The role of party movements in the 2016 US presidential election reflected the electorate’s deep discontent and confirmed the endemic problems faced by both major political parties. The Democrats failed to articulate a unifying and persuasive message; while the Republicans failed to control the candidate nomination process. Out of those failures, party movements, which challenge existing power and advocate change, on the left and right found space to operate.
On the left, the main party movement was typical of those that have appeared during other presidential elections, arising in support of one candidate, and quickly dissolving on that candidate’s failure to secure the presidential nomination. Historical examples of this include the anti-war movement that coalesced around Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 challenge to incumbent Lyndon Johnson; his success persuaded the president not to run for a second term. Similar movements, though not on the left, were associated with John Anderson, a dissident Republican candidate in the 1980 election, and Ross Perot, who challenged George H. W. Bush in 1992. The closest parallel to this kind of party movement in 2016 was demonstrated by the enthusiastic backing that came primarily from young people galvanized by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Sanders campaigned against growing inequality and the erosion of the middle class, for which he blamed Wall Street and large corporations, and called for major change. But unlike the earlier examples, Sanders did not abandon the Democratic Party when he lost the nomination, and he urged his supporters to follow his example.
Some in the pro-Sanders movement did follow him, but without bringing along the backing of the now fading movement of which they had been a part. Yet, even if the movement had held together and supported the Democratic candidate, its impact would have been limited. This is because the demographic groups it represented—young, well-educated, concentrated in large cities in the Northeast–were already a part of the Democratic coalition, and additional votes from them would not have made much difference. In order to have made a difference in the outcome, the movement would have required much greater representation from older white men, the South and Northwest, rural areas, and the industrial heartland–all decisive in giving Trump his victory. No matter how much such voters felt their situation had deteriorated, the culprits identified by Sanders and his movement were too far removed and even too abstract to be reasonable sources of that deterioration.
Historically, the emergence of party movements provides insight into prevailing political discontents and dissatisfaction with how established parties approach them. But, as conditions change, existing party movements may no longer capture the mood of the electorate. This is exemplified by the Tea Party movement that emerged after the 2008 election from within the Republican Party. It represented some continuity with previous insurgencies and was influential in affecting a number of Congressional races as well as the behavior of those already elected. However, by 2016, its influence was much less evident, and its irrelevance would be sealed when the movement endorsed Ted Cruz for the presidency.
With the Tea Party less important on the right, another preexisting movement gained prominence. It consisted of loosely affiliated groups united by white nationalism expressed in anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim messages along with Nazi symbolism. It quickly found an affinity for the candidacy of Donald Trump and gave him its support. The movement was named the “alt-right” by its principal ideologist, Richard Spencer, and benefited from a skillful use of social media. The alt-right holds views similar to those of the right-wing news outlet Breitbart News, whose former chief executive Steve Bannon became a strong supporter of Trump and later was rewarded with appointment as White House chief strategist. Overall, given the election of Donald Trump, the alt-right can consider itself to have been successful in affecting the outcome of the election and even look forward to expanding its influence.
Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns espoused their own versions of populist appeals; that is, they framed their appeals in terms of the grievances of the “people vs. elites” and promised to disrupt politics as usual. J. Eric Oliver and Wendy M. Rahn confirm the pervasiveness of populism among the candidates, with Trump the strongest exponent (“Rise of the Trumpenvolk People in the 2016 Election,” Annals of the Academy of the Political and Social Sciences 667 : 189–206). But Trump also introduced an uninhibited language into the campaign that, during living memory, had not been heard in the rhetoric of a major party candidate. Rallies were often characterized by a disturbing lack of civility and acts of violence involving supporters and opponents of Trump. George Saunders, who attended a number of such rallies, gives some chilling examples. For instance, Saunders was told by one protester that two different Trump supporters had told him that they would like to shoot him in the back of the head. He also witnessed two Hispanic women, quietly watching, who were roughly thrown out of a rally. Such events evoked memories of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the street fights among Nazis, Communists, and anarchists that preceded it.
To link serious unrest generations ago in Germany with sporadic incidents in the United States may not be altogether plausible, but it still offers an apprehensive shiver. The German experience took place under very different conditions in a setting where democratic governance was not yet fully legitimated. The United States, as a mature democracy with deeply rooted institutions of governance, has incomparable advantages. Yet we should remain wary if the evolving political discourse, especially that stimulated by the “alt-right,” continues to coarsen and to threaten violence against minorities. Ten days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported almost 900 instances of harassment, intimidation, and racial slurs, of which 300 occurred in New York. In the same time span, the Anti-Defamation League similarly reported an upsurge in racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, vandalism, harassment, and assaults.
Featured image credit: Donald Trump with supporters by Gage Skidmore. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.