Donald Trump and democracy generally have no business being alongside one another in a sentence, but in a roundabout way, the efforts that he’ll be putting in for The Patriot Party could be the antidote to America’s gridlocked, binary political system.
Not even a week after Joe Biden was sworn in as the new President of the United States, reports about Trump’s discussions about forming a new political party started to spread like wildfire. In fact, Wall Street Journal first reported on Trump’s intentions on the final day of his presidency, January 19. And it was just five days later that Trump threw himself back into the political scene by endorsing Arizona state party chairwoman Kelli Ward’s re-election, which she narrowly won, making it the first time a Trump endorsement resulted in victory, signifying that he will continue to be politically relevant and will maintain influence while out of office.
More importantly, it gives Trump the ultimate form of soft-power that presents a genuine threat to the survival of the GOP, given that he would easily get support from a massive part of the Republican voter-base, many of them who weren’t interested in politics prior to Trump’s rise to power. It’s also a political masterstroke in that Trump would be able to threaten Republican Senators that voted for impeachment with an endorsement for primary challengers. Effectively Trump is now an existential threat to the Republican Party and this fracture is playing out before our eyes while we watch Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene battle it out as figureheads for the old, establishment, neoconservative wing of the GOP and the new, populist, cryptofascist, Trump loyalist arm, respectively. And, while this may excite Democrats – the prospect of the Republican Party being caught up in a state of factionalism and losing relevance – it shouldn’t. What should really excite them, what should excite all Americans is that it would lead to a political re-alignment that could bring about real change.
Why are there only two parties in America
Firstly, for those that don’t follow politics particularly closely, there aren’t actually just two parties in the States. There are four other parties, namely the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Constitution Party and the American Solidarity Party, the US Tax Payer’s Party, among several others, as well as Independents. They just don’t come anywhere near challenging the status quo. However, this is starting to change ever so slightly, with a total of 77 third-party or independent candidates receiving more votes in 2020 than the margin of victory in their respective elections, according to Ballotpedia.
With that said, the political structures in America and how they’ve changed since the nation was founded in the 18th Century can provide some key insights to what an America with The Patriot Party challenging the Republican-Democrat duopoly would look like.
In the earliest days of American democracy, there actually weren’t any political parties and the Founding Fathers preferred a political system that was devoid of partisanship that formed barriers to progress in the plurality voting system that they had imported from Britain.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism,” George Washington said in his farewell address in 1796. His successor, John Adams also expressed fears over “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.” The US Constitution does not make mention of political parties and Washington was not affiliated with any party at the time of his election or during any part of his tenure.
However, between the 1790s and 1824, the First Party System emerged in America, with the Federalist and anti-Federalist parties battling it out for power and influence. Federalists favoured a strong, united, centralised government that maintained ties to Britain, favoured centralised banking and condoned links between the government and wealthy men. The chief protagonists for the Federalists was Alexander Hamilton. The anti-Federalists, also known as the Democratic-Republican Party, founded by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, strongly opposed the Federalist agenda.
They came to power in 1800 and the elitist nature of the Federalist Party made gaining popular support very difficult and eventually their refusal to support the War of 1812 lead to their demise. However, by the time the First Party system ended in 1824, where the Democratic-Republican Party was split into Henry Clay’s Whig Party, which grew out of the National Republican Party, and Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party. Democrats supported increased power for the executive branch, opposed a centralised bank and modernising industry at the expense of farmers. The Whig Party advocated for the Primacy of Congress over other branches of government and supported modernisation and economic protectionism. The Whig Party fell into decline in the 1850s as a result of a major party split between abolitionists and slave owners and the resulting decline in party leadership, following the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The Third Party System, characterised by the emergence of the Republican Party in 1854, which had adopted anti-slavery policies and many of the Whig Party’s economic policies. They advocated national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads and aid to land grant colleges, while the Democratic Party continued to make up the opposition and were very much pro-Slavery. The parties remained polarised until the Compromise of 1877, with the Civil War and Reconstruction polarising opinions across the country.
At this point, broad coalitions of newly freed African Americans (Freedmen) and white Southerners were formed in the Republican and Democratic Parties, respectively. Democrats also incorporated pro-business factions and Catholic immigrants into their coalition, while the Republican coalition was made up of small business owners, craftsmen and other professionals. The Fourth Party system, which began in the late 1890s and continued until the 1930s, corresponded with the Progressive Era, which emerged from the economic crisis that emerged after the Panic of 1893, which many blamed Democrats for.
The Republicans dominated this era with popular policies, such as regulating railroads and large corporations (trusts), while promoting protective tariffs, unions, women’s suffrage and many other forward-looking policies. Voting blocs remained largely unchanged, but there are a number of discussions to be had about why no Labour Party emerged in the United States at this time, whereas parties of that nature were to be found almost everywhere in Europe. Robin Archer’s Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? provides key insights into this nuance. This system lasted up until the election of Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat and his New Deal Coalition formed in response to the Great Depression, amid haemorrhaging support for the Republican Party. FDR’s Democrats promoted American liberalism, anchored in a coalition of specific liberal groups, especially ethno-religious constituencies (Catholics, Jews, African Americans), white Southerners, well-organized labor unions, urban machines, progressive intellectuals, and populist farm groups. The Republicans were split into factions of conservatives and moderates.
As a consequence of the Democrats highly successful era under Roosevelt (who was elected four times and led the country through World War 2, which turned them into a global superpower ), the political realignment led to Democrats positioning themselves towards more liberal politics, while conservatives slowly began to dominate the Republican Party.
The Sixth Party system, which defines the political landscape today can best be understood by examining the Republican Party’s adoption of the racially-based “Southern Strategy”, which won Richard Nixon the presidency in 1968, while also launching the political career of Barry Goldwater, who ran in the 1964 GOP Primaries. By manipulating the property market and using other mechanisms, Republicans were able to use racism as a catalyst for carrying out their agenda, giving rise to conservatism in the South, as well as rural and suburban America. Democrats have built coalitions of people of colour and progressives living in costal and rural areas.
The rise of Trump
Just like the Founding Fathers had predicted, partisanship has come to corrupt American politics and serve as major barrier to progress.
Over the past three decades, both parties have had roughly equal electoral strength nationally, making control of Washington constantly up for grabs,” write’s The Atlantic’s Lee Drutman. “Since 1992, the country has cycled through two swings of the pendulum, from united Democratic government to divided government to united Republican government and back again, with both sides seeking that elusive permanent majority, and attempting to sharpen the distinctions between the parties in order to win it. This also intensified partisanship.
“These triple developments—the nationalization of politics, the geographical-cultural partisan split, and consistently close elections—have reinforced one another, pushing both parties into top-down leadership, enforcing party discipline, and destroying cross-partisan deal making. Voters now vote the party, not the candidate. Candidates depend on the party brand. Everything is team loyalty. The stakes are too high for it to be otherwise.”
The Democrat-Republican division, where each party’s identity has become fixated on how much it hates the other, arguably reached a point of no return in the 2010 midterm elections, which gave rise to the Tea Party, who added fuel to the fire of racist, xenophobic and economic tension to create the hardcore Trumpists sycophants that carry such massive influence in the party today. The racism, economic elitism and complete abandonment of pursuing the popular vote – the plurality voting system that had such a tremendous bearing on the Founding Fathers’ political philosophies – has led the Republican Party to the point were loyalty to a single figure with authoritarian, fascist tendencies is the anchor that ties support to the party. Now that the anchor is gone, the party is already melting down, just a few short weeks after Trump left office.
And, now, Trump could easily cut the Republican Party’s base in half by forming the Patriot Party, which would only favour Democrats of course, who have been winning the popular vote for decades. Republicans have lost power in the House, the Senate and the Executive and they are on their knees. And it’s quite possible that we could be on the cusp of a seventh party system and major political re-alignment, which can go two ways.
Either the Democrats consolidate power, maintain influence over their winning coalition as it is, or – and this is where it gets really interesting – some Democrats could take a leaf out of Trump’s book and follow suit in a challenge of the status quo. Much like disaffected Trump loyalists (although for very different reasons), progressive Democrats are disillusioned with the system and screaming for an alternative to choosing the lesser of two evils. And active resistance to status quo Democrats (who Joe Biden is the perfect embodiment of) has been underway for some time now, largely due to the Great Recession of 2007/08 and the Occupy Wall Street movement that followed. Bernie Sanders represents a new wing of the party and so do Justice Democrats (a small, but growing coalition of progressive candidates that refuse corporate campaign contributions and promote progressive policies like universal healthcare) like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Talib, Ilhan Omar, Jamal Bowman, Corey Bush and several others.
What to expect
Let’s just say that expecting the United States’ two-party system to fall apart simply because the Republican Party is fractured is highly, highly unlikely. When the Federalist Party collapsed, the Whigs emerged, when the Whig Party faded, the Republican Party rose to prominence. The Democrats have remained fairly consistent throughout but they’ve also had to shift away from being a racist pro-slavery party into the party that nominally stands for racial justice. They’ve had to literally change their entire identity to survive and the system has propagated for 230 years in this fashion.
Expecting any meaningful change without structural change would be naive. However, The Patriot Party support groups have grown rapidly on Facebook, as reported by Reuters, with 51 groups and 85 pages promoting The Patriot Party to tens of thousands of followers. One group, created on 17 January, gained 105,000 members in eight days before it was shut down, and the sentiment among the public seems to clearly be geared towards bringing an end to the two-party system. Not to mention, through his “Save America PAC”, Trump has managed to raise more than $30 million, which would help him create the apparatus to mount a serious challenge in the near future.
Not to mention, the disdain that Bernie Sanders supporters have for the Democratic Party, having been mobilised against by establishment Democrats for two consecutive Presidential primaries, is very well documented. America is not divided into two factions, it’s divided into four. Republicans and Democrats look very much the same in terms of their fiscal conservatism, pro-war stances and sympathy for monied interests. However, on either end of the political spectrum, there are vast movements that have the potential to either destroy one or both major parties. What would be far better, however, is if four distinctive parties existed and Americans are given the choice to vote for a party that will serve their interests, rather than hide behind red-tape and partisanship, to get things done. And, somehow, we may end up thanking Donald Trump for saving America’s democracy… as profoundly ironic as that many sound.