Before Sen. Bernie Sanders’ narrow New Hampshire primary victory Feb. 10 over Pete Buttigieg, Notre Dame Professor 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? These twin forces have induced considerable volatility in the world’s oldest republic and super power.
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 campaign manager, writes of the Vermont socialist’s loss to Hillary Clinton in June 2016: “Sanders in defeat took with him a following of supporters afire with the political passion that one didn’t detect with Clinton backers. When Trump beat Clinton in November, more than a few analysts wondered aloud whether Sanders would have been more appealing to ‘the forgotten men and women’ of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who put Trump over the top in the Electoral College.
“Trump and Sanders exemplify the weakening nature of the major parties as political institutions,” Schmuhl observes. “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. It wasn’t until Gov. Mike Pence, following his mealy-mouthed “endorsement” of Ted Cruz that April, ascended to Trump’s ticket that the Hoosier party’s hierarchy ended up following the masses. 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. His current “movement” is void of such support from Hoosier Democratic leadership.
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, and, as Iowa has repeatedly demonstrated, is in need of significant reform.
That Sanders is now on a collision course with President Trump might dovetail into Professor Schmuhl’s drawing on two 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 Democratically 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).
Sanders’ emergence comes just a week after President Trump was acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial, a political effort doomed to failure, and on the same night Trump roiled the Department of Justice over the Roger Stone sentencing. In its wake, a few recalcitrant House Democrats talked of a second impeachment of Trump (particularly if he wins a second term next November), while Republican attorney George Conway and Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst talked of further weaponizing impeachment, with the latter saying, “I think this door of impeachable whatever has been opened. Joe Biden should be very careful what he’s asking for because, you know, we can have a situation where if it should ever be President Biden, that immediately people right the day after he would be elected would be saying, ‘Well, we’re going to impeach him.’”
The modern yield of presidents might have appeared to provide stability, in that the two-term presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were the first such trifecta since Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe pulled off the same feat between 1800 and 1824 in an era pre-dating political parties as we know them today.
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 that of the eventual Democratic nominee. The delicious wrinkle here is the “Democratic Socialist” Bernie Sanders could be the key beneficiary of this billionaire’s largess.
“Socialism destroys nations,” Trump warned during his State of the Union address. “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.
Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman writes of the Iowa caucus fiasco, “combined ... with Trump’s repeated humiliation of the GOP” may be the final blow to the reputation of parties.
What has replaced it all? Fineman asks. “Three forces: (1.) Unique, innovative methods of raising and spending huge amounts of cash; (2.) laser-focused arrays of policy proposals that amount to ‘revolutionary’ or populist manifestos; (3.) mastery of cutting-edge social-media, digital, viral means of organizing and communication.
Here in New Hampshire, Fineman observes, “Sanders isn’t relying on local politicians; he’s avoiding them. The distrust is mutual. ‘Bernie isn’t a Democrat, he is a ‘movement,’” former Democratic State Chairman Chris Spirou told me. ‘I’d go so far as to say that Bernie Sanders is a cult. He’s the leader of a cult!’”
Or as Sanders put it in his New Hampshire victory speech, “This victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump. The reason we’re going to win is we’re putting together a multi-racial, multi-cultural movement.”
Washington Post reporter Robert Costa noted that in the wake of New Hampshire, “Two strands become immediately evident: 1.) There’s a bloc of the Democratic Party that is yearning for generational change and to have someone with Mayor Buttigieg’s profile come forward from a place like South Bend, Ind., echoing the messaging and the rhetoric of President Obama, and say they can take this era of the Democratic Party and move it forward. 2.) There’s also a huge appetite on the left wing for a populist Democratic Socialist change to a system that many people believe needs to have remedies from the federal level.
“Those two elements are colliding,” Costa said. “There’s a yearning for populism and a yearning for generational change. The only thing throwing a wrench into this is Sen. Klobuchar’s performance, raising the question of Mayor Buttigieg’s experience.”
So it may be time to brace yourself for the 21st Century brand of politics: Billionaire cults and a hollowing out of the political center, amplified by fake news, alternative facts, socialism and socialism-lite.