A year from now, Americans will make history. The electorate is facing the most tumultuous time in American politics in at least 50 years — arguably a century — and their ultimate choice for president is almost certain to be a candidate who reflects the churning and tumult of a changing United States.
Democrats are poised to nominate either the first woman or the first socialist as their offering for the job. Republicans could choose the party's first Hispanic, first African-American or first woman candidate — or a man whose family's political dynasty could log the most wins in American history.
The turbulence in the political system isn't just about demographics. We are transitioning from an industrial to a service economy, from a bipolar to a multipolar world, in ways that limit America's influence whether we realize it or not. And we are culturally transitioning in fast motion, thanks to a new, large and influential millennial generation powered by technologies that would have seemed fictional two generations ago.
Current trends show that Americans are poised for a major reset, favoring candidates who buck historical trends and demanding a reshuffling of the way politics is typically practiced. It may not be resolved in 2016 altogether but it’s coming, and the stakes are incredibly high.
Throughout the first part of this cycle, the reality-show style of campaign coverage has sometimes obscured the enormity of the this election and the task facing the next Commander-in-Chief.
The country is facing at least three huge challenges in the years and decades to come:
1. The stagnant middle class: There is a collective anxiety about where the next batch of jobs will come from, and what will enable regular Americans to believe they can climb the socio-economic ladder. Even for those who believe the economy is better for them today than it was eight years ago, there is a sense of deep uncertainty about how our children can achieve more than today’s status quo.
2. Uncertainty over HOW America should and could use its superpower status around the world: This president is going to leave his successor as messy of a Middle East as he inherited, which will surely be dubbed Barack Obama’s biggest broken promise as a candidate. Then again, some argue that too many of the president's decisions are driven by his initial promises and that he has been too slow to react because of concerns about his legacy.
Whether you believe the problems in the Middle East are solely George W. Bush's fault, solely Obama's fault, or some combination of bad decisions over the last 15 years, it is an indisputable fact that the next president has a Middle East mess on their hands.
3. A broken political infrastructure: From how we conduct elections (funding, gerrymandering and candidate recruiting) to how we cover and debate ideas, the machinery by which American politics functions have become unrecognizable. Cynical political strategists and elected leaders as well as a partisan and fractured media whose complaints about bias only serve to undermine the credibility of the entire system have destroyed the marketplace for political debate.
Interestingly, the fight over immigration is emblematic of the tumultuous times, both with the broken political system and the economic anxiety of the nation. Solving the immigration problem to the satisfaction of the majority of Americans may provide evidence that we are turning a corner on a broken political system and faith in an economic future.
But currently, most of the presidential candidates are trying to address the first two challenges while only talking about the third in ways designed to appease their political base. That's too bad.
Arguably, until the third challenge is tackled and we refresh the political marketplace for ideas so that it works, we probably won't be able to adequately address the rest of the enormous problems we face.
That’s why getting the political system back into a place that is at least skeptically trusted by the electorate must be a priority for whoever wins the presidency if they have any hope of making meaningful progress on the other big tasks at hand.
The march of the outsiders
Given this backdrop, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the country has been toying with conservative outsiders and progressive socialists.
We are now in our 12th straight year in which a large majority of voters believes the country is headed on the wrong track. The nation has been mired in constant pessimism since 2004. The sour mood began with the Iraq war, continued because of the flagging economy and now is now sustained by the loss of faith in our political system. We've gone from a country struggling to get through the Great Recession to a country now struggling through our most significant political recession since Vietnam and Watergate.
That’s an important comparison. The last time both parties experienced internal tumult akin to what we are seeing now, it was between 1964 and 1980. From the nominations of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern to the chasing of three presidents from office in 12 years (Johnson, Nixon and Carter), American politics were a mess, with both parties dealing with internal ideological struggles. The American media was going through its first transformation. And the country's cultural norms at the time were being changed, sometimes disruptively.
Then the storm passed.
By the early 1980s, both parties had responded to that angry electorate and found a new equilibrium.
The result was two decades of relative peace and prosperity.
That brings us to our current situation. Once again, the two parties' voters want to go through a reset.
The rises of Trump, Carson and Sanders make it clear that there is a yearning for some disruption on both sides of the aisle, although Democrats seem a little more likely to compromise (i.e. flirt with Sanders but eventually settle with Clinton) than the GOP does right now.
The conservative base is as tired of losing the White House as the establishment is. But there is a big disagreement between the two factions as to WHY this has been happening.
Conservatives simply don’t buy the establishment argument that if the party would just settle for the most electable candidate, they'd win. Here’s how their argument goes: The party’s fired-up conservative base has settled for a “palatable” candidate in nearly every nomination fight since 1988, and it has not worked out well for them. For one thing, there never was a President Dole (‘96) or McCain (‘08) or Romney (‘12). And, they argue, the two Bushes who did win damaged the conservative movement either because of tax hikes (George H.W. Bush) or expansive government programs (George W. Bush).
It’s all become a recipe for the most unpredictable nomination fight the GOP has had perhaps since the 19th century. Anyone that claims to know who has the inside track on who will be the last man standing is whistling past the grievance graveyard within the GOP.
And it’s far from over. There are more twists and turns coming.
One prevailing theory is that the party will coalesce around Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – an “insider” and “outsider,” respectively. But that theory assumes a lot. First, such a dynamic would require that both Donald Trump and Ben Carson fade and that Cruz is the main beneficiary. It also assumes the establishment wing abandons the Bush family early, and that Bush will forgo a fight against Rubio despite having $100 million to spend on the battle.
Another theory: The fight goes all the way to the convention in Cleveland. But that’s also dependent on what happens in the early nominating contests.
If different candidates win Iowa and New Hampshire, and if the winners are from opposite wings of the GOP, then you can expect a long, drawn-out two person (or maybe three person) race that isn't settled for some time. The calendar favors the conservative standard-bearer early (particularly due to the delegate-rich SEC primary Tuesday on March 1), while the establishment choice is likely to hold the advantage starting around March 15.
It’s Clinton’s race to lose — for now
As for the Democrats, it seems obvious that Clinton is on a glide path to the nomination. But whenever she looks inevitable, she stumbles. Can she avoid doing so this time?
A few things are out of her hands, mainly the FBI probe into her handling of classified information. Investigations are exceptionally unpredictable. It’s still possible that unforeseen consequences from the FBI’s scrutiny could deal her the blow that changes the dynamic of the entire race.
But Clinton has other hurdles that are in her control: She HAS to win Iowa or New Hampshire. She can chalk up losing one of the two states to Sanders due to the progressive tilt of both events coupled with the ethnic makeup of the two early states (both have very white electorates). But if she loses both early contests to a senator who isn't technically even registered as a Democrat, it will set off some pretty loud enthusiasm alarm bells inside the party.
Clinton should be winning at this stage of the game, and she is. But she hasn't excited enough of the Democratic base yet. Six months into her candidacy, there is a noticeable lack of a groundswell among women, an asset Team Clinton thought they'd already have cultivated by now.
From the history books
There’s another lesson to be remembered from presidential history here: The country rarely gives a party three straight presidential terms.
It's happened before, but only after the other party somehow disqualified itself. The last time a party notched three victories in a row, in 1988, Americans seemed to lean toward a change (even as late as the August conventions) until they ultimately decided that Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis either wasn't tough enough for the job or that Republicans hadn't done enough to warrant being fired.
In 2000, the country was deadlocked. On policy, the country wasn't ready to kick the Democrats out of the White House, but there was also a hesitation on the moral front (think Lewinsky) to reward them – just enough for Bush to eke out a win.
In 2008, the country made it clear that its default position was change, and there wasn't much Republican nominee John McCain could do about it. There were simply too many voters who weren't going to reward the GOP with a third term, regardless of McCain’s performance as a candidate.
That brings us to 2016. The public seems to be totally polarized on the question of whether or not Democrats deserve another try at the White House. Unlike previous open presidential years, the "out" party (in this case, the GOP) doesn't start with that a mindset from the public that “it’s time for change” from one party to the other. There is a mindset of change, but it's diffuse.
And that makes the Republican challenge even more daunting. The demographic changes and the GOP's current alienation from Latino voters maybe too much for any nominee to overcome. Then, toss in the potential that at some point, older white women, who have leaning more Republican over the last decade, may rally around the idea of a woman president.
The dynamics seem to be tilting the party’s challenge more and more uphill, although with a nominating contest this volatile, it’s hard to know how those calculations with change – and probably change again – before November.
Political resets are always messy, highly emotional and not easily understood in the present. American politics in 2016, and perhaps beyond, is already proving to be no different.