With the South Carolina primaries and Nevada caucuses in plain view, there seems little to no question that 2016's key interlopers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are still a problem for their respective "parties" (I use scare quotes because neither of them is really a member of either group).
This reality is causing a huge problem for the parties' established candidates (that is, politicians who are clearly part and parcel of the Republican or Democratic clubs, whether they pretend to be insiders or outsiders). I totally understand why not just Hillary Clinton but the Democratic Party operation has got to be shitting a brick over Sanders' popularity and staying power. Same goes for Republican types, even those (such as the fellows at National Review) who rarely have a kind word for "establishment" GOP representatives. What the hell is going on, already? A fake Republican and a fake Democratic are not just threatening "real" partisans but absolutely kicking ass!
And get this: The parties' meltdowns are occuring at the same time that Gallup is finding that libertarian-minded voters now outnumber conservatives, liberals, and populists (more on that below).
As I argue in a new Daily Beast column, Sanders and Trump aren't leading their party in bold new directions. No, the candidates are making the parties look bad because they are presenting something close to the distilled, Platonic essences the Democratic and Republican platforms.
Bernie Sanders…is causing equal levels of discomfort among the Democratic Party establishment by admitting that he's not really a socialist. He just wants to give away a ton of free stuff, most notably education, health care, and retirement but also paid family leave and a laundry list of whatever else he can think of. When he got into the race, he refused to apologize for being a tried-and-true socialist, which he redefined later as being a "democratic socialist" and now characterizes as simply wanting to import the very best Denmark has to offer before it becomes even more like the United States….
And of course, Sanders has no realistic way of paying for any of his new spending. He just waves away the bill for such new spending, suggesting that one way or another, he'll get the 1 percent to pay for it. Nobody buys that.
And then there's Trump, whose likelihood of actually winning the GOP nomination increases with each horrible thing he seems to say.
For all of the he's-not-one-of-us bluster against Trump, he does a passable impersonation of a National Review—style conservative Republican for most of us. He is by his own words strongly against immigration (which NR's editors call a "defining" issue for today's right-wingers). He is obsessed with displays of masculinity and dismisses opponents as "weak" and as pussies. His trucker-hat promise to "Make America Great Again" is simply a (slightly) dumbed-down version of conservative Republicans' fixation on "American exceptionalism" and Barack Obama's supposed contempt for the same.
Trump may indeed be "philosophically unmoored"—unlike Ted Cruz, he doesn't know or care enough to sprinkle his applause lines with bon mots from Ludwig von Mises or Ronald Reagan—but nobody would confuse him with, say, a liberal Democrat, would they?
According to the latest Gallup figures on party identification, the Democrats are at a post-war historic low, with just 29 percent of Americans calling themselves Dems. At 26 percent, the GOP is just one percentage point above its all-time low.
Who can blame the 45 percent of us who are now saying that we don't identify with either of the two major parties?
When you look at what each party has wrought just in the 21st century alone, the only real question is why the Dems or Reps have any members left? Separately, they pushed (among other things) Medicare expansion, Obamacare, No Child Left Behind, massive, unwarranted, and ongoing expansions in food stamps, disability spending, drone srikes, losing wars, immigration deportations, and huge piles of debt. All while demonizing the other party and only getting together every couple of years to work around spending caps that were put in place because they couldn't get it together to write and pass annual budgets.
If we are lucky as a country, we are just a few more debates away from Trump and Sanders pushing party identification into the single digits—they are the only two candidates who are throwing off any sort of energy and interest but they are also genuinely unpopular with anyone other than primary voters, who already represent a dead-end mind-set in American politics. By presenting unapologetic, cartoon versions of what their parties-of-convenience stand for, they are revealing to all of us that the Democratic and Republican parties need to reboot themselves every bit as much as the Spider-Man movie franchise does.
As currently constituted, neither party can reliably represent a country that is getting more and more socially liberal and fiscally conservative. In a word, a country that is increasingly libertarian in what it demands from government: Less intrusion into everyday life and better spending of tax dollars. If and when the parties decide they are serious about changing their platforms to better reflect more Americans, each might consider moving toward that libertarian center not for ideological reasons but for pragmatic ones. As Cato's David Boaz notes,
The Gallup Poll has a new estimate of the number of libertarians in the American electorate. In their 2015 Governance survey they find that 27 percent of respondents can be characterized as libertarians, the highest number it has ever found. The latest results also make libertarians the largest group in the electorate, as compared to 26 percent conservative, 23 percent liberal, and 15 percent populist.
We'll always have two dominant parties in the country and
at least for the forseeable future, they will be called Democrats and Republicans.
But what those parties stand for—and what sorts of people can fit comfortably in one or the other—can and will have to change if they once again want to represent more than tiny slices of the electorate.