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Is America's 2-Party System Fracturing?


The 2020 race is shaping up to be unlike any other in recent American history. Consider the fact that the current front-runner on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, hasn't actually been a member of the Democratic Party for most of his career. The head of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, isn't a traditional Republican either. He has reshaped the GOP in his image, inverting longstanding conservative canons on issues like debt, international relations and democratic norms. Is the two-party system as we know it breaking down? And if so, why?

We're now joined by Diego von Vacano, a professor at Texas A&M University. Welcome.

DIEGO VON VACANO: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure to be on your program.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You study populism, where more trust is put in a person like President Trump than in political institutions. And you contend that populism breaks down the traditional order. Can you explain how this could be affecting the two-party system in the United States right now?

VON VACANO: So in the U.S., definitely there's been a change in the last few years. We've seen that the GOP has been taken over by President Trump using mechanisms like fear, retaliation, personalism. And these are populist methods.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain personalism. When you're saying personalism, what does that mean?

VON VACANO: Personalism is where an individual leader uses their connections and their - sometimes even their friends and their families in order to become more popular, to gain support. In President Trump's case, it's been quite evident in the last few years - right? - that this use of the family, his connections, even the use of Twitter itself - so that his followers will see him almost as their - he's talking to them directly, skipping the institutional apparatus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And can you just talk me through some of the parallels you see in President Trump's rise to some of the other places you have studied?

VON VACANO: Peron is probably the best example in Argentina in the '50s. His ability was to be kind of a - theatrical and performative. So his appearance, the way that he behaves, his image - President Trump has definitely used that model. And then in the case of a more of the left-wing populism in Latin America, we have somebody like Evo Morales who, again, is - has a particular persona, narrative. And he - again, the use of repetitive stories about the elite versus the masses is something that's also quite similar in the way that Bernie Sanders is rising.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that has been so striking is how quickly voters shed the ideology of their party once a populist comes to power. Does that show that all this political edifice, all the political sort of intellectual underpinnings of liberals and conservatives are simply a house of cards, which populists can exploit to their advantage?

VON VACANO: In general, I would say that is the case. I do think there is a crisis in the U.S. party system. I do think that the edifice constructive by long - for a very long time in the GOP by intellectuals who are conservative is falling down, breaking down because of the use of certain tropes by President Trump. So for instance, the idea of race, gender and the us-versus-them dialectic and then the idea of the strongman are at least four elements - are really quite visible in the case of Trump.

For the Democratic Party, I think Sanders and Bloomberg see that younger voters, especially - and also, in the case of Bernie Sanders, immigrants, Latinos - they have maybe felt excluded from some of the traditional approaches by the Democratic Party. So definitely, I think they are taking the Trump model seriously.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As someone who studies populism, I suppose I'm going to end by asking you, do you think that the two-party system can survive what's happening right now?

VON VACANO: So in politics, it's very difficult to predict. But I anticipate Sanders will continue to be successful, and that will change the mainstream. And I think in the case of the GOP that Trump has definitely already almost co-opted the party. So he has won that fight. So definitely, the Democrats have to respond in kind in some sense. And I think there'll be a lot of self-reflection within the ranks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Diego von Vacano, associate political science professor at Texas A&M. Thank you so much.

VON VACANO: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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