The pundit class loves to refight the last election and explain the why and wherefore of what should have happened in 2016 but didn’t because candidates didn’t follow the pundits’ script. The talking heads sound like sourpuss theater critics who wanted to rewrite the third act.
Gene Robinson, the amiable Washington Post columnist, is an honorable exception. He has lost patience with the conventional wisdom that failed so miserably last election season, and his recent column spoke the plain truth about the collapsing party system.
“I believe a political realignment is underway, and those who fail to discern its outlines could end up powerless and irrelevant,” Robinson wrote. The traditional left-right, progressive-conservative political axis has lost its validity. “I believe neither party has the foggiest idea what the new diagram looks like.” Amen to that. It has been my message too. During last year’s campaign, I described Bernie Sanders as the “high road” to fundamental change, while Donald Trump owned the “low road.” It may take several election cycles to determine which road the country embraces—if it doesn’t choose a path very different from either.
For now, our governing system resembles a kind of collective hysteria, an emotional breakdown that reflects problems far broader than our having a crackpot president. Both major parties are stuck in the past and afraid of the future. Fear and confusion have overwhelmed the establishment. They have no plan for our future—not one that speaks candidly to the troubled conditions that have emerged over the last generation.
There’s a familiar pattern in American history: When the two-party system was stalemated and radical reforms were needed (abolishing slavery or voting rights for women, for example), people organized powerful third-party challenges to advance their cause. The country is now ripe for another rump insurgency.
The long-standing presumption, at least among political centrists, has been that independent activists have no choice but to align with a major party to gain a voice in government. But digital technologies, which lower the cost of communication for ordinary citizens, have disrupted the two-party monopoly. The fruitcake election of 2016 has not generated a new third party, but it’s early days yet.
People have won the means to speak for themselves and compete directly with the official truth packaged by the two major parties. And dissenters have learned how to gain voice and power by attacking the established ranks. This is healthy for small-d democracy. Maybe party professionals will learn how to listen.