Is Populism Hijacking the Two-Party System?

The 2016 Presidential election tested the limits of the two-party system and conventional Republican and Democratic ideology. The platforms of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders pushed the typical red and blue camps towards the fringes.

Trump’s affiliation with the Republican party is purely functional (or, it could be argued, dysfunctional) in nature. While many of his viewpoints are hard to pin down for certain, the platform that he ran on in 2016 aligned most with the Republican party – hard on immigration, in favor of significant tax cuts, and staunchly against universal healthcare. He was seen as the far-right candidate, while Bernie Sanders was his far-left counterpart. Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination on a democratic-socialist platform, advocating for free college tuition and single payer healthcare. Though Hillary Clinton ended up ultimately clinching the Democratic nomination, Sanders garnered a significant level of support that made him appear a viable candidate for the presidency.

History has shown that securing the nomination of one of the two major political parties is a necessity for any serious presidential hopeful. The last third party candidate to win a single electoral vote was George Wallace in 1968. While this has typically pushed presidential candidates towards more centrist views, this past election was fought with heels dug in on specific issues rather than along party lines.

The surge of grassroots political movements and populism in the past decade played a huge role in the unconventional nature of the 2016 bid for the presidency, and certainly in election of Donald Trump. One of the most prominent examples of this is the success of The Tea Party movement during the Obama presidency. The Tea Party successfully exerted pressure on to the Obama administration and the elected officials who supported his agenda through playing “defense” – organizing locally and lobbying their own members of Congress to bend towards their desired policies. Considering how effective this strategy was, groups on the left are now considering following the same game plan with their own agenda to challenge Trump and his policies, and revive the Democratic majority in Washington in the upcoming midterm and primary elections.

Americans are fired up, and as we’ve heard time and time again in the past year, are sick of “establishment” politics. Increased political activism and grassroots organization show a renewed level of engagement with government all across the political spectrum. This is an exciting prospect. Gearing up for the midterm elections in 2018, and the presidential election in 2020, it appears the American people and their views on the role of government will likely drive the results more than professional lobbyists, businesses, or, lets hope, foreign governments.

Tied to intolerance, racism, and bigotry, the word “populism” has garnered a negative connotation as it has recently been used in analyses of the past election and Trump’s voter base. However, as defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary, populism is “the political doctrine that supports the rights and the powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite.”

Is that not the picture of democracy painted by our founders, after all?

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