With rhetoric and policy positions moving further apart, the 2020 presidential election comes at a time of extreme partisanship in American politics.
The leader of the Republican Party, President Donald Trump, has successfully remolded the GOP in his image, says Diego von Vacano, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University. And current Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders is also an untraditional candidate – the Democratic socialist long resisted calls to formally join the party.
Trump and Sanders’ rhetoric and positions represent the changing faces of the Republican and Democratic parties, von Vacano said, and these ideological breaks from party norms are historically unprecedented.
The two-party system is at a breaking point, he said.
“In the case of the GOP, President Trump has really broken the traditional backbone of the party by co-opting it,” von Vacano said. “He’s come out triumphant within the party. I don’t think there’s anybody who can really challenge him. Sometimes the liberal critics say that he’s not very intelligent or he’s naïve, but as a political activist he’s very calculating and effective.”
For the Democratic Party, the surge of Sanders has shown his popularity with young people, people of color, and others who feel they haven’t been heard by the party historically von Vacano said, “and this is maybe their chance to be listened to.”
“That’s definitely created a shift, a break, because of course, Sanders was a socialist, he wasn’t even a Democrat for a long time,” he said. “He’s an outsider coming in the same way that Trump was an outsider coming into the GOP.”
But the shifts of both parties further to the left and the right, respectively, “could be dangerous,” von Vacano said, as most Americans are ideologically somewhere in the middle. This is commonly seen in Latin America, where individuals become the leader of a movement and determine the course it takes.
“In a way, it’s not very healthy, because then the political system depends on specific individuals rather than institutions, so that’s one danger,” he said. “Based on the whims of individuals, the country could see its institutions weakened to some extent.”
Von Vacano said this can already be seen in the shrinking number of objective news sources. Social media, too, has become radicalized and less of a space for dialogue. In some ways this reflects what people are looking for in both the left-wing and the right-wing, von Vacano said, but there’s still the danger that institutions like the judicial branch and Supreme Court could ultimately become weakened by the polarized views of individual leaders.
Von Vacano attributes the crisis of the two-party system to the country’s changing demographics and the question of who we are as a country. Immigration “is really at the heart” of these anxieties, he said.
With Trump, von Vacano said the president was smart in his presentation as a candidate in his appearance, language, and ability to talk directly to the people, which is one of the traditional tenets of populism. Once he entered office, Trump used more “dubious” tactics like intimidation and retaliation, he said, which is also common in populist leaders.“I think the GOP has been altered almost permanently by President Trump,” von Vacano said. “The substance of the rhetoric is very different from what it was, for example, compared to President Bush’s period, so the party itself is now radically changed. And for the Democrats, of course, it depends on this election cycle. If Sanders keeps this momentum, I think it could create a similar type of rift in the Democratic Party.”
Sanders similarly has focused on his persona and repetitive rhetoric, like critiques of the one percent. Average people are donating small amounts of money to his campaign, which von Vacano said is a populist strategy of Sanders’.
Populism may be on the rise because of a few factors, he said. President Barack Obama’s administration polarized much of America and could have moved some groups further toward the right. Populism is generally more right-leaning, von Vacano said, usually because the Democratic Party hasn’t been able to convince a large part of the electorate that its policies will benefit the entire country.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also a controversial candidate for the Democratic Party, which then-candidate Trump was able to capitalize on to gather momentum outside the traditional GOP mechanism.
Von Vacano said he thinks Sanders has gained momentum because he, unlike the traditional Democratic Party, appeals to voters who are younger and more diverse.
Both parties in the U.S. “became a little too inflexible” and unresponsive to demographic changes, he said.
“I think at the end of the day, demographic changes in the U.S. have created pressure for different types of leadership and different types of parties, but parties, in general, tend to be really hard to change, ” he said. “Because of the recent historical past of the Obama and Clinton periods, there’s that reaction and kind of a need for something new.”
While critics of the two party-system have called for a third party – a 2018 Gallup poll showed that 57 percent of Americans supported a third major political party – von Vacano doesn’t see this happening. Trump could have broken from the GOP and formed his own party, he said, but instead co-opted the Republican Party. And instead of running independently, Sanders chose to run for a second time as a Democrat.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a third party, but what Trump and Sanders are doing, they’re injecting almost completely new terms for the dialogue and language in politics, which is really unprecedented,” he said. “I think it’s broken the GOP, and it’s possible it could break the traditional Democratic Party.”
On Sept. 1, 2022, the Department of Political Science became part of the Bush School of Government & Public Service.