There's something happening here. To be sure, what it is ain't exactly clear, but still: When is the last time when the winners in the Democratic and Republican New Hampshire primaries weren't even real members of those parties?
I'm guessing never.
Yet neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders really belong to the parties for whose nominations they are vying. And yet there they stand, with two silver medals in Iowa and two yuge wins last night. Do not expect party regulars either to fully acknowledge or grasp just what a blow that is to the partisan status quo. And most folks in the media to meditate on this, either. Instead, get set for an endless procession of pieces about how Hillary Clinton is primed to win in South Carolina and will up her ground game blah blah blah. And how the real takeaway from last night for Republicans is how strong John Kasich did, how little Ted Cruz spent, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
A more trenchant take was written a few weeks ago by political consultant and ABC News talker Matthew Dowd:
Two independents are not just doing extremely well. They are major players creating havoc for the establishment in the nomination process. This shows the broken nature of the two political parties and the depth of the desire for change from the status quo. It is an incredible development that Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump, men who have very little party allegiance, are creating the most energy in their respective campaigns for party leader….
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump have put an exclamation point on the weakness of the two incumbent parties. The evolution of the 2016 election has shown that the two major parties are going to have to deal with the disruption independents are forcing on the system. This cycle is likely to be an accelerator for the success of independents locally and at the state level-developments that can only be good for our democracy.
Dowd notes what everyone knows but is slow to fully grok: Whether Trump and Sanders secure their nominations, they are setting the agenda for this election and they are the source of energy and enthusiasm that's leading to record turnouts and enthusiasm.
That is a genuinely weird and ultimately wonderful development—and I say that as someone who is deeply troubled by the specifics of both Trump's and Sanders' platforms.
We may not be on the verge of the sort of cataclysmic crackup that Matt Welch and I discussed in The Declaration of Independents, in which we talked about how ostensibly impregnable duopolies fall apart seemingly overnight. Remember that between them once upon a time, Fuji and Kodak owned 100 percent of the film business around the globe, right up to the moment that the film industry was deader than the buggy-whip industry. The GOP and the Democratic Party are not going away any time soon, but long-simmering frustrations, disappointments, and anger with these two pre-Civil War entities are slowly dissolving and remaking them, whether they like it or not.
What Trump and Sanders offer up in many ways is almost a parody version of their respective brands. Trump's xenophobia and penchant for treating government like a business is hardly unknown to Republican loyalists and Sanders' socialism is simply the Great Society of steroids. Both drink deeply at the fountation of anti-Wall Street populism that has flavored U.S. politics since there was a Wall Street. In this sense, neither of them represent something truly new in our politics (that would take a libertarian candidate, one capable of legitimately pushing for "Free Minds and Free Markets"), but like white-hot dwarf stars that are hyper-condensed versions of right-wing and left-wing catechisms, they may just burn the whole thing down and set the stage for something truly different and better to rise from the ashes.
Related video (90 seconds): "Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders & The Triumph of Independents"