Before Sen. Bernie Sanders’ narrow New Hampshire primary victory Tuesday night over Pete Buttigieg, Notre Dame Prof. Robert Schmuhl questioned the viability of the two major political parties in his recently published book, “The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump.“
Is Sanders on his way to what would be the continuation of a new trend in American politics: The individual takeover of the two major parties by the Vermont senator and the current White House inhabitant, President Donald Trump?
If you need an accompanying soundtrack, Donald Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention acceptance speech in Cleveland will suffice: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Schmuhl, whose son Mike Schmuhl is Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign manager, writes, “Trump and Sanders exemplify the weakening nature of the major parties as political institutions. Most observers date Trump’s association with the GOP only back to his questioning of Obama’s birth certificate of 2011, while Sanders’s official Senate biography identifies him as ‘the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history.’”
He then poses this question: “Have the parties actually become obsolete or extraneous in the nominating process of the so-called party standard bearer?”
The Iowa caucus debacle that robbed Mayor Pete of vital momentum heading into New Hampshire is one more instance of a major political party malfunction, coming eight years after Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the GOP Iowa caucus, only to have that party’s establishment revise that 2012 outcome in favor of the forgettable Rick Santorum.
In 2016, Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination in Indiana with virtually no establishment GOP support … until Mike Pence ascended to the ticket. Sanders won that year’s Indiana primary with the same 53% of the vote Trump won, but without a single establishment Democrat endorsing his candidacy.
Schmuhl notes that only 9% of the 60 million Americans who showed up at a primary or caucus in the 2016 primaries voted for either Trump or Hillary Clinton. The nominating process of the two major parties is inexplicable to students.
That Sanders is now on a collision course with President Trump might dovetail into Prof. Schmuhl’s drawing on lines from W. B. Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” which describes a time when the extremes dominate without an anchoring midpoint: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
In 1965, Medicare and Medicaid passed the Democratic-controlled Congress with 13 GOP senators and 70 congressmen voting yea. The 1998 and 2019 impeachments of Presidents Clinton and Trump were party-line acts, as was the 2010 passage of Obamacare. That prompted Pew Research to note in 2011, “Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the end of Reconstruction.”
Schmuhl writes, “The greater emphasis on the extremes, conservative or liberal, the less we see any attempt to arrive at a political midpoint, what might be considered an animating center, that brings together the best thinking from the left and the right in a dynamic synthesis of contesting viewpoints. The relative absence of bipartisanship leads to legitimate complaints of political paralyses and governmental dysfunction.”
In the 2018 Lugar Partisan Index that gauges congressional bipartisanship, the 100th and lowest rated senator was … Bernie Sanders (Sens. Elizabeth Warren was 69th, and Amy Klobuchar 23rd). Which begs the question, if Sanders were to win, would he be able to get anything done?
What is now in motion are presidential movements. Trump and Sanders are movement politicians, gathering up tides of people convinced that the system has been rigged against them ... because of the sclerosis forged by computerized reapportionment maps, wiping out Blue Dog Democrats and moderate Republicans, and making way for the extremes.
For Buttigieg to prevail, he will have to fashion his upstart campaign as a movement as well.
Potentially standing in the way is another billionaire, former Republican New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who appears intent on spending $1 billion of his estimated $60 billion on his own candidacy or the eventual Democratic nominee.
“Socialism destroys nations,” Trump warned during his State of the Union address last week. “We will never let socialism destroy American health care.” But Trump spent $28 billion to bail out American farmers in 2019, significantly more than the $22 billion of taxpayer funds to save General Motors and Chrysler in 2009 (which, by the way, was repaid).
The Atlantic’s T.A. Frank noted that author and socialist Upton Sinclair wrote to a friend in 1951, “The American people will take socialism, but they won’t take the label.”
Indiana was home to five-time Socialist presidential nominee Eugene Debs of Terre Haute, but he never mustered more than 5.6% of his home state’s vote, coming in 1912 in an election pre-dating the Russian Revolution of 1917 that stained in blood the Socialist brand.
So it may be time to brace yourself for the 21st century brand of politics: Billionaires perpetrating what appear to be cults, inept political parties, a hollowing out of the political center, amplified by fake news, alternative facts, and now socialism and socialism-lite.