Sanders wins reveal how this election is changing American politics

Bernie Sanders's blowout wins this weekend show how the rules are changing for this election and perhaps beyond. 

Andy Manis/AP
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders listen to the candidate at a campaign stop Saturday in Madison, Wis.

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s three resounding victories Saturday, the political media could be forgiven for asking: When will this all end?

This, after all, was not how Election 2016 was supposed to go. Senator Sanders was not supposed to win caucuses in Washington State, Hawaii, and Alaska in a landslide. Donald Trump was not supposed to be steaming toward the Republican convention with the most delegates.

At some point, the presidential campaign has to reenter political reality. Right?

Actually, maybe not.

True, Hillary Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination still seems mathematically iron-clad, but when you lose three caucuses all by at least 40 points – as Mrs. Clinton did Saturday – you’re hardly barreling through the checkered flag at full speed.

Aside from the matter of electing a president, Election 2016 is becoming a crucible for modern politics unlike any other for at least a generation. With the ascendance of Sanders, Mr. Trump, and Ted Cruz, the question can honestly be asked: Is American politics entering a new era?

On one hand, there is the Goldwater argument. Every so often, the thinking goes, parties become so captive to their bases that they have to go through a seismic shift, backing an unelectable ideologue before snapping back to the more-moderate middle. The Republicans’ nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was one such example.

But are both parties flirting with Goldwater moments in the same election?

Instead, there are signs that something deeper might be at work. The Sanders and Trump movements – though radically different in policy prescriptions – are built on strikingly similar foundations: White voters who feel that American politics has been hijacked by elites. And there’s little to indicate that their frustrations will be washed away by a single sacrifice on the altar of presidential hyperpartisanship.

Politics’ great salve is the economy, as an adviser to Clinton’s husband once preached, saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But the economy already is doing better – just not for everyday Americans.

That makes what happens next, to no small degree, a step into the unknown. So far, the levers Washington has pulled after the Great Recession have not significantly helped the middle class. Meanwhile, parties’ control over their voters is declining as proliferating media sources allow them to build their own ideology.

In that way, the process to elect the next president is merely highlighting the very problems that person will be expected to solve.

For Sanders, Trump, and Senator Cruz, it seems, that will be easy.

One-party rule

The troika of antiestablishment candidates spend precious little time discussing how they will manage to implement policies that the other party vehemently opposes. Trump has faith in his businessman’s “art of the deal.” Sanders predicts a liberal groundswell that will reshape Washington.

They might be on to something, suggests columnist Paul Rosenberg on Salon. For a century after the Civil War-era, the politics of the United States was characterized by periods of one-party rule, in which parties were able to push through their agendas. These periods continued until they became unsustainable and power flipped.

“Over time, unresolved issues, problems, tensions and unmet expectations build up,… until they reach a point when another realigning election occurs to begin dealing with the backlog of unmet needs,” he writes.

But since 1968, divided rule has been the norm, Mr. Rosenberg argues.

“Thus, the post-1968 period has been one long chapter in political party history without an integrated dominant policy view, a period in which the pressures of unmet needs have had more time and opportunity to build up than has historically been the case,” he writes.

In other words, America has a pent-up demand for the action that only one-party rule can deliver. 

Breaking down old party lines

Despite the fondest wishes of Cruz or Sanders, however, America does not appear to be moving any closer to one-party rule. If anything, the unusual politics of this election season has been shaped by one persistent force that crosses party lines: white voters.

For months and with little variance, polls have shown that Sanders, Trump, and Cruz are the favored candidates of white America. Their politics run the spectrum from conservative to liberal, but their determination to reject political elites is constant.

That is one reason Trump has seen his support stay rock solid, say some analysts. His antiestablishment message is turning out millions of white voters who declined to vote in 2012.

And that is one big reason Sanders trounced Clinton Saturday, as Philip Bump of The Washington Post wrote:

As we've noted before, there's also a clear link between the number of black voters in a contest and the result. Hawaii is 3 percent black. Alaska is four percent black; Washington, about the same. When the composition of the black Democratic electorate has been below seven percent for states where Democratic primary exit polling in 2008 or 2016 was available, Clinton has lost by an average of 30 points this year. Over that percentage? She's won by 26.

In this way, Trump and Sanders, in particular, are creating a powerful new voting bloc that is redefining politics in ways that don’t fit neatly into a single party's orthodoxy.

“Trump and Sanders are, in very different ways, threatening the old order,” writes William Grieder of The Nation. “Both are shining bright lights, in contrast to shallow, stalemated two-party politics. Donald and Bernie, separately, or together, possess serious potential to alter the landscape of two-party politics by redefining constituencies and convictions, transforming the content and character of one or both parties.”

“The great question for 2016 is whether either party can begin to bridge the gaps and unite these working-class islands of discontent,” he adds.

Getting results

Clues into how that might happen amid robust two-party rule come from the last time a presidential race was recast by a political insurgency.

Coming out of the recession of the early 1990s, Ross Perot rode voter discontent to 19 percent of the vote – the best result for a third-party candidate since 1912. Recognizing the power of Mr. Perot’s focus on federal deficits, President Clinton tacked right – too far right, many Democrats said – to balance the budget. By the end of his second term, the country was running budget surpluses amid the longest economic expansion in United States history.

But the seeds of that boom were planted in 1990, some argue. That’s when President George H.W. Bush tacked to the left – too far left, many Republicans said – to pass a budget plan through a Democrat-controlled Congress that included more tax revenue.

He broke his “no new taxes” pledge, which might have cost him reelection. But the deal “deserves much of the credit for the subsequent improvement in the deficit, which shrank from 4.7 percent of GDP in 1992 to virtual balance in 1997 and gave us budget surpluses from 1998 to 2001,” wrote Bruce Bartlett in a 2011 Fiscal Times article.

The legacy of that deal, Mr. Bartlett added, is that “the idea of cooperating with Democrats on deficit reduction is viewed as a total loser by all Republicans.”

Perhaps the better legacy, he and others say, is its evidence that cooperation on an issue of central importance – one which, two years later, would influence the course of an election – can have a profound impact.

The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation gave Mr. Bush its 2014 Profile in Courage Award for his decision.

"Candidly speaking, my grandfather did not want to raise taxes in 1990," said granddaughter Lauren Bush Lauren at the ceremony. "But in our constitutional system of governance, Congress also gets a say – and more than that, he felt he owed the American people action and results."

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