Traditionally, the United States has had two dominant parties. A few times in our history, these parties have switched up – no one votes Whig anymore – or a third party might have caused an election upset, such as Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party.
Having three parties all of which are powerful enough to actually change the national conversation in the US is very new, and that may be the reason why we’re failing to recognize it.
To get a better idea of how three parties are different from two, look at the UK. There, a multitude of parties can hold seats in parliament, however only about three parties are heavily dominant: Tories, Labor and Lib Dems. Of those three, the Lib Dems are the least powerful by sheer number.
Why isn’t the UK a two party system? Why isn’t it Tories vs Labor?
Because of coalitions between the parties – the Lib Dems aren’t large enough to challenge either of the dominant parties. But Labor also isn’t strong enough to take the Tories alone – they must usually compromise with the Lib Dems.
How does that apply here?
We have three parties – the traditional two, Republicans and Democrats, and a third populist party. We’re going to leave it unnamed for now, but you could call it the Tea Party, or Trumpists, or nativists or what have you.
The populists right now control the White House. But they only did so through a coalition with the Republicans. This coalition is pretty fragile – the Populists have put a few Republicans in key positions on the White House staff, but have filled other positions with their own outsider lackeys. The populist platform doesn’t fully align with the Republicans either, and this has caused a bit of consternation.
The Republicans seem to think there’s only one party in charge, even though the politics is behaving much more like a three party system than a two party system. They’re confused by things like “Why isn’t Trump uniting the Republicans?”
Traditionally, the President’s job includes being the leader of his or her party. Trump is supposed to be the ultimate party whip and get both houses of congress as well as all the governors on the same page. But he isn’t – because he’s not a Republican.
He’s a populist. And he absolutely runs the populist party from Twitter. He doesn’t care about what the Republican platform is – they were just an alliance he needed to get his own platform of whatever the hell making America great again entails.
What’s odd is that the Republicans still really haven’t woken up to this, and are still trying to play up their side of the coalition despite the Populists not really wanting to play ball since winning the White House. I think its due to the fact that they don’t realize our politics has had a fundamental shift and will continue to behave like a three party system so long as the Populists have power.
In a way, this was inevitable. The Republicans accrued a lot of power through gerrymandering, stacking courts and pursuing statehouses. As a party grows more powerful, more political minds eye that power with a drooling jealousy. Populists like Bannon saw an opening to use that power for his own end and did so, splitting the Republican party.
Almost like an atom getting too heavy undergoes fission, you’re seeing a third party emerge not so much as some outsider upstart (after all, where would they get all the path-dependent power the other parties have to overcome entrenched political defenses against third parties?) but as a split off from a formal party, able to use that party’s own mechanisms to defeat anti-third party defenses, and then entrench its own platform once it’s in.