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2016 is the Year the Parties Reap What They’ve Sown

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No doubt 2016 is the anti-establishment year for U.S. politics.

Nationally, both Sanders and Trump are polling at about 40% in their respective primaries. In both parties, experienced candidates have gone out with whimpers.

Clinton has been able to hold Sanders off thanks to being in a two-person race; in the scattered GOP field, Trump’s 40% means establishment candidates like Rubio and Bush have been shellacked. At this point, Trump appears unstoppable despite prediction after prediction of his demise coming any day now.

All this is true despite every imaginable establishment advantage: donors have poured hundreds of millions into establishment campaigns to try to hold off the rising insurgent tides. Trump and Sanders have nary a political endorsement to their names (Christie’s cynical realpolitik bid for VP aside). Experienced economists and lawyers denounce their plans as unrealistic. Every respectable media outlet—and even highly partisan right-wing ones—have a singular message: stop Trump at all costs. (It probably won’t happen.)

The establishment’s days seem numbered; party leaders and pundits alike are left dumbfounded and speechless to explain it.
Erik Fogg, IVN Independent Author

And yet… here we are. A specter hangs over the establishments. Their most fervent bases—long relied on as pillars of support against the enemy party—are rebelling en masse. The establishment’s days seem numbered; party leaders and pundits alike are left dumbfounded and speechless to explain it.

What on earth happened? As the reality of Sanders’s and Trump’s staying power set in, pundits are scrambling to bring theories to bear in order to look like they’re the ones that have figured it out. Most of these theories attempt to explain the rise of one or the other from an ideological perspective, but these theories can’t explain the simultaneous rise of both at once. And given how many voters are divided between Sanders and Trump, any plausible theory must explain them both. So where do we start?

As we dig into the political history of the past 20 years, we find the groundwork being laid. The terrible irony here is that the planting was done by the very establishment elements that are now scrambling to contain the effects. Each party establishment has sown the seeds of its own demise. The work was not intentional, but it was deliberate, and the parties have nobody to blame but themselves for the dilemma they now face.

In the 1990s, each party began adopting two key new election strategies. The first was apocalyptic demonization of the other party. The second was focusing on maximizing the turnout of its most partisan bases.

Demonization and its Consequences

Voting on election day is an emotional choice as much as it is a rational one. As Jonathan Haidt eloquently explains in The Righteous Mind, the emotions that govern our political behavior are most closely linked to a sense of tribal identity. This tribalism explains why each party can maintain cohesion despite holding to peculiar—and often contradictory—combinations of policy ideas.

In recent decades, each party has refined its fundraising and turnout strategies by framing each election as an existential battle. “Vote for us because the other party wants to do something terrible” is a perennial core campaign message.

To illustrate: in 2014, Nancy Pelosi declared that “civilization as we know it would be in jeopardy if Republicans win the senate.” In 2012, the American Enterprise Institute boldly predicted “10 disasters America will face if Obama gets a second term,” including the end of religious freedom, economic prosperity, and U.S. military superpower status. 2004 election ads compared Bush to Hitler.

The endless bashing of each party has had the intended effect: Americans’ opinions of each party have indeed dropped. But because the effect is bilateral, both parties suffer.

As of 2015, both parties had reached new favorability lows of under 40%. Congress’ favorability, which hovered between 30 and 40% in the decades before 2000, tanked to a cataclysmic 9% (famously lower than North Korea and cockroaches) before rebounding to a meager 14%.  

The result? Americans no longer want anything to do with either party. Since 2004, American voters have fled both parties in droves: the number of self-identifying independents has skyrocketed from 32% to a record high of 43%, leaving Republicans (with 26%) and Democrats (with 30%) at record lows.

Is it any surprise that primary voters are scorning the party establishment? We should instead be puzzling why it hadn’t happened already.

A Partisan Focus and Its Consequences

The 1990s also saw a sharp increase in the use of consultants and high frequency, detailed polling in political campaigns. They quickly learned that the most hard-line partisans in each party voted and donated money far more frequently than other voters, and this meant messaging changed.

Rather than championing policy positions that reflected about half of the electorate, candidates learned that the way to win elections was to win this hard-line base by pandering to them. This grew increasingly important in primaries, where turnout is traditionally comparatively low (especially for Congress).

As much as each party tries to also grab for the center in the general election, the damage is often done by the time candidates emerge from the primary as winners—Mitt Romney’s infamous 2012 “etch-a-sketch” flap illustrates this problem.

The unintended consequence of this highly partisan focus is that the tail of the party now wags the dog: the candidates that don’t effectively run to the extremes during the primary struggle to make it to the general.

Hillary Clinton–who was expected to be a shoo-in–had to scramble for months to solidify her role as front-runner. Establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, George Pataki, and John Kasich have either fallen by the wayside or have found they have few weapons at hand to oppose Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

If we look briefly at the issues challenging the establishment, we can see this at play:

The rebellions of the party bases are likely to grow stronger in 2020, not weaker.
Democrats have spent the past 8 years blasting Wall Street as criminals and “the 1%” as moustache-twisting robber-barons. They hopped on board with the Occupy Wall Street message when it was politically convenient in congressional elections, and told their base that the financial sector is to blame for their woes. How silly are we to be surprised that the message of “economic revolution” has so much appeal?

Republicans have steadfastly opposed amnesty for undocumented migrants in the country since President Obama took office, calling the plan dangerous, economically disastrous, and even morally wrong for rewarding illegal behavior. Who can wonder why Trump’s plan to “build a wall” and (somehow) deport ten million people has gained traction?

Democrats have rallied their own base by attacking “big oil” and fighting fracking. Given the party’s years of fervor against fossil fuels, is it any question that Clinton’s oil connections are weighing her down like an albatross?

Republicans won the House in 2010 on a message that Washington is broken and its bulk a threat to American interests. The Tea Party Caucus swept in through opposition to the old, “out-of-touch” establishment interests in Congress. After 6 years of conservative campaigning against Washington as a whole, there was every reason to expect voters to see experience as a liability and prefer the guy who has no political resume at all.

The roots of the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been digging into the soil of American politics for decades: this year, they are bearing fruit.

This insurgency can be explained far more clearly by understanding how the parties groomed the electorate, rather than by a sudden and inexplicable shift of a bulk of the electorate toward preferring authoritarianism and socialism.

If the establishment is able to cling to power in 2016, will they be able to pivot their messaging toward more moderate policy proposals? It’ll require a discipline that the parties may not be able to muster. The rebellions of the party bases are likely to grow stronger in 2020, not weaker. Prospects for the establishment are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.

About the Author: Erik Fogg is the CEO of MidTide Media and leads the Something to Consider Movement, which aims to re-build the lost middle ground in US politics. In 2015 he co-authored Wedged: How You Became a Tool of the Partisan Political Establishment, and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again.

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375 comments
MissySaugus
MissySaugus

Sanders has many political endorsements:  to begin, Raul Grijalva, Keith Ellison, Tulsi Gabbard, Marcy Kaptur, all members of Congress.  What he doesn't have are the establishment politicians, nor is he seeking them. 

Dissident Politics
Dissident Politics

I see where this comes from and don't disagree about who sowed seeds of self-destruction. Nonetheless, it's a bit early to write establishments off - they're feisty and have massive amounts of everything to lose (or in the flip side, massive amounts of status quo to protect). If there's a meaningful trend among voters, it should be manifest in the 2020 presidential election.

Watching the establishment responses in the meantime will be interest, to say the least.

Steve Boyles
Steve Boyles

I admit that I did just register as a democrat (temporarily) to vote Bernie in the California Primary. I'd like to know how many people have done this?

Joel Stewart
Joel Stewart

I disagree that 2016 is the year the parties implode. I believe 2020 will be worse.

Frances Lou Fullington
Frances Lou Fullington

Democrats and republicans are the same these days the are bought and paid for by special interest groups MrTrump is our only help out of this mess why do you think they are throwing millions and millions to get him beat ?

Vickie Zimmermann
Vickie Zimmermann

A natural out cropping of public sentiment. A big one. Get more real, govt hacks.

Hunter Franklin
Hunter Franklin

Bernie is an unbought independent. He's got my vote.

Claude Ray Howell
Claude Ray Howell

Trump should try and control his hair like Sanders does...Only saying that because mine looks like Bernie's..

Chris Ingalls
Chris Ingalls

AMERICA: HOME Of The COWARDS And FOOLS! You and Hillary were for invading Iraq and over 7 trillion dollars later, of your money, you want her as your president? Now she wants the women that don't support her to feel guilty which should work well for the less intelligent. Bernie knows politics and stands strong! He would best serve the American people, male and female. Money buys lobbyists, votes and politicians. This is not a Democracy and our government does not represent the will of the people.The wealthiest 1% who don't bother to vote and with 70% of Americans wealth are running the show which is why most Democrats in Washington didn't support Obama during his first term. I stand with Jimmy Carter, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, "We're governed by an Oligarchy." I also stand with Elizabeth Warren, "The average employed American was taken for $45,000 last year alone." The number of Americans living in poverty will continue to grow while the middle class will continue to shrink and working women will continue to enrich the wealthiest 1% for the next 20 years easily! Able to afford the best and brightest, Hillary is a great political actor with a well rehearsed script. She will buy her way into the White House and along with Bill become a couple hundred million dollars richer not to mention GOING TO WORK for the Ruling Class! But we mustn't forget she will throw the females a bone! https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1026652860726166&set=a.230415463683247.58642.100001443855443&type=3&theater

Kirra Smith
Kirra Smith

long ago... you know that carpenters song

Michael Sullivan-Eichenberg
Michael Sullivan-Eichenberg

I really wish we didn't have a 2 party system (I know there's other parties now but none with any real power). It would seem so much more would get done with multiple parties that had to build a consensus with each other to be in power. Parties could also be more representative of the people that identify with them rather than so extreme "right wing" or "left wing" positionally that are so polarizing.

Roger Anderson
Roger Anderson

Just go independent and see how the heck they like that rock being thrown! Tell Rubio to go fly a kite!

Holgar
Holgar

This is funny.  Laughable, actually.  Bernie Sanders is running on essentially the same platform Humphrey and McCarthy ran on in 1968 and 1972, but today it's extremism.


Right.

Jeffrey P Kistler
Jeffrey P Kistler

The Republican establishment says that Trump must be stopped because he doesn't represent their values. What exactly is that, oh yeah, giving in to the Democrats everytime and never doing anything they promised? Neither party cares about the will of the people. Even the Democrats are using Super delegates to undermine the voting.

Dissident Politics
Dissident Politics

2016 is too early for drawing any conclusions. I'm waiting for 2020. Maybe by then a longer-term trend may become apparent.

Robert Blanford
Robert Blanford

I've always been independent. No reason to take sides when in the end we are all the same.

Yannai Asa Ravid
Yannai Asa Ravid

Yes left my party mostly due to Obama. After seeing him continue what Bush was trying to do when it came to surveillance and a restriction of our rights, I knew right then and there that he had been selected, just like Bush and probably everyone since Eisenhower and JFK

Dennis Davis
Dennis Davis

Proud to be an independent, wealthy people running the democratics and republicans will have stop soon!!!!

Don Boyd
Don Boyd

Bruce Bacon I'll suggest that Bernie has moved Hillary's rhetoric to the left. Her actual views remain to be viewed through the lens of her actions.

Denise Hart
Denise Hart

Given the history of third party candidates and the lack of success, the #PoliticalRevolution (imo) was suppose to enable the true democrats (of the FDR variety) to take back the Democratic party from the oligarchs and corporate dems. If Bernie is not the nominee, I shall abandon the party for independence. So, my answer is YES, the party I belong to has long abandoned me!

Geo. McCalip
Geo. McCalip

If it is Clinton for the Democrats, I will be voting for Jill Stein. The only reason I would consider voting for Clinton would be the Supreme Court Justices that the next President will appoint, but I live in California so my vote won't make any difference and I will vote my conscience.

Bruce Bacon
Bruce Bacon

Senator Sanders has been instrumental in moving Hillary's views further to the left. In fact, SNL did a skit last Saturday to that end. I will support Senator Sanders until he's no longer running for the office, at which point I will support the Democratic nominee. But U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders support of the American people over corporate interests without regard to ethnicity, religion, OR origin has been unwavering in his career.

David Hale
David Hale

I hate the DNC almost as much as the RNC. Popular vote means nothing to either of these corrupt groups.

Gary Waldo
Gary Waldo

Bruce Bacon Yes, you are correct, he's gaming the system but will step aside for the real Democrat candidate, HRC. I would have preferred Biden but HRC has been a good soldier for the progressive movement.

Bruce Bacon
Bruce Bacon

And if you look at the damage perpetrated against the world and US citizens from 2000-2007, you know just how much damage can be done.

Bruce Bacon
Bruce Bacon

Not at all. He's playing the game, that's how politics works. If he ran as an independent, he'd split the progressive vote and a Republican would surely weasel itself into the White House.

Gary Waldo
Gary Waldo

Bruce Bacon Then why is he running as a Democrat? Isn't that being a f$&king hypocrite?

Tolon Lijoi
Tolon Lijoi

Sanders is a joke, I look at his voters the same way as trump voters, actually Sanders is worse.

Marlene Marty Fowler-helfrick
Marlene Marty Fowler-helfrick

Many people have become independents. In my state I am registered as no political preferences. Here independent is a political party. Now if only the delegates will vote what the voters want it would be great. We will still have to battle the electoral college but hopefully we can make them hear us. I will vote for Sanders the senile socialist before I will vote for Cruz the slimy.

Gary Waldo
Gary Waldo

I think, though I'm not sure, that the recent increase in independent rolls is the direct result of the Republican Party disintegration since the "W" debacle. Most moderate Republicans are so disgusted with the direction of the party and the clown car occupant candidates that they won't be identified as Republicans. Independent sounds better and they don't have to defend the indefensible.

Andew Gripp
Andew Gripp

"The endless bashing of each party has had the intended effect: Americans’ opinions of each party have indeed dropped. But because the effect is bilateral, both parties suffer."

Well put.

Dan Wight
Dan Wight

An interesting and obviously relevant statement but the quality of the individual candidates still have a great deal to show which direction that movement is going and ones own ability to read and understand a dictionary definition. There are some troubling or outdated rules and laws and regulations in our laws.

Jerry Ford
Jerry Ford

Calm down folks elections are not untill November of course the pundits at the DNC and RNC want you to believe its all over because the rednecks have spoken but its far from over the level heads have yet to make their wishes known!!

Gerald Martin
Gerald Martin

As an Independent I find the two party system to be problematic- in particular the primary system and all of its issues that are contrary to the constitution!!!

Stephen Wessells
Stephen Wessells

I've been registered independent for decades. It saves time when I reverse my philosophy :). I rather like the parliamentary system, and would be happier with more parties, but I don't think that will happen. Too many have power invested in the current system.

Susan Kirwan
Susan Kirwan

yea i vote anything but... a democrat or republican especially in the small local votes till they dont have a base...keep up the good work america..we need to break this forced monopoly on the american voter..

Nita Sovern
Nita Sovern

Yes, after 45 years as a loyal Democrat, I have had enough. I can't turn a blind eye to the corruption any longer. I am only hanging on to vote for Bernie in the Maryland primary. After the convention, if $hillary grabs the nomination, I will change my party affiliation to Green and vote for Jill Stein.

Nancy Steele Lilly
Nancy Steele Lilly

And....we could not vote in the primary in Florida. Too bad as we had a lot to say.

Steve Roebke
Steve Roebke

They both are bad choices. Can we vote for none of the above and start over? Draft John McCain?

Jack Vanderpool
Jack Vanderpool

We should be able to register and Vote as Independants. If we register as a Republican or Democrat, they think we support their party. Boy would they be shocked if they knew how many independents there really were.

Peter Grois
Peter Grois

People are getting smattering and upset with the self-centered establishment. The modern voter is looking for alternatives to move forward.

Kathleen Sue Shuey
Kathleen Sue Shuey

Democrats followed the Clintons over to the other side. I couldn't go.

Steve Sarsfield
Steve Sarsfield

The 2 party system is broken and corrupt and must be dismantled. 5+ parties would better represent the ppl