Fall 2016 Yale College Essay Contest 2nd Place: “Populism: the Tsunami that Crashed the Party (System)” by Cameron Koffman DC ’19

The 2016 Election has thrown a wrench in the American political party system like no other election of our generation. The election has been the expression of a movement that most threatens the stability of our political landscape: the movement of anti-establishment populism. On the right, a Donald Trump insurgency has exploded the previous Republican coalition between its Wall Street and its Christian conservative wing. On the left, a Bernie Sanders insurgency has severely weakened the grip of the liberal elite over the Progressive wing of the party. Ultimately, Mr. Trump won out and managed to achieve his party’s nomination while Senator Sanders did not, however, the implications of both of these tumultuous primaries are the same. The party system that existed in this country since the late 1960s will realign after 2016 as the main political divide of conservatism vs. liberalism/progressivism will become populism vs. establishmentarianism

The populist revolutions on both sides of the political spectrum have created a rising tide of anger directed towards the political class, but this movement is stronger and more foundational than any of the ones before it.There have been populist waves since 1964 that have threatened to crash down on our modern party, but none have built up like this one. Candidates like John Anderson in 1980,  Jesse Jackson in 1984, and Ross Perot in 1992 all made an anti-Washington and anti-political class run for President, but none of them came very close to succeeding. Part of the reason for this lack of success stems from the fact that these populist movements did not receive the same kind of build-up that Trump’s and Sanders’s candidacies did. The grassroots of the current movements date all the way back to 2008 when voters on both sides of the aisle blamed the political elites for the Great Recession. Populist Democrats ostensibly pinned some of the blame for the Recession on Republican leaders such as Former President Bush, but they also took aim at the Corporate Democrats who had close ties to Wall Street and who were planning to “let the banks off easy”. This populist fervor manifested itself in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and the election of Progressive, anti-establishment Senators like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin in the subsequent election. On the far Right, a similar phenomena occurred. Naturally, these populist conservatives laid some blame of the financial crisis on Democratic leaders, but they also looked to establishment leaders of their own party and blamed them for their bureaucratic incompetence and ties to Wall Street. This group formed the Tea Party soon after the 2008 election, unseated key Establishment leaders like Eric Cantor and John Boehner, and began the vitriolic rhetoric of the Obama birther movement that is still prevalent in the Trump campaign today. Thus, the Sanders and Trump candidacies and the dormant electorate that they have now galvanized have been building up populist contempt for the political system that is too strong and has been too successful to just fizzle out. Both parties will face serious problems no matter which candidate wins the election.

For the Republican party, many members of the business wing have migrated away and will cast a vote for Hillary Clinton or Gary Johnson, members of the Socially Conservative wing will reluctantly cast their ballots for Trump, and the the only people left who really love Trump are the working-class college-uneducated whites. A coalition between these 3 groups cannot and will not sustain any more tension and a Trump presidency or a 2020 primary to choose a candidate to defeat a weak Clinton will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A Trump defeat would definitely not put an end to the populist movement as after the Democrats likely gain some seats in the House in this election cycle, the Freedom Caucus will wield even more influence than before.

For the Democratic party, members of the corporate wing will vote for Hillary Clinton with varying levels of enthusiasm, but members of the more radical progressive wings will stay home in much larger numbers than in 2008 and 2012 and a larger number than ever before will vote for Jill Stein. Furthermore, rust-belt manufacturing workers (economic populists) who found resonance with Bernie’s free trade and Wall Street message, but not with Hillary’s economic flip-flopping, have moved rightward to support Donald Trump. The populists have already ousted DNC establishment icon Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and it’s clear that they have no intentions of just stopping there. If Hillary wins, they will demand sweeping reforms that corporate Democrats are uncomfortable with and if Hillary loses, they will send a candidate even stronger than Bernie Sanders to fight the Establishment in 2020.

We have likely not yet reached the apogee of this populist tide sweeping the nation. Each party sees divisions at its cores over the same fundamental issue of populism vs. establishmentarianism. In 1964, the year of the last partisan realignment, both the Democrat and Republican parties had fissures along the lines of liberalism/progressivism vs. Conservatism. The more conservative elements of both parties coalesced to form the Republicans of this era and the more Progressive/liberal elements of both coalesced to form the Democrats. It’s currently uncertain which party would harbor the establishment and which party would harbor the populists under the new system, but it is clear that as our dinosauric party system coalitions fray, the populist and establishment elements on both sides will soon find more in common with their other party counterparts, than with their unsympathetic coalition partners.

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