predict a political realignment, but at the very least, the USA’s current two-party system is certainly experiencing disruptive shocks this year.
About the author: Michael A. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. Follow Smith on Twitter.