U.S. election: Notes on the circus to the South

How a divided Republican vote will likely mean another fragmented government to come

By: /
August 28, 2015
Trump Protest
The Trump effect: Is he fogging up the primary process? (Reuters)

Perhaps in the midst of Canada’s decorous electioning, we might pass a few summer moments pondering the circus south of the border.  The spectacle here obscures some fundamental changes that have reshaped the U.S. election system but it also illuminates some major uncertainties.

A divided and polarizing government

The electoral system has become more rigid, with fewer swing constituencies. Continued divided government is almost assured.

Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Lacking major disturbances, they are likely to win the majority of votes in 2016. That doesn’t mean the Dems are assured to win the presidency. Only Electoral College votes count and these do not necessarily tally with the popular vote. Nonetheless at this moment, the Presidency is for the Democrats to lose.

The Republicans, however, are certain to maintain control of the House of Representatives. This is the result of the way Congressional districts are laid out (by state governments) and by the crowding of Democratic Party voters into fewer urban electoral districts. So Republicans can win more Congressional seats in a state and still lose the Presidential vote.  An example: Assume a state of 1 million voters divided into 10 equal constituencies. The Republicans win seven of these by an average of 55-45 percent, and lose three by 70-30 percent. The Republicans take seven Congressional seats while the Democrats win only three. But the Democrats take the state for the Presidential election with 525,000 votes compared to the Republican’s 475,000.

So the baseline remains the likelihood of divided government and, given the U.S. Constitution, divided control over the nation’s budget and finances.

Moreover, the polarization of the political system has intensified. During most of the post-1945 era, political leaders were less polarized than the public, and the party leadership clustered in the middle of the political spectrum, neutralizing fringe elements. Now, political leaders are more polarized than voters (the far fringe is now well represented in Congress) and polarization has intensified among voters. There is little centre in U.S. political institutions today.  (Political analysts feel, however, that the polarization of political leaders exceeds that of the general public, and that while there is little centre in political institutions, a relatively moderate centre still exists in the general public. More on this below. )

Thus, not only divided government, but deeply polarized government.

The Democrats still confront a significant weakness. Their supporters – particularly among the young, poorer and minorities – have a lower propensity to vote. The core Republican supporters – older, white males – are more likely to vote. The key for the Democrats is to get out the vote. Republican strategy has focused on raising barriers to voting wherever possible.

The Republican factor

The battle for control of the party has gone on since Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, but it’s now all-out war.  Donald Trump’s arrival has made the struggle more bizarre, but the underlying essentials haven’t changed. The splintering of the conservative terrain remains the most defining force in U.S. politics today with the grappling of religious, ecclesiastical, social, establishment, libertarian, Obama-haters and now, Trumpist elements under the GOP tent. A split in the party, between far-right fundamentalists and conservatives, must be seen as a real possibility.

The Goldwater devastation showed that a top-down conservative putsch would not succeed in transforming the Republican Party. Instead, conservatives determined to start at the bottom and recreate the party from the ground up. This meant capturing everything from municipal councils and school boards to state governments. Their strategy has been impressively successful. Today, Republicans control 70 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers (and both chambers in 30 states) and Nebraska’s single chamber. Thirty-one state governors are Republicans and in 24 states, they control both legislative houses as well.  (One sidebar: the Republicans have not swept everything. U.S. mayors tend to be more Democratic and usually more liberal than governors, perhaps opening up a new dynamic in U.S. politics of growing competition between mayors and governors for influence.)

Some of this is due, to be sure, to election cycles. More Democratic governors were at risk in 2012 and more Republican governors will put their position on the line in 2016. But the shift to the right – at times to the far right – in state governments is clear. This shift has shaped state legislative agendas but also has produced an abundance of young, energetic and very conservative leaders ready to move upward – and this has moved the Republican Party even further to the right. Very and ultra-conservatives dominate the primary processes in most states, forcing Republican presidential wannabe’s to toe their line. The purge of Republican “moderates” is complete and even “Establishment” Republicans (see Romney) have moved well to the right.

How has Trump’s arrival affected these developments? Most important, he has fogged the primary process, making it all but impossible for other Republican presidential contenders to establish clear identities. They have become a crowd, a sort of Greek chorus, perceived more by how they respond to Trump’s latest than by their own political/personal uniqueness. Trump has also reinforced the Republican tendency to focus on issues such as abortion, women, and immigration that appear to alienate them from large segments of the American population and has dragged the others along. Those candidates (see Bush) who have tried to open new fronts in the campaign have so far been drowned out in the Trump furor.

Is there method behind Trump madness? Of course. He has reinvigorated the Republican dream of a “silent majority” out there, alienated from current political values and policies, waiting to be mobilized by the Right Man.  In this view (which is shared by many ultra-conservatives) the take-home from 2012 was not that a Republican has to reach out to minority, youth and such constituencies to win the presidency. Quite the contrary. They see the Romney lesson as that Republican success at winning the presidency depends on mobilizing the base. Trump seems to believe that this potential majority extends beyond older white men, even involving Hispanics, young people and others who have not been seen as potential Republican supporters.

What about a third party? Would Trump break with the Republicans? Bear in mind that a split is not only Trump’s threat. It’s been explicit in Tea Party and further-right dealings with the party. The right wing of the Republican Party has been deeply and profoundly critical of the Party’s leadership and direction from the start. If the Party selects as the 2016 presidential candidate someone the right views as a moderate, then a split – with or without Trump – is clearly possible.

Running a third party candidate is extremely difficult. Just getting on the ballot in many states would be very problematic. But splitting the Party would not be aimed at winning the presidency. Indeed, running a third party would almost certainly assure that the Democrats win the election. The goal would be finally to defeat, perhaps destroy, the Republican Party. Or at least to take it over.

Onwards and…downwards?

What about the left, the Democrats?

At this moment, there’s not much to say. Hillary, Clintonesque, stumbles into one trap after another. But most of the big guns remain firmly on her side.

Democrats now face few of the deep divisions that scatter the Republicans. In terms of policy, there’s no light between Hillary and her Democratic rivals, including Joe Biden.  It’s her personality and style that are worrying. But the election process is still just beginning.

Bernie Sanders has made bigger waves than anyone anticipated. But it’s not clear what Sanders’ options are. He’s not a Democrat (he sits in the Senate as an Independent) and is unlikely to be drafted as a Democratic Party presidential candidate.  His crowds show that there is an unsatisfied left out there. But these people are not as angry as on those on the right.  And not so angry that they would launch a third party whose primary impact would be to push the election to the Republicans – certainly not given how the Republican candidates have shown themselves so far.

Bottom line: The circus goes on. The Republicans are the play and the deep fragmentation of the party is the key issue in U.S. politics today. Hillary will probably be the next President and the Republicans will continue to control the House. Fragmented, dysfunctional government will almost surely continue.