November 8th, 2016. That’s the day Donald Trump was elected our nation’s next president. That was the date we marked our 239th year of peaceful transition of power here in the U.S. It was the day we came together as a people and made our voices heard, exercising our right and our duty to vote. It was also the day which preceded an absolute outpouring of anger, fear, and general upsetment. Articles began appearing, warning that a Trump win meant that America had finally accepted it was a nation of racial bigotry. Social media was abuzz with people claiming that this was the end of our nation, or even our planet. Protests broke out in the streets, all across the nation, and D.C. was absolutely swarmed with picket signs (carrying messages with varying levels of politeness). It isn’t hard to see that a large portion of the nation was, and still very much is, scared of the results of this election, and at the surface it seems quite obvious why: Our nation's next president rarely ever hit a 50% national approval rate at the best of times, and these certainly aren’t those. President Elect Trump didn’t even manage to win half the Republican Party’s support in the primaries. Donald Trump is not a well liked man, by any metric. Hillary Clinton, his opposition, didn’t fare much better in the arena of public opinion. A joint Washington Post/ABC News poll taken of registered voters just a week before the election showed her to have an uninspired 38/59 Favorable/Unfavorable split, compared to Trump’s equally impressive 37/60 split.
So neither major candidate was well received. Then how did these two become this year’s candidates? How did one of them become president of the United States, despite abysmal levels of national support? How come neither of the third party candidates managed to gain traction? Well, the better part of the blame for this phenomenon can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the concept of the “Party Line,” and the way Americans walk it.
While America wasn’t built with the intention of a two party system, George Washington himself making a special point to warn against them in his farewell address, the last time a candidate not from either the Republican or Democratic party was elected to the office of President was… 1848. The last time a candidate was elected who could truly be considered non-partisan was in 1820, when James Monroe won the office nearly unopposed. That makes 196 years of heavily partisan politics. Political parties, particularly the two major parties we’ve grown to know and begrudgingly support, have been a part of American political framework for nearly as long as we’ve had one. And despite people’s rising ire with the established parties, as evidenced by anti-establishment candidates such as Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser extent Stein and Johnson, coming into popularity this election cycle, 2016 still saw over 94% of the popular vote go towards the major party candidates. And if numbers like that aren’t a big enough indicator of how massive America’s two major parties have truly become, then maybe this one will be: $2,889,869,895. That’s the amount of money collectively raised by the Republican and Democratic parties. In the 2016 election cycle, alone. It’s also about 5 times the annual profit of retail giant Amazon, to put things in perspective. The 2-party system is not only ancient. It’s very, very rich.
But what’s the harm in all this? So there are two well established parties. So they’re old and rich. Bill Gates is old and rich, and he’s a sweetheart! Well, unfortunately, though somewhat unsurprisingly, instead of attempts to halt the spread of communicable disease or help establish infrastructure in impoverished nations, the two major political parties spend their money on… That’s right! Politics! That 7 digit annual budget of theirs goes entirely towards different aspects of campaigning. Which means propping up whichever candidates the parties have chosen to run. This means paying for rallies, travel, television appearances, TV ads, paper ads, donor events. It means name recognition. It means visibility. That’s almost 3 billion dollars going towards making sure two candidates, out of nearly 320 million citizens, have the nation’s full attention. How on earth is a grassroots campaign supposed to compete with that amount of funding? What independent candidate could possibly hope to raise capital anywhere near that amount? Well, uh, none of them. Gary Johnson managed to raise a respectable 11 million dollars, putting him at under .5% of the major parties. Jill Stein raised less than a third of that. Then there are the countless other candidates who threw their hats into the ring only to have their hats immediately trampled, ground into the dirt, and then promptly forgotten about (Here’s looking at you, Evan McMullin). There is no platform for any candidate not sanctioned by one of the two main parties to succeed. No place they can’t be outspent, no sound they can make that won’t be drowned out. So the two major parties have successfully become entrenched enough that they don’t need to fear outsiders competing with them. This partial hegemony doesn’t completely assure either party dominance, however. They still have one another to contend with.
Republicans and Democrats tend to get along like cats and dogs, everyone knows that. They are just different kinds of people, with different views, not the sort you’d ever expect to agree or cooperate on much. Every good Republican knows Democrats are soft-hearted suckers, and every good Democrat knows that Republicans are uneducated, gun-toting, bigots. But how do we know these things (Which are clearly true) so well? Because the two major parties explained it all to us, that’s how! After all, with third party candidates out of the way, the only thing either major party has left to compete with is the other major party. So how does either party keep its voters on course and casting their ballots for the right candidates? How do they keep Americans from crossing party lines? The solution is as timeless as it is simple: Demonize the other side. Republicans in Congress have made it quite clear the past decade or so that they’ll not cooperate with Democrats on anything. The government shutdown, the unwillingness to even meet with Obama’s supreme court nominees, and the continued blind eye the Republican controlled Senate has been turning to bills coming in from the House are all sending a clear message to the American people: The Democratic party has nothing of value to contribute. And the Democrats have made it clear the feeling is mutual. Republican proposals to secure the border are anti-immigrant, pro-life proposals are anti-woman, military spending is simply feeding into the military-industrial complex, and pro gun politicians are dangerous and bought by the NRA. Both parties are doing what they can to paint the other as dangerous, radical, and oftentimes outright malevolent. And the American people are largely buying into it. President Obama was an illegal Kenyan, Muslim, Socialist, with a fake birth certificate and a hatred for America. There were hundreds of thousands of protesters at his inauguration. People swore he’d be the end of this country. Yet nothing really came of that. Now Donald Trump is the one who’s going to run us into the ground. Several major news outlets have compared him to Adolf Hitler, several politicians have declared him unfit to hold office. He’s going to either start a nuclear war with Russia, or let them take over all of Eastern Europe (Nobody seems entirely sure which of those they’re supposed to be afraid of, the media’s been painfully unclear). And now there are hundreds of thousands of protesters in Washington, and people swear he’ll be the end of this country. Yet I don’t think anything will really come of that.
But the real damage being done here isn’t just to Donald Trump’s (otherwise sterling) reputation, or President Obama’s feelings. This demonization of the other is pervading everyday life for many Americans. If all Democratic politicians are socialists who want to see the downfall of capitalist America, then how awful must the people voting for them be? And if the Republican politicians are all science denying bigots, then obviously the people supporting them must be hateful, backwoods idiots, right? And so politics in America become increasingly contentious, as we’re manipulated into viewing our fellow Americans not as people striving to bring about the best for this nation that they can, but as unwitting pawns of the Evil political party (Don’t worry! Not your party, the other one) at best, and traitors and saboteurs at worst. And so Trump becomes a harbinger of the end of American ideals, and those who supported him are cast as spiteful people who just want to watch the country burn. There’s little doubt Hillary and her supporters would be similarly decried as the worst thing to happen to the country had they won out. And so the American people are left with a lot of resentment, distrust, anger, and very little in the way of unity or hope. But at least we can rest easy knowing that whatever goes wrong, it was the other side’s fault. It always is.