No matter who wins, this is shaping up to be the strangest presidential election in a long time.
Politics is usually pretty weird, but the presidential election shaping up right now is definitely an outlier even by American standards. There has to be a deeper significance in the fact that such an unusual election is occurring right now, but in lieu of being able to come up with one, I’m instead going to briefly dissect the reasons why I feel this is the case.
If you have a taste for the abnormal – particularly when it could have major historical consequences – you should pay attention.
Exhibit A: The Republican Party
In the topsy-turvy world of Republican presidential politics circa 2015, a prudent man should refrain from venturing overly-confident predictions about what is or isn’t to come in that party’s future. Could anyone have foreseen the Donald Trump phenomenon? How about the burgoening Ben Carson boom? Who would have guessed that Scott Walker and Rick Perry would have already dropped out, or that Jeb Bush would be a joke instead of a frontrunner?
I have no idea how things will turn out in a few months (even if I sometimes forget that myself). But my sense is that, regardless of who the Republican Party chooses to be its presidential candidate in 2016 – indeed, regardless of whether their nominee wins or loses next November – the mere fact that this process has been so unpredictable warrants mentioning.
Some historical context: The last time a Republican presidential candidate was nominated without the blessing of the party establishment (Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona), the year was 1964. There were hints in the last presidential election cycle at the possibility that something like this might happen; everyone knew that Mitt Romney was the establishment’s choice, but the amorphous conservative coalition couldn’t settle on who they preferred as an alternative and rotated through Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum before accepting the inevitable.
This time, though, is different. The candidates who would have been the frontrunners in a normal election year – Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio – are gasping for air. Instead the two polling leaders include Donald Trump – a man whose candidacy in the last election revolved around a harebrained (and implicitly racist) conspiracy theory about President Obama (the absurdity of which is proved by the candidacy of Ted Cruz), and in this one was launched when he perpetuated similarly groundless and racially-charged statements smearing Mexican-Americans – and Ben Carson, whose absurd claims range from saying comparing Obamacare to slavery and saying homosexuality is a choice to arguing that a Muslim should only be president if he or she “renounces the tenets of Islam.”
In short, more than half a century of conventional wisdom – the type of institutional thinking that gave us five presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and the two George Bushes) – is no longer in charge of the Republican Party. The last time something like this happened in the Republican Party, when the year was 1964, the result was a conservative revolution. Unless some deus ex machina intervenes, it seems pretty clear that this is about to happen again in 2016. What will be wrought by the revolution brewing in the GOP today?
The Democratic Party
Around the same time that Republican presidential contests were becoming predictable, Democratic ones were increasingly less so. We had the riots at the Chicago National Convention in 1968, produced only two presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), and littered the history books with a string of nominees who lost in historically one-sided defeats (George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis).
Barack Obama seems to have changed that, though. In addition to electing the nation’s first African American president, Obama’s presidential campaign also forged a demographic coalition that could keep the Democratic Party in national power for a generation. It contains young people (whose social activist sensibilities were shaped by Internet culture), traditionally disenfranchised groups (women, racial minorities, the LGBT community), and idealists everywhere who shared his progressive values and vision.
Ideology aside, though: From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Republican Party absolutely needs to crack into the Democratic numbers with at least some of these groups – perhaps Hispanic-Americans, perhaps women, some group that Donald Trump hasn’t already alienated – to have a realistic chance of being a majority party in the future. Either that or, of course, engage in aggressive voter suppression. What they choose to do and how they choose to do it remains to be seen, but until they succeed in changing the national paradigm in a lasting way, the current seems poised to start flowing in the post-Obama Democratic Party’s direction for good.
Yet something weird is happening on the Democratic side as well, and it imperils this potential windfall for the party – namely, the fact that Hillary Clinton’s nomination next year seems to have already been decided. I’ve already written about the disturbingly narrow size of the Democratic presidential field. There are a grand total of three options: Hillary Clinton, a self-proclaimed socialist, and a former governor no one’s ever heard of. Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden decided not to run and no establishment alternative ever caught fire besides Clinton, so here we are.
The problem with this is simple: Because Clinton isn’t a surefire winner (the polls generally show her within a few points of the possible Republican candidates), the Democrats need at least one viable alternative. In any other election cycle, a self-proclaimed socialist would be automatically disqualified from serious consideration (remember Dennis Kucinich in 2004 and 2008?). As such, the mere fact that the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders is Clinton’s chief opponent instead of the other center-leftist, former governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland, is a very significant fact in its own right. Here and now, though, it would make more sense for the Democratic Party to have at least one conventional pick to oppose Clinton so that a meaningful choice exists within the practical realm.
On the other hand, Clinton has demonstrated a strong appeal among the various demographic bases that built Obama’s two victories in 2008 and 2012, and as such it is not inconceivable that (barring election day chicanery) she’ll win regardless of her disadvantages. Regardless, though, the fact that Democrats seem to be sleepwalking toward Clinton’s nomination is a tad unsettling.
None, except that even for the politically uninitiated, this election merits attention. Your next president could be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz, Ben Carson or… Well, or one of the other countless Republican options, because apparently the GOP primary is less a horse race than a stampede.
Things are getting really interesting, objectively so, and the detached connoisseur for the absurd really shouldn’t miss out.