A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Political Earthquake


Many Trump supporters say they voted to shatter America’s static political landscape. If it works, they’ll end up with a spectrum that will look familiar to Europeans.

© REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

There is much about American politics that is unusual to people in Europe, and this year’s bizarre presidential election is no exception. Europeans frequently criticize America’s two-party system, which gives a stranglehold on political office to only Democrats and Republicans.

There is only one country in Europe with a similar situation – Malta, where the intense political tribalism of its 450,000 citizens makes American political division look like child’s play. Every other European country has at least three major parties. Why should a nation as large and diverse as the United States have only two?

In reality, there are various strains of political thought in America. Both parties are made up of ideological coalitions, and tensions within them have been brought to the boiling point by the 2016 election.

Donald Trump’s win shocked Democrats and Republicans alike. Both party establishments are looking weaker than ever before. The Democrats are leaderless and adrift, completely shut out of power. The Republicans may now control every lever of government, but the party establishment appears to be primed for an inevitable conflict with their President Trump that could tear the party apart.

Not since the mid-19th century has America been so ripe for a fundamental shake-up of its political landscape.

Shotgun Wedding

The Republican leadership – embodied in House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – has embraced Trump since his shock win in the early hours of November 9. But they weren’t always singing this tune. Just a week earlier, it appeared that both men had abandoned Trump, with Ryan even refusing to talk about him publicly. Neither Trump nor his voters will forget that.

In the final weeks of the campaign, the Republican establishment was vilified by Trump at his rallies, and audiences booed when they heard the party mentioned. Meanwhile, the party leadership’s on-again, off-again support for the candidate and their fawning overtures after he won have disgusted moderate Republicans. In short, the brand is now toxic to both moderates and populists within the party.

So how long will the uneasy embrace between the more moderate congressional Republicans and the president last? It’s not just about optics. There are now fundamental and irreconcilable policy differences within the party. Republicans have traditionally been pro-free trade and hawkish US involvement in foreign interventions. Trump has said he wants to scrap global trade agreements and end America’s role as the world’s policeman. Despite winning the overwhelming support of evangelicals, Trump does not share their obsession with social issues like abortion or gay marriage. His vice president, Mike Pence, does.

If and when the Republican congressional leadership has to block President Trump on an issue, the traditional and populist wings of the party may be pitted against on another.

A logical outcome might be for two parties to emerge from the ashes of internal Republican conflict, with two new names: a center-right party in the mold of Angela Merkel’s CDU in Germany, and a far-right party in the mold of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France.

The new center-right party would attract about half of sitting Republican lawmakers, but it would probably attract only about twenty percent of Republican voters. For 25 years now, the party has pursued a policy of bolstering its socially conservative and populist base while alienating its fiscally conservative wing.

There are few moderate voters left in the Republican Party at this point, as became evident in voting during the Republican primary. Over the past 15 years many of the former Republican moderates have become independents, and others have become Democratic voters.

Democrats in Disarray

The Democratic Party, pulled to the right by Bill Clinton’s New Democrats movement in the 1990s, has provided a natural home for many of these fiscal conservatives. But they are now in an uncomfortable union with the party’s progressives.

Bill Clinton remade the Democrats into a center-right party and he passed the mantle on to Barack Obama, who has also governed as a largely center to center-right president. Today’s Democratic politicians have more in common with British Conservatives than British Labour, for example. If Democrats joined the European Parliament, they might sit with the European People’s Party, or possibly the ALDE group of European Liberals. They certainly wouldn’t comfortably align with Europe’s center-left Socialists & Democrats group.

Bill Clinton’s Democratic makeover left a lot of people on the left of the party feeling unrepresented and taken for granted. This year, that wing flocked to Bernie Sanders, and they flocked with a vengeance. There couldn’t have been a more perfect foe against which to vent their rage – the wife of the man who transformed the Democrats into a centrist party. This explains the incredible level of vitriol against Hillary Clinton during the primary and beyond. It is the American left’s residual rage against a family that has robbed them of a political home.

A Democratic Tea Party?

Clinton’s loss has led to inevitable finger-pointing from Sanders supporters, who insist their candidate would have been able to defeat Trump. Both Clinton and Sanders supporters have been left angry and confused. The anti-Trump protests seen across the US in the days after the election united these two camps. But soon it will be time to decide how to mount an effective opposition to the president.

There are two options: to repeat the Democrats’ response to the 2000 defeat, or to mirror the Republican response to their defeat in 2008. In the former model, Democrats would work with the new president as much as possible and try to move to the right to win over the alienated white working class.

In the latter model, the party members would take to the streets in protest – not just for a few days but for months and years. They would pressure Democrats in Congress to try to block everything put forward by the President – a strategy that could be used to actual effect if Democrats can win control of the Congress in the 2018 midterm elections.

Disagreement on which strategy to pursue seems inevitable, and it is likely to split leftist and moderate Democrats. If that split coincides with a split within the GOP, we could be entering unchartered territory.

If moderate Republicans come into conflict with the new president and are plotting ways to form a viable third party, it would make sense to look to moderate Democrats who haven’t gone along with a Tea Party resistance strategy.

Any new moderate GOP party would need to build its voter base quickly and cannot rely on attracting many registered Republican voters. They would have to go first to former Republicans who left the party after it drifted to the far-right. Next they could turn to independents. And finally, they could turn to moderate Democrats.

The result would be a three-party system that is more recognizable to Europeans: A center-left “Socialist” party (the rump Democrats), a center-right “Christian Democratic” party (former Republicans and Democrats joined together) and a far-right “nationalist” party (Tea Partiers/Trumpeters).

American Exceptionalism

All of this assumes that the American political system behaves rationally. But the world’s oldest democracy behaves in no such way. A three-party system would require coalition building to attain a majority in the Senate and House, something we haven’t seen in America in 180 years.

Such coalitions would have to be worked out not only at the federal level, but also in all fifty state legislatures. It would be a very new phenomenon for the US and could also bring about great political uncertainty. Expect entrenched interests to resist such a development at all costs.

Political scientists also point out that the two-party system arose in the US because of its winner-take-all electoral system. They say this situation is unlikely to change unless the voting system is changed. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. A winner-take-all system hasn’t stopped the UK from developing a three-party system, for instance.

The forces of stasis in America’s archaic governing institutions are strong, but they are under immense strain. Remaking the American political spectrum along a more European model would be nothing less than an earthquake – one that would likely have ramifications for the rest of the world as well.

It’s now or never. If America’s strange two-party system doesn’t buckle under the unprecedented chaos of this year’s election, it likely never will. For Europeans who are hoping for an American political spectrum that’s easier to understand and navigate, now is the time to hope for a change – and maybe even offer some advice.