Are the Major Political Parties Changed Forever?

September 25th 2016

The 2016 presidential election is certainly unlike any before it, with a real estate mogul TV personality leading one of the tickets and the first female candidate of a major party on the other. This election has many people saying the parties are changed forever.

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"The Day the Republican Party Died" was an Atlantic headline from May. "The Republican Party Is Dead" read a headline from the Los Angeles Times in the same month. A Politico article, also from May, said: "U.S. politics is about to change big time."

Republican nominee Donald Trump has started endorsing some liberal ideas, like paid family leave, and he has opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Republicans overall support.

On the other side, Democrat Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by many Republicans, and former Republican President George H.W. Bush allegedly hinted that he's voting for her. It sure does seem something is changing in our political parties.

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Is it true? Are the Democratic and Republican Parties forever changed just because of this historic election? Many top experts aren't so sure.

"I think a lot of these things are pretty temporary," Julia Azari, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University, told ATTN:. Much of what appears to be a gigantic change is actually just connected to the fact that Trump is an unusual candidate, and the parties have been changing for a long time anyway, she said. "Thinking about people like George H.W. Bush saying he's going to vote for Clinton. … The Republican Party in a lot of ways kind of left George H.W. Bush a while ago."

"Realignments are rare and tend not to be a sort of cataclysm — the idea that all of a sudden you get these big changes in coalitions," Eric Schickler, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, told ATTN:. "Often, it's a lot more gradual."

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"Trump definitely highlights this division in the Republican Party and could well lead to some shifting in the party, but I don't think we're going to see lots of Republicans become Democrats over this election, or vice versa," Schickler said. "I tend to be a skeptic of that idea."

There have been times when parties underwent fundamental change, Schickler and Azari both said. Among them:

  • Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, while the Whig Party disappeared.
  • The Democrats went from a minority party to a significant majority around the time Franklin D. Roosevelt took the White House in 1932.
  • The South switched from being mostly Democrat to being largely Republican in the mid-20th century.

This election, however, may not mark a moment where everything gets turned upside down.

lincolnArchives Foundation/Flickr - flickr.com

"What Trump showed is that if you check particular [conservative] boxes very strongly — immigration for example — you can actually appeal to a lot of other voters," Schickler said. "You can be less down-the-line conservative on some other issues, like Social Security and Medicare."

Both Schickler and Azari agreed that the rise of independent voters probably won't affect the future of elections in a massive way, either.

"There are actually a lot fewer true independents than the polls indicate, because a lot of these independents, when you ask them if they lean toward a party, they usually do lean toward one party or the other, and they tend to vote strongly for that party," Schickler said.

"There's more continuity than change," Azari said. "It seems like the system is ripe for disruption, but we're not quite there yet."

It's pretty shocking that we have someone who's never been a politician running against a longtime politician who could become the first female president of the United States, and the parties have been somewhat disrupted by Trump's unexpected candidacy. But much of what's going on has been a long time coming.

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