By: Connor Reardon
Ever since 2016, with the rise of Trump, and the side effects of this, the American political landscape has drastically changed. The most prominent of these changes has been the development of unprecedented factionalism within the Republican and Democratic parties. Of course, there have always been factions within the parties, of various sizes and strengths, and with divergent ideas. However, leading up to the 2016 election, liberal Republicans, and conservative Democrats, were effectively things of the past. No, in 2016, we saw the present factionalism spring up into infancy. Of course, the two broad factions, present within both parties, can be summed up as follows: the establishment faction, and the anti-establishment faction. Both parties have seen these factions manifest with different values and different levels of power. We will analyze these factions, within both parties, and the respective struggles for dominance within the parties between them.
Before diving into each individual party, first the nature of the factionalist conflicts within the parties must be investigated. The anti-establishment crusades within the parties can best be described as insurgency. The establishment politicians of both parties, the more moderate Democrats and Republicans who are concerned with the same, repetitive, back-and-forth game of red states and blue states, with a weak right and a mild left, which has been more or less unchanged since the Cold War, hold much of the power within the government and within the party power-structures. And the nature of the challenge the insurgencies present to these power holders is different for either party. However, one thing is certain. The war between the establishment and anti-establishment forces appears to also be a war between the radicals and moderates. In the case of the Republican party, the insurgency first took shape in 2016, and has since only crystallized, as has the nature of the Republican battle. The Democratic insurgency, however, only made ripples in 2016, and had not, at that time, existed as a solidified political idea. However, the insurgency began to truly manifest around the time of the 2018 Midterm Elections, where an alternative to the Democratic Party’s neoliberal establishment truly manifested itself.
First, we will examine the Republican insurgency. Before all else, one thing must be stressed here. In terms of organic support among the Republican base, the insurgency has already succeeded in an unprecedented and absolute manner. The Republican insurgency effectively began with the Trump candidacy and Trump’s unconventional message of nationalistic populism as well as protectionism: his America First stance. This new, organic, patriotic-conservative message saw Trump defeat more than ten established Republicans in the primaries, and saw him obtain much support from voters who were not traditionally red. Many people who had never voted before, and likely would not have voted at all if there were another candidate selected, voted for Donald Trump. For nationalism, and populism. For America First. This message was able to effectively invigorate a far larger organic base of support than the neoconservative establishment had been able to garner in decades. Trump’s triumph in the primaries effectively started this Republican insurgency. The organic and popular nationalistic faction, against the far outnumbered but far more powerful (within the party and established politics) neoconservative establishment. The Republican insurgency is entirely of a Trumpist nature, and likewise, it revolves entirely around the man. Trump saw no meaningful opposition in the 2020 Republican primaries, and yet his own administration, especially the established Republicans therein, has been actively conspiring to obstruct him throughout his presidency. How Trump has been so widely supported by the Republican voter base, yet so vehemently opposed by his own party’s politicians, outlines perfectly the nature of the Republican insurgency. The party itself is a mechanism for the Trumpist base to obtain power. However, the outdated establishment has done all in its ability to maintain its own power over the party, while sabotaging that of the opposing faction. Mitch Mcconnell, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and all the other well known figures within the party, all of whom cling onto the old way of the GOP, have been fiercely pro-Republican, but anti-Trump. They have not stood by Trump in his times of need, and have thrown him under the bus when it suits them. As such, they have effectively been pro-themselves, and anti-popular. Their primary allegiance is to their own establishment, not their constituents. This is apparent for any who so much as glance at Republican politics in Washington. Thus, the Republican insurgency is effectively a struggle for the existing mechanisms of power between those who hold them, but no longer have the support to sustain them, and the organic base of support who are now overwhelmingly Trumpist. It is a popular insurgency. The masses opposing the power-holding few. With the anti-popular actions and sentiments of the establishment Republican neoconservatives, it is unlikely that, going forward, they will be able to be elected to office, as more and more Republican voters identify first as Trump supporters, and only passively as Republicans. This war for the mechanism of the Republican Party can only be won by the insurgency in due time. Once down-ballot elected positions for which GOP candidates run are no longer won, as more Trumpists boycott the party itself in those elections, the current Republican establishment will only hold power into the next few elections, as the party is totally transformed by its organic base of support into a Trumpist one. At this time, the establishment can only hope to remain in power if it plays ball with the Trumpist base, which they have already proven they do not wish to do. Thus, it is only a matter of time until the de facto transformation of the Republican Party into the party of nationalism, protectionism, populism, and authentic conservatism, becomes de jure. The next generation of Republican statesmen will follow these ideas to the letter, and consequently, the GOP will transfer from a moderate party of low taxes and free markets, as well as a handful of half-hearted “conservative” ideas (ideas which, when challenged, are effectively abandoned), into a genuine force of the Right. The Republican popular insurgency can only succeed, as nearly all of the Republican voters are currently galvanized and devoted Trumpists.
The insurgency within the Democratic Party is of a very different nature. It manifested at a different time as well. Before 2018, the only genuine challenge to the establishment had manifested itself as Bernie Sanders, and his democratic sociaist platform. This platform, in 2016, had obtained a greater amount of support than many had anticipated, but in the end it failed to gain enough traction to win the anti-establishment candidate his nomination. Instead, Hillary Clinton, effectively as much of an establishment Democrat as one could have been, was nominated to the candidacy, but failed to secure the greatest prize. However, in the 2018 election, the insurgency truly began, as an unprecedented number of progressives who, in a manner analogous to the Trumpist nationalists, are progressives first, and Democrats second, managed to obtain seats in government. One of the most notable figureheads of this new progressive insurgency within the Democratic Party is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a representative from New York City, who was elected at 29 years of age with a fiery message of great changes and opposition to a decadent establishment. Ever since obtaining their surprising victories in 2018, the progressive movement within the Democratic party has obtained more support, both popular and power-holding. More and more elected positions have gone to progressive Democrats. The insurgents. While the Republican power-mechanism is still entirely controlled by neoconservative establishment Republicans, the Democratic reins of power are now truly contested, as the Democratic base, as well as the party politicians, grow increasingly divided. There have been numerous spats between AOC and her progressive allies, and establishment Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, and others who criticize the progressives as unrealistic and divisive. While the progressives have grown more popular, and have reflected this popularity by winning increasing numbers of government seats, their seizure of popular support has not been as absolute as the nationalists in the GOP. No, no. The Democratic Party is, in fact, in a period of civil war over its future. Both the party politicians and the voter base are deeply divided. A division which only increases as the progressives make gains against the neoliberals. The contrast in the nature of the two insurgencies can be summed up in this analogy. The Republican situation amounts to a handful of men with weaponry standing against an enormous tide of the unarmed masses, rallying behind one man with a powerful weapon (the presidency), while the Democratic situation amounts to a similar standoff, though both sides of the aisle have fairly similar amounts of people with weapons, and unarmed supporters behind them. The Democratic insurgency is characterized by the progressives’ ability to penetrate the neoliberal hold on government offices, but an inability to obtain absolute popular support.
Where these two insurgencies will carry the party system is difficult to say. It is likely that, down the line, there will be no party splits, but rather great changes to the nature of the parties’ ideologies. The Democratic Party will enjoy quite some time in power going forward, I believe, but it will be power held in a time of internal partisan strife, as progressives antagonize and pressure the establishment to advance agendas they may find distasteful. The Democratic Party as a whole will obtain many political offices, as the Republican establishment of today is not re-elected, and thus phased out by the Trumpist nationalists. While many more seats of government may go blue in the near future, it will effectively be held not by one party, but by a fragile coalition. It is as though the United States were to seize territory in the midst of its own Civil War, using both Northern and Southern troops. There will be much conflict in the Democratic Party going forward, and the establishment, I believe, will lose in the end. Perhaps not next year, but within some decades at most. However, I could be proven wrong. Perhaps the neoliberal establishment will prevail against the firebrand dissidents of the progressive insurgency. However, it seems likely to me that as the struggle for dominance in the Democratic Party becomes more fierce, a reinvigorated, nationalistic and authentic-conservative Republican Party will be able to make a surprising comeback, perhaps sooner than many anticipate.
What is certain is that, in the long-run, victory for the insurgencies appears imminent. In effect, the Republican Trumpists have already won all the authority they need within the GOP. All that remains to be taken are the reins of power, to actualize that authority by officially reshaping the Republican platform, and electing more nationalists and conservatives, phasing out the pre-2016 generation of neoconservative free-marketers. The Democratic insurgency will have a greater struggle ahead, as their base is more divided, and as such, so too is the power-mechanism. If the trend of more progressives trickling in every election continues, the establishment is doomed in this country. The Republican insurgency relies largely on a few figureheads with formidable support behind them, as they struggle to battle the outnumbered, but more powerful establishment. The Democratic insurgency fights with a more dispersed level of power. They have a number of figureheads, and a number of elected officials. But they lack the same absolute popular support. This war will be more open, and more protracted. It will have to be cleverly fought and victory for the progressives will be a time-consuming struggle. But it seems inevitable, as the establishment, like the GOP’s own establishment, is concerned with outdated issues and winning an outdated game. It grows increasingly distant from its base of support, as the progressive insurgents advance on that ground. The Republican establishment is far more distant, however, having constantly alienated its own support base and having constantly failed to produce results in pivotal issues, instead only being good for mildly obstructing progressive change, securing tax cuts, perhaps a few wars here and there, and, more than anything preserving their own power.
Upon examining the political machine in this country through the lense of the post-2016 mindset, the mindset of organic insurgency and distant establishment, it becomes clear that great changes will come in our lifetimes. Great changes, if not to our country’s overall policies, then at least changes to the partisan machine, and the great red-blue game which is now over a century old. This has only become more clear in the wake of the 2020 election, as more Democrats than ever endorsed unconventional stances. Not one opposed marijuana legalization, almost all threw their support behind universal healthcare and the Green New Deal. While many were establishment Democrats endorsing a few progressive positions, it shows the establishment’s need to shift its stances a bit in order to maintain its popular support. Similarly, the Republican insurgency theory was validated by the massive popular support Trump received, as well as his effectively unopposed primary campaign. One Republican alone, Bill Weld, ran against Trump in the primaries with an establishment platform. He received support from only 2% of Republicans at his best, and a vote from only one delegate during the nomination process. All the rest went to Trump. Some people will fear the changes to come. But, as should be very apparent by 2020, changes already have come. Changes to the nature of our two party system which, rather than a one-time anomalous occurrence, are here to stay, evidenced by the inability of the establishment(s) to snuff out the insurgencies. Our party system has already changed, and 2016 marks the paradigm shift into this transitional insurgency period. In due time, it is likely that we will all be looking at two parties which have been almost entirely reshaped. Unrecognizable when compared to the party platforms we were born into. While the future is ultimately uncertain, and likelihood is by no means an iron law, it is absolutely clear that the political dynamic in this country has already changed. And it is a change which will result in years, perhaps even decades of inner-partisan warfare.