The tension between populist and establishment politics has been a recurrent theme in the 2016 election. During the primaries, both Democratic and Republican candidates gained a following by arguing that the mainstream parties’ positions of the last decade do not coherently represent the interests and values of most Americans. After highlighting rising socioeconomic inequality, Bernie Sanders took a firm position against center-left neoliberals and called for the resurgence of radical leftist economic policies. Appealing to existing Tea Party sentiment within the Republican Party, Donald Trump challenged the ideological hegemony of party elites, claiming that free trade and interventionist foreign policy negatively impact everyday Americans. A similar dynamic persists in the general election: Trump has visibly defined himself as an alternative to Clinton’s status quo in an effort to attract Sanders supporters and minorities who feel abandoned by mainstream Democrats. It is clear that the rise of populism as a major political force has significantly impacted this election, but how will it shape the evolution of America’s political parties? Although America’s electoral system and the legacy of two parties make it unlikely that a new populist party can exist alongside the Democrats and Republicans, history suggests that a two party system in which both parties represent the elite is unsustainable in the long term. Therefore, a new movement aligning itself with populist interests and values will arise to replace the Republican party within the two party paradigm.
The failure of the People’s Party of the 1890s illustrates why a small third party cannot grow out of a populist movement in American national politics. As is evident in its 1892 platform, the People’s Party was a left-wing populist group devoted to bringing the interests of the “producing class”. Specifically, it sought out the support of disenfranchised rural Americans by claiming that mainstream politicians only represented industrial capitalists. This message was compelling among rural communities at the time, but the party never gained the same traction among the urban working class. Because of this, it could never form a suitably large coalition to challenge the Democrats or Republicans, and therefore it remained a small leftist third party. This position was not stable within an American two party landscape: without preferential voting, People’s Party voters continuously allied themselves with Democrats, and by 1896, they became just another voting bloc within the Democratic coalition. Such a dilemma would face any populist party which could not reach the critical mass of support necessary to beat one of the major parties on the national level. Therefore, the success of a populist movement relies on its ability to gain enough support to replace an existing party: the new movement will either grow big enough to become one of the two major parties, or it will vanish back into an establishment-dominated coalition.
The rise of Labor in the United Kingdom during the early 20th century shows how a populist movement with enough support can supplant an internally conflicted major party. Since the early 19th century, the Conservatives and Liberals had been the dominant forces in British politics. The Liberal Party had originally represented classical liberalism and the interests of British capitalists, but, during the late 19th century, it began to advocate for labor unions and increased social benefits. Thus, by the 1920s it could no longer claim a clear ideological vision: to some it was the party of workers, while to others it represented an old-school laissez-faire approach to the economy. This contradiction in interests allowed Labor to reach the critical mass of support that it needed to supplant the Liberals as the dominant political party among the working class; by the second half of the 20th century, the Liberal Party was no longer relevant.
Like the Liberal Party of the 1920s, today’s Republican Party is an artificial union of groups with conflicting interests and values. While strict conservatives might find no problem supporting the full Republican platform, two of the other important groups within the coalition are fundamentally opposed: to neoliberals, the Republican Party is the party of big business, but to the Tea Party, it represents small-town America. Thus, a new party rooted in populism could attract many Tea Party Republicans and some anti-establishment Democrats in the same way that Labor attracted the support of those who were dissatisfied with the Liberal Party. According to RealClearPolitics, well over 60% of Americans disapprove of Congress; clearly, the potential is there for an anti-establishment coalition to achieve the necessary threshold of support. Therefore, while it is unlikely that a third party will arise alongside the Democrats and Republicans, it is entirely possible that a populist movement might replace or entirely take over the existing Republican Party, and in so doing reframe American political allegiance in terms of populist and establishment interests.