A 2016 election column that doesn’t mention Donald Trump


The 2016 presidential campaign is a real doozy and not only because of colorful personalities and bitterly fought primaries. It is nothing less than a test of the strength of two competing visions of America grappling with a wide range of issues that have been sucked into what increasingly seems a zero-sum game.

If 2008 was a big step, 2016 is the other shoe dropping, and we don’t know if that second shoe will be on the left or the right foot.

Everything else is noise.

The historic 2008 election was a turning point, when a reshaped Democratic coalition backing Barack Obama came to power. With Obama’s election, the Democratic coalition was transformed by a new multiracial and younger party base quite different from the 1990s party that had backed Bill Clinton. This new coalition won two presidential majorities for Democrats, a rarity since Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it made a profound difference in government.

The Affordable Care Act was the biggest expansion of medical coverage since Medicare passed in 1965. Diplomatic agreements with Cuba and Iran have changed the calculus of world politics. A new global agreement on climate change has created the possibility of a unified human response to the greatest threat the species has faced. New executive orders moved immigration reform forward.

Obama’s election set off a profound reaction on the conservative side that implicated everything about people’s view of themselves and of America. The conflict is about the role of government, but also about identity — about whose America this is. The stakes of winning and losing keep getting higher. It’s no coincidence that there is a “hope gap” in the polls and in political rhetoric. Older white voters are the most pessimistic about the country’s direction, while Latinos are among the most optimistic.

Who will prevail in 2016 — the vision of change that Obama presented and, to a significant degree, accomplished and on which he was re-elected in 2012, or the dream of rolling back those changes that prevailed in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014? The final nominees from the two parties will completely disagree about whether these changes should stand or be rolled back.

With the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the stakes got even higher. A 5-4 conservative majority has become a 4-4 split, and the battle over whether Obama can name the ninth justice has occupied Washington. If a new 5-4 liberal majority emerges, a host of decisions made by the conservative court, including the campaign finance ruling known as Citizens United, might be overturned. What had seemed to necessitate a constitutional amendment is now within reach. Conversely, a renewed conservative majority on the Court will last a generation, and Roe v. Wade might be overturned.

In fact, the next president will be able either to consolidate the direction charted by Obama and take it further, or conversely, go beyond eliminating what Obama did and push in the other direction. A Democratic president might be able to appoint a new Supreme Court majority, or extend the health care law and environmental regulations. Based on the experience of states controlled by Republicans, a Republican president and Congress might pass a national voter ID law that would drastically reduce Democratic voting, or pursue legislation to limit collective bargaining by unions.

There was a time when an election to succeed a two-term president was not about everything. We could assume that some things would change and some would stay the same, no matter who won. Those days are gone.

It does not matter who wins the Republican nomination, whether one of the four in the field, or one of those watching from the sidelines and waiting for the call of his party. While each Republican will come from a different place in the party, with a unique style, each will be pledged to undo the policies of the last eight years. If, as seems likely, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she will be pledged to protect Obama’s policies and “finish the job” (in the words of Vice President Joe Biden).

Despite all the turmoil in the Republican Party today and the divisions over who will be the nominee, Republicans are likely to be highly unified and mobilized around the direction they want the country to go. Democrats are different, struggling to connect with their own grass roots and not quite able to explain to undecided or reluctant voters the stakes of the election in a way that will resonate. Republicans have invested in their vision of stopping and reversing Obama’s presidency, while Democrats have been struggling to paint a picture of a mountain climb that requires the nation to keep ascending against great resistance, portraying change as a marathon, not a sprint.

Behind this consequential battle, one that has largely been overlooked in the daily, personality-driven media coverage of this campaign, is a potential tipping point in American democracy.

Juan José Linz, a Yale political scientist and sociologist who died in 2013, has been getting some attention lately. When I was a Yale graduate student in the early 1970s, I took his course “Why Democracies Fail.” It was a remarkable and at times alarming class as we saw how democracies have fallen (and, at times, risen again). In his later work on “presidentialism,” Linz argued that the United States was the only nation with a separation of powers between president and Congress that had survived. He believed that our presidential system had survived because the parties were not fully cohesive in the way of parliamentary parties, but instead were filled with diverse and contradictory ideological forces. Now, as each party becomes more ideologically cohesive than ever before, we could be headed for a crackup. With Democrats doing well in presidential elections and Republicans dominating midterms, we have competing legitimacies.

Republicans have taken the lead in transforming our system of a separation of powers into a quasi-parliamentary model, at least for Democratic presidents. In other words, they have tried to prevent Democratic presidents from governing when Republicans hold one or both houses of Congress on the grounds that congressional legitimacy is equal to that of the president. This was the basis for the famous meeting held by Republicans on Capitol Hill in 2009 right after Obama’s victory, and it is evident again in their current refusal to consider an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy. There is reason to think that if the Republicans hold onto the Senate in the upcoming election, they would not confirm a Hillary Clinton appointee to the high court by arguing they have the electoral legitimacy to refuse. 

Given this, Democratic presidents will succeed only by putting public pressure on Republicans or by solving their colossal and increasing problem of low voter turnout in midterm elections magnified by rampant voter suppression. They have to explain to their own supporters why change is so agonizingly slow. The Republican strategy has the political virtue of demoralizing Democratic voters who expected change to happen much more quickly.

I will definitely be watching and enjoying the presidential race with all of its drama, its personalities and down-low fun. I’m no prude about this stuff. But I am also keeping my eye on the actual stakes of the election and on the prospects for a successful American democracy. 

Raphael J. Sonenshein is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

+