If you aren’t following the 2016 presidential election closely, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s only one party in the race. With dozens of candidates and at least half a dozen potential frontrunners – including Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina – Republicans have dominated mainstream media headlines and defined the national political conversation.
Not that anyone would notice, but there are still three Democrats vying for their party’s nomination. Unfortunately, the Democratic National Committee has opted for a policy of hiding them from public view. Not every Democratic candidate agrees with this policy – least of all Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has repeatedly called for more debates and whose insurgent candidacy desperately needs mainstream exposure to pose a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton.
If the country winds up with President Trump or President Cruz in 2017, much of the blame can be put on the shoulders of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the DNC. Wasserman Schultz is facing intense scrutiny from much of the Democratic Party’s progressive base for operating the machinery of the DNC brazenly in Clinton’s favor, from the ridiculous Democratic debate schedule to the party’s attempt to revoke the Sanders campaign’s access to crucial voter information.
Recently, Wasserman Schultz responded to some of the criticism, saying there is “nothing sinister” about the DNC debate schedule. If it’s true that there was no deliberate conspiracy, then the schedule was made with, at best, hopeless incompetence.
Of the four debates before the first primaries, three are on weekends when Americans’ political appetite is arguably weakest. The last two were on Saturdays, the next is set for the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, and the lone weekday debate in Iowa was aired against a big football game. Not surprisingly, ratings have suffered. All three DNC debates combined received about 31 million viewers. On the Republican side, a single debate drew in 25 million viewers, and Republicans have had five debates this year to the Democrats’ three.
What is undeniably sinister is Correct the Record, a Super PAC that works closely with both the DNC and the Clinton campaign and has been trying to heap dirt on Sanders for months. Founded by longtime Clinton supporter David Brock, Correct the Record is testing the limits of Federal Election Commission rules, which forbid Super PACs from coordinating directly with campaigns and political parties in most cases. Already, the group has disingenuously tried to link Sanders to former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Despite actually being an independent for decades, despite the DNC playing dirty politics against him, despite the media establishment’s insistence on Clinton’s inevitability as a candidate, and despite urging from some of his high-profile endorsers, it doesn’t look as though Sanders is considering a third-party run if he doesn’t win the nomination. Even in the light of all this chicanery, he doesn’t want to be a spoiler responsible for the election of a right-wing Republican candidate.
Such apprehensions are apparently not shared by Trump, the GOP’s own insurgent candidate. Trump has gone back and forth on the possibility of a third-party run, at one time signing an oath to the Republican Party that he wouldn’t and then, more recently, flirting with the idea again in the face of perceived unfair treatment from the party establishment. In fact, some Republican strategists are even contemplating running a third-party campaign against Trump if he does win the nomination.
Both Trump and Sanders are seen as insurgent outsiders who are shaking up their party. Trump is doing so in much more frightening ways than Sanders, drawing criticism from party leaders for dramatically dialing back the GOP’s 2012 pledge to be more inclusive to nonwhites. But both Sanders and Trump have raised issues that rankle the establishment – notably issues of money in politics – and both are experiencing backlash for stepping outside the accepted parameters.
For most of modern history, and in particular since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United that opened up the floodgates for unrestricted political expenditures, it’s just been a fact of the American system that elections are bought and paid for by big-money interests. Such a basic truism is this that researchers at Princeton recently labeled the United States an oligarchy, not a democracy or a republic as is sometimes claimed.
In exchange for financing a campaign and airing attack ads on TV, a corporation will expect a candidate to remember who they owe favors to once they’re in office, tit for tat. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars this cycle alone from several of the nation’s biggest banks; not surprisingly, she is weak on Wall Street regulation.
Voters are disenfranchised in such a system. Whether they realize it or not, this enables the inequities fueling so much of Americans’ anger and frustration. Simply put, when big money makes the rules, it rules in its own favor. In different ways, Trump and Sanders tap into this. Trump powers his campaign through ugly racism and xenophobia, but he also talks about the fraud that is free trade. Sanders explains, correctly, that the economy has been rigged by billionaires.
Either one would make an interesting platform for a third party – although America hardly needs a nationalistic, xenophobic party led by Trump. And neither Trump nor Sanders are out of the race, not by a longshot. Trump maintains a huge Republican lead and Sanders leads in the key early primary state of New Hampshire. Both stand a very real chance of winning their own parties’ primaries. But both also face a party establishment that is hopelessly corrupt.
If Trump does run as a third party, it would likely guarantee victory for the Democratic candidate. But a third-party Trump run would also open up the door for a third-party Sanders run, splitting the vote four ways rather than three. Frightening as the prospect of a Republican presidency is – especially since Republicans already control America at almost every other level – a four-way race with Sanders and Trump running third parties would at least give our process some variety.
Sanders has frequently talked of a political revolution and the need for his supporters to remain mobilized after he takes the White House. Whether or not he or Trump win their nominations or run on a third-party ticket, their millions of energized supporters, fed up with politics as usual, should remember the way the parties treated their candidates. The rank corruption of this election could lay the groundwork for a viable third party to stand up to the entrenched Washington establishment.