The Democrats and Republicans have been locked in a struggle for the hearts and minds of the American people since the Civil War, even as the party ideologies have shifted and changed.
One hundred and fifty years later, respective factions within each party have become so distinct that we may be moving towards a new political era. Whether this means our system will morph into a more multi-party system only time will tell, but the current state can only persist so long.
Two of the leading and nontraditional candidates for each party, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, represent strains of political thought that hearken across the Atlantic Ocean to more European political models. Sanders represents the democratic socialist model that many, if not most European countries have adopted on some level. Trump meanwhile represents a nativist populism that mirrors the ideologies of Geert Wilders or France’s Front National. Both candidates represent frustration with the base of the parties and point to a rise in identity politics.
The largest difference in the rise of political parties in America versus Europe is that in the U.S. there has usually only been two major parties. One of the reasons for this is that each party has drawn support from several different factions, and there has usually been multiple factions within each party. In Europe, on the other hand, there tends to be multiple parties who may fit closely with individual ideologies, but they typically put forward a candidate of the party’s choosing, rather than a primary or caucus. Within the Democratic Party there is a general left leaning liberal direction, but the difference between a candidate like Sanders and his most powerful opponent, Hillary Clinton, is striking. Sanders embraces democratic socialism, and he is not a fringe candidate, by far. Clinton, on the other hand, has a voting record that places many of her policies uncomfortably cozy to corporate interests. This has given him a broad base of support among millennials, minorities, the working class and other groups that have seen themselves become disenfranchised.
The divisions within the Republican Party are just as striking. Trump is paradox of sorts. He is a political outsider, whose blustery rhetoric has earned him the esteem of many Americans. His most famous, or infamous idea involves forcing Mexico to pay for a wall and deporting illegal immigrants. While this has made him many enemies on the left, he is gaining political ground. Republicanism for many years had been made up of a fusion of small government libertarianism and social conservatism. Trump is taking the worst elements of both aggressively pro-business policies and xenophobia and is turning himself into a hero. His anti-immigrant rhetoric parallels those of the European far-right, in seeking a scapegoat on which to vault the frustrations of the populace.
Just as those on the left have been increasingly using identity politics, the right is taking a page from their book. Left identity politics has given rise to gay and trans-rights movements, black lives matter, the idea of the war on women and occupy Wall Street. Trump is showing that white identity politics can be just as useful in garnering political attention. Recent controversies over same-sex marriage, Planned Parenthood and religious displays in the public forum has shown what may bubble into a conservative Christian identity politics as well.
The era of broad-based political parties is over. Voters see themselves as so alienated from the political class that only those on its outer edges are seen as having their best interests at heart. We are busy squaring ourselves into our perfect little ideological hole. What the American political landscape will look like in twenty, ten, even five years is uncertain, but it is changing, and rapidly. Those who never saw themselves as part of the fight will soon find they no longer have a choice. The big tent has been torn down, so take a poll and draw your line in the sand.