Democracy And The Pitfalls Of Party Politics

Democracy And The Pitfalls Of Party Politics

10:42am Nov 11, 2016
Dr. Omar H. Ali (Credit: Martin Kane, University Communications, UNCG)

Republican Donald Trump’s historic run to the White House has reignited a conversation about the structure of America’s two-party system. For Democrat Hillary Clinton, the loss points to a possible realignment in her own party.

University of North Carolina at Greensboro Professor Omar Ali recently shared his insights with WFDD’s David Ford.

Interview Highlights

Were you at all surprised by Tuesday night’s election results?  

I could not say that I wasn’t shocked like most everyone else, but I think in some ways it confirmed the incredible dissatisfaction that a large proportion of the American electorate has with what they perceive as the political establishment. And specifically, the power of the political parties.

What we’re seeing now is somewhat of a sea change where you have many people who traditionally haven’t come out and voted, come out and vote because they felt they had a vehicle—a sort of blunt tool—to kind of push back on the political establishment. What we were surprised to find out is that there were many, many college educated white people who came out and voted for President-elect Donald Trump. That came as a surprise because [before the election] most people were saying that they were uneducated white people who were coming out and supporting him.

What about black voters for Hillary Clinton?

There was a not complete lackluster support among African Americans and Latinos for Hillary Clinton, but it wasn’t enough to make up the difference, because they didn’t come out in as high a number as they had in the past. And as we knew from some of the data that the numbers were down about a week ago from where they were in 2012. So this is a confirmation of a sea change in the American electorate, and I think that for me one of the interesting and positive outcomes of this is the possibility of new kinds of coalitions emerging.

You’ve spoken about how the Obama factor may have to some degree masked what had been a steady decline in Democratic Party support over several years. To what extent was that revealed in the presidential results?

I think there’s been a growing shift away from strict Democratic Party affiliation among African Americans, for instance. And one of the ways in which people looked at the 2008 election with Barack Obama being elected the first black president, was that they felt that this shows that the Democratic Party is alive and kicking and has a very strong loyalty among even younger African Americans. But I think that as we’ve seen over time, younger African Americans don’t have the same loyalty. I think they were voting for him as an individual as opposed to him being a Democrat. I think those things were coupled, and they need to be decoupled. And a lot of the analysts and political scientists and pollsters kind of missed that quite frankly.

And I think they continue to miss a lot of what’s happening. While you do have large numbers of people who self-identify as independent, they’re really not Independents because they lean one way or the other. My analogy is this. If you are hungry and you’re presented with a rotten apple and a rotten banana, you’re still probably going to choose from one or the other because that’s what you have as your choices. So people feel like they’re voting for the lesser of two evils more and more, across all demographics, but the youngest voters don’t have the same kind of loyalty to the Democratic Party in the black community.

By pointing to coalitions are you suggesting that the two parties have run out of ways to reinvent themselves and remain viable?

I think so, but there are others who point to another analysis which is that, well, you have growing numbers of Latinos and a diminishing number of white Americans which will bode well for the Democratic Party because people of color have traditionally voted in higher numbers and felt greater affiliation for the Democratic Party. But in some ways it doesn’t account for the fact that there is this growing sentiment of anti-partisanship among African Americans and other voters and you’re also talking about an American electorate that has not had an enormous amount of voter turnout. We had one of the lowest turnouts among all western democracies.

And so what Trump has done is kind of pulled people who normally would be regarded as apathetic and non-voters, and people coming out for the first time as middle-aged adults to come vote. He was tapping into the sort of anti-party, anti-establishment sentiment even though he was running as a Republican. He was the vehicle that a lot of independent-minded voters thought could give expression to their disgust with the political establishment.

As much as I would have personally liked to have seen a female break the ceiling in terms of a presidential election, I also recognize that in some ways people don’t see just Hillary Clinton as a female, but they see her as part of the establishment. In some ways that really burned her in many respects.

Do you feel that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would have been a more competitive presidential candidate than Hillary Clinton given the anti-establishment political climate that exists in America today?

Absolutely. One of the most interesting things is that the reason why Bernie Sanders was not able to defeat Hillary Clinton in the primaries is because in half of the states there are closed primaries. So, the two major parties basically control that critical first round of elections and there are more and more people who are seeing the structural constraints for insurgent and Independent candidates is really a problem in America.

For the first time Bernie Sanders was saying, “Whoa, maybe closed primaries are not such a good thing”, because of course he himself was immediately impacted by that. But we have to remember that these are publicly paid elections and we have this weird system where we allow these private entities, namely the Democratic and Republican Parties, to function in the law [laughs] as if they are public. But they’re not. They’re private parties.  

And I think Bernie Sanders would have reached many of the white working class voters and white educated voters that Trump reached with his emphasis on the economy for instance and his sort of outsider outspokenness, even though he’s been inside Washington for many years.

Where do you feel the two parties and Independent parties should be focusing their efforts moving forward?

One of the underlying messages of the 2016 election was the need to decrease the power of the parties, and increase the power of ordinary citizens. To open up the primaries. To have ballot access laws that allow for more people to get on the ballot. I mean that’s critical. To have structural reforms, whether it’s redistricting or the participation in the presidential elections. To be more open and transparent. At this point, those who make the rules, namely the Democratic and Republican Party legislators, are the ones who are going to rule.

Independents are I think looking for respect, recognition and reform. That’s true with many disaffected Democrats and disaffected Republicans who kind of hold their nose while going into the voting booth. They may not want to run with a third party. They might want to run as individuals.

Which coalitions are you looking at with particular interest these days, or ones you would point to as a model?

One of the groups that’s been doing a lot of work has been IndependentVoting.org, under the leadership of Jacqui Salit, whose been a longtime pioneer and champion of structural political reforms.…So the work that IndependentVoting.org is doing, the work that OpenPrimaries.org is doing—both coalitions in and of themselves that are playing a leadership role in the country…

It’s not just about who gets in—you’re in office, but then what do you do?  A lot of innovative policy is not able to come into the light because of partisan control over the process and the various lobbying interests that are alive and kicking—the parties themselves being the largest of the lobbyists quite frankly.

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