It’s that time again in American politics where everything comes to a head and explodes like an overripe boil. Yes, it’s November, and it’s time for us to finally pick our next president (if you live in Florida, that is).
Even so, after years of preparation and endless news coverage, great swaths of Americans don’t know or care much about their choices for president or the parties they represent. To enrich their political experience, here are overviews of the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian and Green Parties. Although our political system is based around two parties, this article also discusses the two most prominent third parties. Sorry, Constitution Party!
Democrats: A Lingering Berning Sensation
Founded in 1828, the Democratic Party is the oldest active political party in the U.S. and the world. However, the party has undergone some pretty dramatic internal shifts. With its focus on limited government, strict constitutionalism and state’s rights, the Democrats of the 19th century were a lot closer to modern Republicans and Libertarians.
Democrats began to splinter throughout the early to mid 20th century; Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had vastly expanded the scope of government while the party became more labor-friendly. Conservative Southern Democrats fully split from the party during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, leading to the solidly Republican south we have today.
During the 70s and 80s, the political landscape shifted considerably in favor of Republicans. Democrats struggled in the face of the Reagan years. The victory of Bill Clinton in 1992 brought forward yet another internal party shift: while the Democrats remained the socially progressive party, they became more economically centrist. This “third-way” won the resurgent Democratic Party a two-term presidency, but alienated much of the party’s more progressive elements.
After a spirited yet ultimately slanted primary, Hillary Clinton emerged as the 2016 presidential candidate. Yet, the ghost of Bernie Sanders’ very liberal campaign remains, as does the party’s split in the wake of the 2016 primary. The RIT College Democrats still feel the aftershocks.
“We only had one big Hillary supporter, but the rest of us were pro-Bernie Sanders. It was kind of sad for most of us when he didn't get the nomination,” said Jacob Smyth, a second year Industrial Engineering major. Smyth, the treasurer of the RIT College Democrats, described the club as somewhat reluctant to back their party’s candidate.
“I think we’re united around Hillary, but to varying degrees of enthusiasm,” said Smyth. This lack of enthusiasm toward Clinton is especially endemic in the college student demographic. Though it only accounted for 17 percent of overall voters, Sanders had very strong support in the youth vote; During the Democratic primaries, Sanders managed to capture an impressive 70 percent of the under-30 vote, according to primary exit polls. Unfortunately for Clinton, this kind of support doesn’t disappear overnight.
“It’s disconcerting to see two major candidates with two high unfavorability rates,” said Smyth. In particular, Clinton’s favorability with the under-30 demographic was at just 39 percent at the end of the primary season, according to an ABC poll (Donald Trump’s favorability is a dismal 19 percent).
Though Clinton’s brand of moderate incrementalism may be feasible, it fails to inspire the Sanders-level excitement or passion in the youth vote.
“You have to make big promises, whether or not you can deliver,” said Smyth. “If you don’t appeal to people’s hopes, and in some cases their fears, you don’t really appeal to them at all.”
After this primary, the future of the Democratic Party is uncertain. The strength of Sanders’ support in the party’s younger voters in undeniable, but the longevity of his movement is still under question. Smyth remains hopeful.
“Out of all the candidates, I think [Sanders] placed the most emphasis on there having to be a revolution,” said Smyth. “Now we have to focus on getting a progressive Congress.” There may be a progressive revolution in the future, but what that revolution will look like is anyone's guess.
Greens: The Revolution Will Be Retweeted
“There’s no way we’re going to get the results we want from the two-party system,” says third year Journalism major Nigel Blair. “Advocating for change from the inside doesn’t work. It’s impossible.”
Blair, who represents RIT’s branch of the International Socialist Organization, supports Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The Green Party began as the Association of State Green Parties in the mid-90s. They are self-described “eco-socialists” and exist for progressives who don’t feel that the Democratic Party represents their values, with a focus on a pacifist foreign policy.
“The organization I’m a part of advocates for Stein because she is a decent alternative to the two major parties. She holds our working class values,” said Blair.
Stein currently has dismal poll numbers, and holds various fringe views that make her unpalatable to the vast majority of Americans. For example, she would pardon whistleblower Edward Snowden before giving him a position in her presidential cabinet. Also, besides being elected a town hall member in her hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts, she has never held an elected office. But Stein holds more clout as a left-wing protest vote than an actual candidate, even to her supporters.
“Jill Stein exists in the abstract because there is no way of her winning. It’s unfortunate, but it is the reality of the situation,” said Blair. To supporters of Stein, a full break from the two party system should be pursued, regardless of who wins the presidency.
“If we get anything out of this, we have to remain principled and provide alternative answers and actions to the two party system and capitalism itself,” said Blair.
Republicans: The Grand Old Dumpster Fire
On the other side of the aisle are the Republicans. Also known as the Grand Old Party (GOP), the Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery party in the mid-19th century. After the Civil War, the party became the party of big business. In the early 20th century, the Republican Party also developed a progressive coalition, which clashed with its more conservative members. The party then lost its political stronghold in the decades after the Great Depression, as the Republican economic policies in the decade prior were perceived to have helped cause the financial collapse.
During the civil rights movement of the 60s, Republicans began to appeal to former Democrats who left the party over the issue of segregation and state’s rights. The turning point for the party was in 1964 when hard-right conservative Barry Goldwater was nominated over the liberal Republican challenger Nelson Rockefeller; this ousted the more moderate members of the party in favor of the more conservative ones.
By getting the support of the pro-business wing, the religious right and blue-collar social conservatives, Republican Ronald Reagan won both of his elections in veritable landslides. His success changed the makeup of the party into what we have today — at least, until recently.
Donald Trump’s success in becoming the Republican Party’s nominee is unprecedented, to say the least. A moderately successful businessman and reality TV show host, Trump shifted himself into the modern political arena when he claimed that current president Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya. Trump’s presidential aspirations centered around stricter immigration policies, building a wall on our southern border and "Making America Great Again." Trump, who has never been elected to a public office, was victorious over multiple senators and governors. His campaign has been characterized by gaffes, racially charged rhetoric and unconventional campaigning.
The column of Trump’s support is mostly comprised of white men with no college education, a group that Trump leads Clinton on by 59 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. But another predictor of who is more likely to support Trump is a voter’s bent toward authoritarianism, according to a study by political scientist Matthew MacWilliams. MacWilliams found that Trump supporters were more likely to report a fear of “the other” and a willingness to follow leaders when compared to the other Republican candidates.
Many things that Trump says and does create a crisis of conscience in the Republican Party. Many prominent Republicans, including both former President Bushes and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, refuse to endorse Trump. Others, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, refuse to defend or campaign for Trump, yet also refuse to take back their endorsement. Some aspects of the far right such as Neo-nazis and white nationalists accept Trump’s candidacy as a step forward for their movements, while the more moderate coalition of Republicans are at a loss. This situation provides a tough question for American conservatives: at what point is your candidate no longer even reluctantly supportable?
Libertarians: Small Government, Slim Chances
Perhaps your answer to this question lies with former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s candidate for 2016. The Libertarian Party was founded in 1971 as a reaction to the Vietnam war and the end of the gold standard. The party advocates small government in all respects, and defers to the free market. Besides the election of 1980, in whichwhere they received almost a million votes, the Libertarian Party has existed on the political fringe for the majority of its lifeexistence. But 2012 saw the party receive over a million votes with a total one percent of the electorate.
2016 could be the third party’s big moment, considering the electorate’s large scale discontent with the two major candidates. The Johnson campaign is using the dissatisfaction to their advantage, said Dan Percora, Assistant Field Director for the Gary Johnson team in Oregon.
“The Johnson/Weld ticket is trying to pull the numerous Democrats and Republicans that find Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump unfavorable,” said Pecora. “In turn, this is causing them to be a little more mainstream than other Libertarian presidential candidates have been in the past.” Pecora added that Johnson supported the abolishment of the IRS, the Board of Education and replacing the tax code with a 29 percent consumption tax.
That hints towards the central struggle of the Libertarian Party: can the party become a national one in spite of its radical doctrine? Pecora believes that the Libertarian Party will overtake the Republicans, and the tipping point will be LGBT issues.
“Both Democrats and Libertarians believe that the LGBT community should have the same rights as the heterosexual community, which is a pretty popular stance among millennials regardless of what political party you are affiliated with,” said Pecora. Support for gay marriage has been a remarkably consistent issue for the Libertarian Party; they've, having supported it since the party’s inception. On the other hand, the Libertarian Party came out against bill H.R 1913 in 2009, which would have classified attacks on LGBT people as hate crimes. Libertarian distaste toward protecting disadvantaged peoples via government is so stalwart that support over the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a hotly debated issue within the party.
Although he’s polling higher than most third party candidates do, Johnsonhe still has virtually no chance of winning this election. HeJohnson is hedging his bets on winning New Mexico, his home state, where he is currently polling at 25 percent, according to Washington Post polls. The goal is to possibly keep either Clinton and Trump from reaching 270 electoral votes by having them both lose that state. In this case, the House of Representatives would decide the presidency, at which point, Johnson hopes, he would be given the presidency based on the Republican congress’s distaste for their own nominee.
Beyond that convoluted series of events, Libertarians aim to get at least five percent of the popular vote, which gets a party federal funding — (there’s a certain irony in Libertarians vying for federal funding, but that’s besides the point).
“With this funding, we will be able to make a run at Congressional and Senate seats in future elections,” said Pecora. “The future of the Libertarian Party is bright.” Even at the tail end of one election cycle, the political parties are preparing for the next one.
It seems plainly obvious, however, that the American people are glad this election season is coming to a close. It’s been an absurdly long and contentious one, and after 597 days of election news, everyone’s exhausted.
“[This election] is one I’d rather read about in the history books than live through,” said Smyth.
This seems to be a pretty common sentiment. But when the history books write about the election of 2016, what are they going to say? Will they talk about the election of the first woman president, or the election of the first reality TV host as president? Will it be a positive referendum on the work of our first black president, or will it be a sharp, racially charged rebuke of his brand of liberalism? Will it be the beginning of the end for the two-party system, or will the Libertarian and Green parties fade into obscurity like the many third parties before them?
Regardless of what the history books say, one can only hope that they are kind to us. Or at the very least, patiently understanding.