There has been a lot of focus on why these two candidates are so widely reviled. Simple partisanship doesn’t seem to adequately explain it; fewer than a third of American view either of them favorably.
The Washington Post and ABC News tell us that Clinton-haters typically see her as a corrupt, untrustworthy flip-flopper, while Trump-haters hate too many things about him to list here, but it largely boils down to him being perceived as an inexperienced hatemonger.
Fortune magazine dispenses with the specifics and instead points to Clinton’s and Trump’s long and choppy resumés as repulsing the masses. Despite whatever accomplishments they may have racked up over the years, the thinking goes, voters simply can’t get past the many “bad” things each candidate has done.
However, I’m less concerned with why exactly these two candidates are so widely detested. On some level, the why doesn’t really matter; what’s more pressing, I believe, is the how. In terms of American political mechanics, how could this happen and what does it mean? How did we get here, and what can we learn from it?
The one common mechanical process in almost every aspect of American politics is the two-party system: an extra-constitutional artifice that long ago hijacked government. And it is through those double swinging doors that we have stumbled into our current political purgatory.
This bi-polar orgy of villainy signifies that America’s two-party system itself is badly broken; indeed, this scenario might not have emerged if there were additional healthy political parties.
Let’s start with Donald Trump.
Everything had to go right for Trump to get the Republican nomination, and it did. Unusual for the GOP since the emergence of the modern primary system in 1972 (party officials largely chose candidates before that), there was no clear favorite when the race began. For over four decades, Republicans have typically engaged in something akin to an anointment process for men deemed to be next in line: Ronald Reagan (1980), George H.W. Bush (1988), Bob Dole (1996), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012). The only relative outliers were Gerald Ford in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000.
Reagan’s challenge to the incumbent Ford was made possible by the destabilizing aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s resignation, and Ford’s odd appointment to the White House. And even then, Reagan was already a former governor and a leading figure in the party.
As for George W. Bush, he was not seen as “next in line” in 2000 because nobody was. It was a rare open year for GOP presidential wannabes. What Bush did have going for him was his father’s name and connections, a formidable war chest, and substantial support from the party establishment, making him a clear favorite from the get-go.
This year, however, there was no one understood to be next in line, or any other strong candidate who might take the lead early like Bush did in 2000. Instead, the GOP field was uncharacteristically wide open, and an unusually large number of ill-equipped Republican candidates joined the fray.
That worked to Trump’s advantage in several ways. First, many of the other candidates had poor national name recognition, while Trump was already a global celebrity. Second, it proved to be a rather weak field, as none of them were able to galvanize the party. Finally, a large field meant that no one needed to attract a majority of voters to win primaries. With so many candidates pulling votes, relatively small totals could signify a “win.”
Trump won the opening primary in New Hampshire with just over a third of the vote. Eleven days later, he won South Carolina with less than a third of the vote. Early on that’s not unusual, but such small “victories” do not usually last long. Yet, on Super Tuesday, March 1st, Tump needed less than a third to win Arkansas and Vermont, and just over a third to capture Virginia and Tennessee. As late as March 8th, with nearly half the states already having voted or voting, he was able to win Michigan with just 36% because there were still a dozen other people in the race.
Discounting caucuses, which involve a much smaller percentage of voters than primaries do, Trump didn’t poll a majority in any state primary until his backyard victory in New York (60%) more than a month after Michigan. And it wasn’t until late April, after three months and thirty-eight states plus D.C. had cast their ballots, that any state other than Trump’s home turf awarded him a simple majority of primary votes. And it didn’t happen utnil there was only one other viable candidate, Ted Cruz, still opposing him (John Kasich was still on the ballot, but already angling for a brokered convention as his only option).
Trump’s really big wins didn’t occur until he had secured enough delegates to ensure that he would be the Republican nominee, at which point the primaries and caucuses functioned as little more than coronations, and those who opposed him typically didn’t bother showing up.
It was a simple divide-and-conquer approach, although less a result of Trump’s master plan and more through happenstance.
But here’s the thing: It never would have played out this way except for the two-party system.
In a system with more parties, a vituperative, populist clown like Trump would never have been allowed to ascend the hallowed halls of one of the Big Two. If this were, say, Great Britain, Trump would probably be aligned with a smaller party dedicated to nationalism, like United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), instead of the Conservatives (And say what you want about Boris Johnson, but his clownishiness is light years behind Trump’s.). If it were France, he’d probably have found a welcoming home with Marie Le Pen’s National Front instead of Nicolas Sarkozi’s Republicans.
The point being, that in an established, longstanding (as opposed to newer ones like Hungary or Russia), healthy, multi-party system, extremists, even wealthy, supposedly charismatic ones like Donald Trump, are almost always shunted off to the respectable margins. A multi-party system provides outlets for yay-yos like Trump, so they don’t directly infect the major parties. Yes, they may occasionally wrangle a cabinet position in a coalition government, but that’s a long way from having the nuclear codes.
To the contrary, in a system with only two “real” parties, a duopoly with no respectable margins, extremists like Trump has nowhere else to go to satisfy his ego. If he wants to seriously indulge his presidential vanity project, he has to go through a major party. And that always leaves open the possibility of catching lightening in a bottle, as he just has.
Compounding this is the legitimation process that a two-party system confers on its candidates. Whereas Trump was initially viewed as an appalling joke by almost everyone except the small number of Republicans voting for him in primaries and caucuses, as The Donald has moved towards the GOP nomination, he has increasingly gained an air of legitimacy in the eyes of the general voting public. Why? Because when only two parties are seen as legitimate, whoever ascends them is awarded a general air of legitimacy. Even a walking caricature like Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, any party outside the duopoly is ground down through a massive delegitimation process, leading someone like Gary Johnson to be deemed an irrelevant extremist because he is running as a Libertarian. Never mind that he’s a former two-term state governor, a rational person with top level political experience. Despite this, he and Green presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein can’t access publican campaign funding, have only a very long shot chance of appearing in the presidential debates, and are caught on a hamster wheel, desperately running to gain legitimate standing in a political system aligned against them. That they are commonly viewed as fringe extremists, and Trump is now cast as respectable, is incredibly telling.
The two-party system legitimizing its own standard bearers, and severely marginalizes and ridicules anyone outside it, no matter how well qualified and experienced they are. Thus, when there are only two parties that the electorate is willing to consider, and one of those parties falls into disarray, a maniacal incompetent like Donald Trump can emerge as a major nominee, and quite possibly as president of the world’s most powerful nation.
And then there’s Hillary Clinton.
Frankly, the Democrats should be able to nominate a chimp and win this election. But Clinton is so widely disliked that she might actually lose to Donald Trump, who by all rights should be fairly unelectable. And so while many people now see the Republicans as the lunatic side of this Janus-faced system, the Democrats have played their own wretched part in producing a duopolistic fiasco.
It came about in an odd turn, as the Democratic Party flipped roles with the GOP this year. Whereas the Republicans historically have lined up behind the man deemed to be “next,” it’s the Democrats who have a well earned reputation for wide open and raucous presidential primaries that produce surprise, underdog candidates like George McGovern (1972), Jimmy Carter (1976), Mike Dukakis (1988), Bill Clinton (1992), and Barack Obama (2008). Hell, the Dems have gotten wild and wooly even when they had an elected presidential incumbent; Ted Kennedy seriously challenged Carter in 1980.
But 2016 has turned out to be the year that the parties got hit by lightening and underwent some type of Freaky Friday role reversal. It was the Republican nominating process that devolved into a rambling mess, open to all comers, while the Democrats mobilized domineering party machinery to anoint the next politician in line.
Ironically, Hillary Clinton established herself as next in line exactly the same way many Republicans have done so in the past: by coming up short for the nomination the last time out. And like the GOP was wont to do once upon a time, the Democratic party machinery now lined up to support its heir apparent in a way it had never done for any other candidate in an open field during the modern primary era.
Clinton’s funding and support were so overwhelming, that only three other Democratic candidates even bothered to enter the race (Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, and Martin O’Malley), all of them pie-eyed, not-ready-for-prime-timers who quickly flamed out. It all might have gone according to party plan, except that a serious challenge did finally appear. And it came from an outsider candidate who wasn’t even a Democrat until he entered the race.
Bernie Sanders is a lifelong Independent politician. So why did he enter the race as a Democrat? Because as an Independent, Sanders is well aware of the oppressive nature of the two party system. There are no smaller parties that he could use to make a serious run, which in turn might lead to a cabinet position, or even the one thing he seemed to get out of all this, which was finding a platform from which to influence the national conversation. The Green Party would be a much better fit for him than the Democrats, but the American duopoly no doubt led him to forego that option.
Thus, Sanders stands as the most recent exception who proves the rule. The rarest of animals, a Congressman who is neither Republican nor Democrat, he built a career beyond the duopoly by climbing up the political ladder in tiny Vermont. And with that experience, he full well knew that he had just about no chance whatsoever to make any meaningful impact on the campaign (much less win) running for president as a Socialist, Green, or Independent. So he proved the rule by making a calculated and exceptional decision: he opted for a Trojan Horse strategy, hoping to invade and conquer the duopoly from within.
And it almost worked. Almost.
Sanders has much higher favorable ratings and lower disapproval ratings than Clinton, and every step of the way he polled much better against Trump than she did. His message resonated with a broad audience, and that in turn enabled him to build a grassroots following and raise a tremendous amount of money from small donors.
Despite this, however, Sanders still could not overcome the Clinton machine. As the establishment candidate, she was bolstered by a disciplined party leadership that not only favored her, but actively worked against his interests. The whole affair is now such a profound embarrassment that Democratic National Chair/Hillary Clinton surrogate Debbie Wasserman Schultz has resigned her post.
But even if the Democratic Party leadership had acted impartially, Sanders still had to go one-on-one against an establishment icon. Unlike Trump, who was able to bully his way through a large, chaotic field of nobodies and stumblers, Sanders needed to pull straight, heads up majorities against Clinton, the party scion. It proved to be just a bit too much, as he won many states, but not quite enough.
To be sure, just as the Democrats did with Sanders, the Republican Party tried very hard to prevent Donald Trump’s rise within their ranks. And they were more transparent about it, many party leaders openly opposing him.
However, in the end, disorganization, poor choices, and a lack of discipline neutered their ability to stop the widely despised Trump from slithering through the chaos to capture its nomination. Meanwhile, the widely despised Hillary Clinton might very well have lost the Democratic nomination if not for the unflagging support of her better organized party, which worked to preclude any real competition from within, and then helped her outlast her one real opponent, a certified outsider running a more grassroots campaign.
And so here we are in 2016, with two deeply loathed major party candidates running for president. One of them a common example of how the two-party system can ram through a nominee that relatively few people are excited about, while the other serves as a three-alarm warning of what can happen when one of the major parties begins to spin off its axis.
Meanwhile, serious and reasonable candidates on the right (Johnson) and left (Stein), both of them much more likeable than these two, are duly ignored, or even abused by people who themselves claim to oppose the two-party system.
Come November then, tens of millions American voters, that one-quarter of the electorate who are utterly repulsed by both Clinton and Trump, will hold their noses and pull the lever for one of them, believing they have nowhere else to turn. And if the right quotient of them stay home, Trump could actually win.
All of it reveals that America’s two-party system is very broken, even as it remains thoroughly entrenched.
It’s time for radical change.
Whether that means smaller parties like the Greens and Libertarians must work together to build themselves up, as I first proposed three years ago; that the 42% of voters who identify as Independents must coalesce into a more potent and focused force in opposition to the duopoly; or that honest, brave, and honorable Democrats and Republicans must allow us to banish harmful duopolistic practices like closed primaries and unreasonable barriers to public campaign financing and debate appearances: every effort must be made to mend our broken political system.
The two-party system has brought us to this point, and it must answer for its sins.
This essay first appeared at 3 Quarks Daily.