Political Diversity in a Two Party System: Trump and Sanders Show What Happens When Political Diversity is Crammed Into a Two Party System

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.


Just Another Nationalist Far-Right Candidate: The Rise of Donald Trump fits with the Rise of Far-Right Parties Across Europe

In the United States the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primary has surprised many. Though there is still some uncertainty over whether Trump will win a majority of delegates, he is all but certain to enter the Republican convention with more delegates that remaining candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Trump’s rise, however, is not unprecedented. Anti-immigrant nationalist parties have been gaining support across the developed world. Far-right parties across Western Europe, including in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France are all taking significant shares of the vote in parliamentary and presidential elections. In Switzerland the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has won more seats than any other party in the last three elections. Trump’s success in the Republican primary mirrors the rise of the far-right in Western Europe. Both his rhetoric and the share of the vote that he has won are very similar to the rhetoric and vote share of Western European far-right parties.

Trump’s policies and rhetoric are very similar to the policy and rhetoric of other far-right parties. Like most of the European far-right, he takes extreme anti-immigrant positions and defends them with strong and largely offensive rhetoric. His claims that immigration leads to crime and unemployment echo similar claims by parties such as the Dutch Party for Freedom or the Swiss SVP. When it comes to globalization and trade, his concerns about free trade are very similar to the concerns that many far-right parties, particularly the UK Independence Party (UKIP), express over European integration and the European Union. Additionally, like most of the European far-right, Trump does not take extreme right economic positions. Although he favours large and likely unfeasible tax cuts, he is also unique as a Republican who opposes cuts to social security or medicare. In doing so Trump is trying to court anti-immigrant nationalist voters on both the right and the left of the economic political spectrum. This is not unlike efforts made by parties such as the French Front National and Sweden Democrats to do the same. In 2010 a Sweden Democrat ad that was banned from television for its racism, tried to suggest that Swedes had a choice between accepting Muslim immigrant and providing adequate funding for retirement pensions. Finally, like much of the the far-right, Trump’s success is built on his personal appeal. The identification of Trump with the far-right is not unlike the high profile that Pim Fortuyn, Geert Wilders, and Marine Le Pen had as leaders of far-right movements in the Netherlands and France. The Sweden Democrats were so reliant on their leader Jimmie Åkesson that he had to take sick leave as a result of exhaustion after the 2014 election. Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination, thus, looks a lot like the campaigns of far-right parties in Europe.

Given the similarities between Trump’s and European far-right parties’ campaigns, it is worth comparing Trump’s poll support to far-right parties’ vote support. The graph below shows Trump’s late March poll numbers along with the trend in support for a number of far-right parties in Western Europe. To estimate Trump’s support I multiplied the support that the Trump has been receiving in national level polls (found at Real Clear Politics) by the number of individuals identifying as at least leaning Republican (found in this Gallup poll). This is not a perfect measure, but it provides a ball-park estimate of the level of support that Trump has within the broader American electorate. It is better than estimates of hypothetical races between Trump and Clinton or Trump and Sanders because those polls compare only two candidates, and most European far-right parties run against multiple parties. A primary where Trump has to compete with moderate Republicans as well as with Democrats is a closer approximation of the electoral circumstances of far-right parties than polls examining a hypothetical Presidential contest between Trump and either Clinton or Sanders. A list of parties with their acronyms and the country they are from is also included below the graph.

Far-Right Parties and Candidates

Far-Right Party Abbreviations

The graph shows that Trump’s support falls in line with the general rise in far-right party support occurring across Western Europe. The estimated 17.2% of national support that Trump has is right on the trend line for far-right support, very close to the level of support that the True Finns won in the most recent Finnish election. His support is higher than support for parties such as the Sweden Democrats and UK Independence party, but is lower than for the Danish People’s Party and the Swiss People’s Party. Trump’s appeal to American voters is no greater than the appeal of many far-right parties to Western European voters. Trump does do better than the Western European far-right parties have when he is paired against either Clinton or Sanders in a hypothetical Presidential race. This suggests that Trump may be able to use the Republican brand to gain support that extends beyond the far-right parties in Europe have, and may as a result make him a greater electoral threat than most of Western European far-right parties.

Trump is not original, and his success should not be surprising. It fits into a disturbing trend of growing support for far-right anti-immigrant parties and candidates that is occurring across Western countries. He is capitalizing on concerns over immigration and disaffection with elites on the right on the political spectrum in much the same way that far-right parties across Western Europe are. Given that there is a vote block willing to support the far-right in most countries it should not be surprising to see a Republican candidate for President running such a campaign. The similarities between Trump and the European far-right also suggest that it is likely that the United States will see candidates like Trump in the future, even if he loses this election. Trump has demonstrated that there is a far-right anti-immigrant voting block in the United States that is as capable of sustaining a far-right candidate as many of the far-right groups of voters in Western Europe are.

It is important to note, however, that the electoral and party institutions in the United States will treat Trump as very differently than most Western European electoral institutions treat far-right parties. The fact that the United States is a two party system with primaries gives Trump a unique opportunity to co-opt a major party and launch a Presidential bid that takes advantage of that parties’ resources and its brand. The 17% of the vote that Trump has nationally would not make him much more of a contender for power than his Western European counter-parts, but it does make him competitive in primaries. 40-45% of the support of Republican voters is enough to win a primary even if that equates to only 17%-25% of the American electorate nationally. This means that, unlike many of the Western European far-right parties, Trump can co-opt one of the existing major parties in American politics and use its resources and brand in order to grow his support. Few far-right parties or candidates in Western Europe have the ability to co-opt a party like the Republican party and use its resources to try to win power. The far-right Front National managed to make it to a run-off in the 2002 French Presidential election, but in that race it was competing against a well-established centre-right Rally for the Republic. As a result, the Front National lost the run-off in a landslide. The polling comparing Trump to hypothetical Clinton or Sanders Democratic campaigns suggests that Trump could use the Republican party to expand his support well beyond the support won by most Western European far-right parties. The American primary system may, as a result, makes American politics more vulnerable to a far-right challenge than the Western European multi-party and largely parliamentary systems are. This may have very troubling implications for the future of far-right anti-immigrant politics in the United States.


Trump is Not an Original: Donald Trump’s Success Looks a Lot Like the Rise of the Far-Right in Europe

Perhaps the biggest story of the American Presidential primaries has been the rise of Donald Trump. The billionaire candidate has made headlines by leading the Republican polls while espousing a number of xenophobic and racist policies that have many concerned for the Republican Party and for American politics. Trump is being cast as a new type of candidate who the more conventional Republican candidates cannot figure out how to deal with. Candidates like Trump are not new to liberal developed democracies though. Trump’s mix of nationalist xenophobia and populist distrust for mainstream politicians mirrors the politics of the far-right parties that have been gaining popularity in Europe over the past two decades. Trump’s policies and rhetoric look very similar to those of the French Front National, the UK Independence Party, The Dutch Party for Freedom, and the Sweden Democrats. Like those parties he can build a substantial base of support by relying on xenophobic voters alienated by mainstream candidates and parties, but also like those parties, Trump’s likelihood of being able to grow his support to the extent needed to win a national election is limited.

To a large degree Trump is the beneficiary of multi-dimensional politics. In a Washington Post article Doug Ahler note and David Brookman note the difficulty of trying to place Trump on the left-right political spectrum. On immigration and foreign policy Trump is a candidate of the far-right, but on issues such as taxation and social spending Trump is actually quite moderate (especially when compared to the rest of the Republican Party). This mix of policies is strikingly similar to those of far-right parties such as the Sweden Democrats or Dutch Party for Freedom that wrongly argue that voters face a choice between well funded social programs and accepting immigrants. Trump’s policies underline the extent to which politics can be more complicated than the left-right spectrum that candidates are often placed on makes it out to be. There are several different dimensions (or political spectrums) on which candidates can be organized, and being an extreme candidate on one political dimension does not necessarily mean being an extreme candidate on another. It is not clear that candidates or voters that are supportive of high levels of government spending, for example, will always be supportive of liberal immigration policies and multiculturalism. Conversely, it is not clear that supporting low taxes and limited government intervention should mean that a candidate or voter should favour restrictive immigration policies. On immigration issues the views of welfare chauvinists’ (who support a strong welfare state but want to limit immigrants’ access to it) and social conservatives’ views are likely to align. On the other side of the immigration spectrum, the views of economically left-wing social liberals and economically right-wing neo-liberals (to the extent that many neo-liberals support open immigration policies in order to create a freer labour market) are likely to align.

Traditionally parties and candidates in the United States and in Europe have competed on left-right issues. They may have positions on immigration issues, but they often are less prominent in their platforms and in their rhetoric than their positions on taxes, social programs, or foreign policy. This is important to traditional parties because they often have voters who favour more liberal immigration policies and voters who oppose such policies. Moving too far to one side of the immigration spectrum risks costing the party supporters on their side of the left-right spectrum. This is something that far-right candidates like Donald Trump are able to take advantage of. The need for mainstream candidates to take moderate positions leaves many voters on both the left and right at odds with their parties’ immigration positions. By taking extreme positions on immigration and moderate positions on other issues candidates like Trump or parties like the Sweden Democrats and Dutch Party for Freedom are able to win the support of xenophobic voters on both the left and the right of political spectrum. This gives them a substantial base of support from which they can compete in elections.

The same extreme positioning of immigration that allows far-right candidates and parties to win a substantial portion of the vote also limits their growth potential. Extreme positions may appeal to significant numbers of anti-immigrant voters on both the left and the right, but they also alienate significant numbers of voters who are have moderate views with respect to immigration. A large number of voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum are willing to vote for pretty much anyone other than a far-right party or candidate because of the party or candidate’s extreme positions on immigration. This was most apparent in the 2002 French Presidential and 2015 French regional elections. In 2002 far-right Front National Presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen finished second in France’s first round of elections just 3 percentage points behind centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac (Le Pen won 16.9% of the vote to Chirac’s 19.9%). In the second round of elections Le Pen increased in vote share to just 17.8% while Chirac’s share of the vote jumped to 82.2%. The same thing happened in regional elections this month in France. In the first round of elections (in which all candidates run) the Front National finished first, ahead of both the centre-right Republicans and centre-left Socialists. In the second round of elections (in which only regional President candidates winning at least 10% of votes in the first round are allowed to run) the Front National fell to third. The Front National gained only 800 000 votes from the candidates that dropped out between the first and second round of elections, going from 6 million votes to 6.8 million votes. By contrast the Socialists went from 5 million votes to 7.2 million votes, which was good enough for a second place finish in the second round of elections. The Republican almost doubled their number of votes, going from 5.7 million to 10.1 million and a first place finish. When faced with a strong far-right challenger in a Presidential race, non-far-right voters will tend to consolidate their support amongst whichever party looks most likely to defeat the far-right. Far-right parties in the Europe can win concerning numbers of votes, but they have yet to demonstrate enough growth potential to challenge mainstream left and right parties for government.

The same is likely to be the case for Donald Trump. There is good reason to believe that his ability expand his vote share beyond his current numbers is quite limited. Trump lacks the endorsements which are often strong predictors of primary success, his net favourability numbers are at best middling, and he has less support in the polls than candidates from past elections that have been able to gain the same amount of media coverage as he has had in this election. As with far-right parties across Europe there is a ceiling on the support that Trump can win, and he is likely getting close to it (or has even reached it). Trump’s ability to win the Republican primary is likely contingent on other candidates splitting the non-Trump Republican vote (it is worth noting that vote splitting played a major role in Jean Marie Le Pen’s second place finish in 2002) and he certainly is going to have difficulty expanding his appeal enough to gain the close to 50% of the national vote needed to win a Presidential election. Trump is far more likely to be the United States’ version of Jean Marie Le Pen than he is to be President.

The success of Trump in the early stages of the Republican primary has been a surprise, but it should not have been. Trump’s success looks much like the rise of the far-right in Europe. It is likely that if the United States had a multi-party system or Presidential primaries that were less permissive to candidates with a broad range of opinions that Trump would be running as part of his own American version of the Front National, Party for Freedom, or UK Independence Party. These parties have had an important (and concerning) impact on politics in their respective countries, but they have yet to demonstrate the ability to win the kind of support needed to lead a government. Like the European far-right, Trump is unlikely to be able to build the kind of support needed to win a Presidential election.