The 2016 presidential election has been characterized by its uniqueness both in candidates and in the deep divide among likely voters. But Bill Crotty, professor emeritus of political science and an expert in American political parties and elections, says that this election is not without precedent. “This is not the worst of times,” he explains, “but it is a low point in a country with a history of political low points.”
In this Q&A, Crotty talks about the fractious nature of the nation’s political climate, noting that the “civil war” within the Republican Party “has been festering for years.” But, he says, the Democratic Party, too, “has problems and they are just beginning to surface.”
Is there any historical precedent for the current state of discord within a political party, particularly during a presidential election year?
Yes. Discord within a political party and efforts to distance lower-level candidates from the presidential nominee are not uncommon. The extent of the discomfort varies. There are reasons for this. Trump represents a faction of what are large and highly diverse sets of economic, regional, and historical differences. They do not agree and they compete with each other for control of the party. This is inescapable in a political system that squeezes more than 300 million Americans into a two-party format. Dissatisfaction with one segment’s success is common, although most factions will attempt to cover it over in the interest of winning the presidency and enjoying the rewards that follow.
Do you think there are other factors—be they social, economic, or demographic—that led up to, or caused, the type of political climate in which we find ourselves today?
The Republican party today is badly split. A TV personality, an alleged self-made billionaire with no political experience—and up to recent times, with little organization or funding of consequence—has tapped into the discontent prevalent among core Republicans. This, in itself, is extraordinary. It can be explained. I believe that Trump’s views, delivered as an outsider and as repugnant as they are, are shared by a majority of Republican voters. The difference is he is saying them publicly and boldly as well as crudely, lewdly, and all the rest. They like what they hear. They see Trump as an agent of change with the possibility, even likelihood, of directly improving their personal situations. He also serves as a vehicle to vent their anger.
This is not the worst of times, but it is a low point in a country with a history of political low points.
—Bill Crotty, professor emeritus of political science
This is a tough, even virulent, campaign, a type not unfamiliar in American politics. Divided parties are not new. To introduce in very rough terms a historical perspective, check Abraham Lincoln’s or Franklin Roosevelt’s races. Bill Clinton’s, George W. Bush’s, or Barack Obama’s elections can also serve as examples. Each reflects serious divisions in the society that give rise to contentious, negative, and, it might be said, disturbing politics. It is the more fundamental fissures in the social fabric of the nation that should be the center of attention, not the antics of one candidate or the tone of one election.
GOP candidates find themselves in a unique position where standing by Trump might subject them “to devastating and, quite possibly, career-ending attack,” the New York Times posits. While many longtime Republicans have denounced their party’s presidential candidate, there are many who continue to endorse him or are relatively silent on the topic. Has there been any other time in American politics when down-ballot candidates might have felt it a better bet to distance themselves from their party’s nominee?
What is of interest at present is how a political novice with, I would say, outrageous views and a history of questionable actions, can appeal to a mass party base. As noted, I believe that, whatever the packaging, Trump reflects the views and channels the anger and frustration of a left-behind party base. I might add that you may in the future see a similar response in the emerging generation coming into power within the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders, who Trump occasionally compares his campaign to, showed the potential for just such a movement.
This discussion has touched only lightly on Hillary Clinton. There is, of course, much to admire in the candidacy of a tough, hard-working, experienced, and committed nominee for the presidency, much less being the first woman to be nominated by a major party for the office.
It is the more fundamental fissures in the social fabric of the nation that should be the center of attention, not the antics of one candidate or the tone of one election.
Still there are questions as to the substance of her commitments, the “inside game” approach her politics has taken, the continual revelation of emails showing favoritism to her husband’s associates and Clinton Foundation donors, and so on. More basically, her pragmatic, incremental, status quo approach in both 2008 and 2016 can be considered to distance her from an electorate seeking change.
The absence of at least several serious contenders representing various viewpoints for the nomination is disturbing. The Sanders challenge was unexpected, late, largely unplanned, and led by a nationally unknown 74-year-old senator with few legislative achievements to his credit. It was not designed to defeat her, however successful it proved to be. What it was intended to do was to illustrate the frustration and anger of Democrats (in this case) who sought basic change, or, to paraphrase Sanders’ words, to initiate a political revolution. Terribly ambitious but who is to say. The Democratic party has problems and they are just beginning to surface.
What factors might congressional candidates be weighing in deciding whether or not to distance themselves from the top of their ticket?
The reasons candidates for elective office may disassociate themselves, quietly or publicly, from a presidential nominee’s campaign are clear enough. They respond to what best serves their interests. Done on a large scale, as is threatened but not yet the case in the Republican Party, a fierce internecine battle for supremacy in party affairs can emerge. Hence the present talk of a “civil war.”
Whatever the packaging, Trump reflects the views and channels the anger and frustration of a left-behind party base. [And] the Democratic party has problems and they are just beginning to surface.
The Republican establishment, largely congressional and state officeholders, may well agree with Trump’s basic policy commitments, such as they are. Some would say Trump’s views have been in evidence among congressional Republicans since at least 2010. This political class may believe that Trump does not help them in their reelection fights. Their need is not to appeal to the party’s base as Trump is doing but to expand their coalition by bringing in the independents and undecided voters necessary for a minority party like the Republicans to prevail. The approach has worked well, combined with billionaire financing, post-Citizens United, in gaining control of the Congress, and increasingly, state governorships and state legislatures. Consequently, the civil war within the party is receiving attention. The reality is that it has been festering for years. The party’s base has been ignored and essentially taken for granted in elections.
Trump exploited this in his harsh attacks throughout the campaign and even more pointedly in the Town Hall debate. If anyone had any doubts as to where he stood in the party wars, his denunciation of Paul Ryan, the highest ranking Republican in the nation, as “very weak and ineffective” should make his allegiance clear. It also should make clear the dimensions of his role in fomenting the divide. It existed but Trump has exploited it and brought it to the surface.
Meanwhile, Trump’s behavior and crude language and actions, severely criticized by most voters, have actually served to firm up his base. Trump came off of a particularly aggressive performance in a nasty Town Hall debate stronger than when he went in. According to an NBC poll, his support among Republicans increased to 89 percent.
Sunday night’s town-hall style debate deteriorated into a bitter, ugly display of “attacks and slurs.” Was this the low point of American politics, or have there been other election cycles that have exhibited this level of virulent discord?
This is not the worst of times, but it is a low point in a country with a history of political low points. The message is to look to the social conditions and quality of representation when attempting to explain extreme political behavior. The candidates exemplify in a personal sense how elections respond to the more basic ailments that divide a society.