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Will the Democratic and Republican Parties Soon Become History?

By Annmarie Mullen | 5/1/17 10:46am | Updated 5/1/17 10:46am
Lishani De Silva / American Word Magazine

Last November, you chose between four different parties. Two-hundred years ago, if you were able to vote, you wouldn’t have had much of a choice. Today’s parties – Democrats, Republicans, Greens and Libertarians – are very different from the parties of the Founding Fathers’ time. In fact, two of the parties, the Greens and Libertarians, didn’t exist until the late 1900s. And the Democrats and Republicans have been in a near-constant state of evolution up to and including the recent election. 

The Republican Party took control of both the executive and legislative branches of government with the latest election, leading to questions on the future of American politics. Both Democrats and Republicans fielded establishment candidates who were overrun with anti-establishment and fringe candidates. Splits appeared in the fabric of both parties, with anti-Trump Republicans voting Libertarian, ‘Bernie Bro’ Democrats voting Republican and thousands of exasperated moderates refusing to choose anyone.

What can the parties do now? Can they continue offering candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, or must they shift to candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump? Will the establishment survive, or will it fail? 

According to former congressmen and professor Mickey Edwards, party platforms change so often, so we should focus on what is happening now. “It is what a party, or a candidate, believes today that is relevant,” said Edwards. 

Fringe groups impact the political arena, as there is no law saying voters can only choose from two parties. While there have traditionally only been two major parties, third parties and fringe groups are formed all the time. But what we are seeing now is a potential, major upheaval in both parties, unseen since the 1850s when the Free-Soil Republicans overtook the Whigs over divides in regards to slavery. 

The Democrats could lose to a Progressive Party, while the Republicans could find themselves overshadowed by the Party of Trump and the alt-right. These parties would be even more polarized than the current parties – most fringe parties center around one specific issue. Back in the 1850s, for example, the Free-Soil Republicans initially focused on stopping slavery from expanding into new U.S. territories. Any hypothetical new party could form around either maintaining or discarding President Trump, but would eventually have to incorporate other issues to stay relevant.

As the party in power, the Republicans are likely to face the problem of fringe groups head-on. Trump, in part, owes his candidacy to devoted alt-right supporters, but he is now technically a mainstream politician. Will he cave to alt-right demands, as seen in his choice of Steve Bannon as a top aide? Or will he bow to establishment Republican politics, as seen in his nominations of steadfast Republican party members like Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson? 

While no one can say for sure, it seems certain that the parties will be forced to change. Considering that the most common refrains during the 2016 election were the dismissal of “politics as usual” and “establishment candidates,” the Democrats and Republicans should keep in mind the collapse of the Federalists, Whigs and Democratic-Republicans before them if they want to keep their power.

On the other hand, the success of parties often fall into the hands of the people. “Democrats seem intent on opposing anything and everything the president proposes, and Republicans seem determined to support whatever he does,” Edwards said, which means people follow party lines instead of thinking critically about the issues. 

Just look at last year’s primaries – Bernie supporters hated Clinton blindly and passionately, even after Sanders dropped out and endorsed Clinton. Clinging to the parties at the expense of individual critical thinking does a disservice to our country’s politics. Wedding yourself to one ideology cannot possibly encompass all the nuances of your politics, especially when parties’ platforms constantly evolve.

Students should consider their own party affiliations and be careful of falling into the trap Edwards described – don’t blindly support your party’s candidates. In future elections, our generation may determine whether Democrats and Republicans can survive on their traditional platforms. We will shape the future of parties as voters and even as potential leaders of the parties themselves. But we cannot get there without critically examining our beliefs and party loyalties.