The American Presidential primaries have produced surprising results. Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primary has shocked followers of American politics, many of whom expected the nomination process to lead to the nomination of a moderate candidate. Bernie Sanders, while not having the same success as Trump, has managed to turn what was supposed to be an easy contest for Hillary Clinton into a reasonably close race. Both Trump and Sanders are outsiders to their parties. Trump is very clearly not a traditional Republican while Sanders was not a member of the Democratic party until he made his Presidential bid. The success of both Trump and Sanders mirrors a widening of the political spectrum that is occurring across North American and Europe. The difference between the United States and most other developed democracies, is that American political institutions force new political movements into existing party structures while most other countries’ institutions allow for the formation of new parties. As a result, it is harder for candidates from new movements to make political break-throughs in American politics, but when they do, they can leverage the resources of traditionally strong parties in order to increase their likelihood of winning government.
The United States is not the only country that has seen a large shift in its politics over the last decade, indeed the emergence of Trump and Sanders as strong non-traditional candidates for office has happened relatively late compared to other developed democracies. As I noted in a previous post, the far-right has been making substantial gains across Europe that go back to the early 2000s. In 2002 French far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into a run-off for the top two candidates vying for the French presidency and far-right parties from the UK, to the Netherlands, to Poland have been making steady gains over the past two decades. Even Germany is likely to see a far-right party in the form the Alternative for Germany enter their parliament in the next election. The rise of these parties looks very similar to the rise of Trump in the United States, and suggests that politicians outside of the United States capitalize on xenophobia at least as much as Trump has.
The increasing diversity in European democracies is not unique to the far-right though. In Germany the Left party (previously knows as the Party of Democratic Socialists) went from around 5% of the vote in the 1990s to 8%-11% of the vote over much of the 2000s and 2010s. In the Netherlands the Christian Democrats have been replaced by the Liberal VVD as the leading right of centre party, in France the communist presidential candidate took 11% of the vote in the 2012 election, in Spain a brand new party called Podemos emerged in 2015 to take 21% of the vote, and the UK has seen first the Liberal Democrats and then the Scottish Nationalist Party take significant seat shares in their most recent elections. Most party systems in developed democracies now feature a diverse array of parties that represent a broad range of political opinions. Countries that did not see much of an increase in the diversity of their parties often already had diversity amongst their political parties by the early to mid 1990s. This was the case in countries such as Belgium, Italy, and Sweden. Given that partisan diversity is now normal across most developed countries, it should not be a surprise to see insurgent campaigns in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.
The American political system, however, treats insurgencies very differently than most other democratic institutions do. In most countries third and fourth parties can be quite viable electorally. In the United States two factors combine to force new political movements into the two existing parties. The first is the electoral system used to select the President. The preeminent national political contest in the United States, the Presidential race, is a winner-take all contest in which only the party with the most votes get anything. This places strong pressure on voters to back one of the two major parties because it is unlikely that a vote for a third party will have an impact on the election result. Absent a serious Presidential candidate, third party and independent candidates often face a significant disadvantage in Congressional races. This makes it difficult for new parties to enter the American political system.
In contrast, parliamentary systems usually ensure that third parties get some representation and therefore give voters a reason to back these parties. In proportional systems parties are almost guaranteed representation in parliament provide they can marshal a modicum of support. Even in first past the post systems though, third and fourth parties can win significant parliamentary representation if they are regionally concentrated (e.g. the Bloc Quebecois, the Reform party, and the Scottish National Party) or can win enough of the vote nationally to become competitive in a significant number of ridings (e.g. the Liberal Democrats and the NDP). Finally in Presidential systems that use an Alternative Vote or Run-off electoral system (which the United States does not) third and fourth parties can be reasonably competitive because their voters are secure in the knowledge that if their first choice does not end up being viable they can express a second choice preference for a party more likely to win office. They can vote for a third party candidate for President without losing their chance to vote against a strongly disliked candidate in a future round of voting.
The second factor that pushes new political movements into the existing American parties is the openness of both parties to a wide range of views. This results from the incredibly lax (compared to most other countries) party discipline in Congress and the openness of the nomination processes for both parties. It is easy for well organized political movements to win Congressional primary races and to compete in Presidential races. Unlike in most countries, voters in the United States do not have to be paid members of a political party in order to vote on who the party nominates for different political offices and there is very little pressure on elected members of a party to conform to leadership’s interests in order to advance their political careers. If a Canadian Member of Parliament tried to exercise the kind of independence that American congress people often do they would never be promoted to cabinet, risk having the party leader refuse to allow them to run for the party in future elections, and could face expulsion from the party. Unlike Canada and much of Europe, new political movements in the United States do not need to form their own parties in order to gain representation in government. This creates space in both the Democratic and Republican parties for new movements to express themselves and to influence policy.
The ability of new political movements to advance their interests through existing parties has important implications for the likelihood of success of new movements in the United States. Outside of the United States new political movements often have to compete as new parties. They have to develop their own campaign resources and expertise and develop their own party loyalties. They have to do this while competing with more established parties that already have significant resources and have developed their own loyal bases of voters. In the United States candidates for new political movements can compete in the primaries of major parties. In primaries, no candidates has the full support of the party and therefore no candidate can rely on the parties’ resources to campaign. Additionally, since there are no parties in primary contests there are no long-held party loyalties that new candidates have to overcome in order to be successful. In any other country Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would have had to form their own parties and compete with the Democrats and Republicans to try to win office. In contrast, the American political system allows candidates such as Sanders and Trump to compete to win control over the Democratic and Republican parties and, if they are successful, to use each parties’ resources and voter loyalties to further their own campaigns. This makes it more difficult for new candidates to establish themselves in American politics because they have to convince members of one of the two major parties to support them. At the same time, once a new candidate establishes themselves as competitive they can grow in support quite quickly because they can co-opt the resources of one of the major parties in a way that third and fourth parties in other democracies cannot.
If the United States had Canadian or European political institutions the five longest lasting primary candidates, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, would have all had their own political parties. Rather than competing in primary races, they would have had to compete against each other in a general election. Rather than seeking to co-opt the resources of a well-established major political party, Sanders and Trump would have to run against both of the major parties. This would likely ensure that each is represented in political institutions, third and fourth parties are often well represented in Canadian and European politics and most European candidates have seen Trump-like parties emerge over the past decade. At the same time though, these institutions make it difficult for candidates like Sanders and Trump to win power once they gain a foothold in the political system. American politics would likely be much better off if Trump had to face a Republican candidate in the upcoming general election instead of being able to use Republican resources and capitalize of Republican party loyalties in order to try to win the Presidency.