While the media focus on the GOP Establishment’s 2016 nomination loss, such defeat is hardly new. Over the last 10 elections both major parties have had non-Establishment nominees. These past non-Establishment uprisings have not been harbingers of party demise, but in most cases catalysts and conduits of change, which have led to the formation of a new Establishment.
The liberal media has linked pronouncements of the Republican Party’s demise with Donald Trump’s rise. Such thinking will be no more accurate now than it has been in the past. While Trump’s victory as a non-Establishment nominee may seem unprecedented, it is anything but.
In 1976, the non-Establishment politician, Jimmy Carter, captured the Democratic Party’s nomination, while another non-Establishment politician, Ronald Reagan, narrowly missed winning the Republican nomination. Carter was decidedly not of the Democratic Establishment, shocking it by winning the nomination and then frustrating it during four years in office.
After narrowly losing to Ford in 1976, Reagan came back to win the Republican nomination and the presidency four years later. Now that he’s the conservative icon of the Republican Party, it is easy to forget how far from the Republican Establishment he was initially — as shown when he took George H.W. Bush as his running mate in order to reach out to it.
Carter and Reagan’s non-Establishment feats would be repeated again, first by Bill Clinton in 1992 and then Obama in 2008.
Bill Clinton adopted a “third way” approach to distance himself from the liberal bent of the Democratic Establishment. He successfully maintained it in office too, becoming the first Democrat to win two terms since FDR — 60 years earlier.
Obama separated himself from the Democratic Establishment by beating its virtually unanimous choice for the nomination: Hillary Clinton. He won election and reelection with a majority of the popular vote — again doing something no Democrat had done since FDR in 1936.
Although just four non-Establishment politicians in the previous ten elections may not seem large, the impact has been far greater because they have been so successful — especially in comparison to both parties’ Establishment nominees.
Non-Establishment politicians (both in their initial elections and their reelection attempts) have gone 2-0 on the Republican side and 5-1 on the Democratic side — the only loss being Carter’s 1980 one to Reagan, another non-Establishment politician.
In contrast, Establishment nominees in both parties have fared poorly, even though they have won a decided majority of the nominations.
Establishment Democrats (Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry) won four nominations, but lost the presidency each time. Establishment Republicans (Ford, Bush I, Dole, Bush II, McCain, and Romney) have won eight nominations but gone just 3-5 (Bush I winning in 1988 and Bush II in 2000 and 2004).
Combined, Establishment nominees are 3-9 during the last 10 presidential elections, versus a combined 7-1 for non-Establishment nominees.
Even larger than their won-loss record in presidential elections, has been the non-Establishment presidents’ impact on their parties. Reagan, Clinton, and Obama did not just successfully confront their party’s Establishment, they re-created it in their own image. Before they left office, they were the new Establishment.
Only Carter could be said to have had no such impact. However, while Carter lost reelection, the Democratic Establishment lost sizable numbers of its former core supporters — in the form of Reagan Democrats — in 1980. When it tried to reassert itself with Mondale’s nomination in 1984, it suffered a loss of catastrophic proportions, ultimately setting the stage for Bill Clinton to largely follow Carter’s earlier non-Establishment formula.
Nor has the non-Establishment trend been limited to the two major political parties. During these four decades, the media covering presidential elections has undergone no less a transformation.
The oligopoly of news coverage has been progressively broken. In television and print, the stranglehold of a few major players — networks and newspapers — long ago disappeared. Now even television and print are being supplanted.
The last four decades show how much American presidential politics has changed — especially when it comes to the so-called Establishments that have supposedly run it. It also shows just how ephemeral these Establishments have been. Were we to look back to the 10 elections preceding 1980, similar Establishment transformations would also be evident.
The four non-Establishment nominees who have punctuated the last ten elections were both catalysts and conduits of change — both active and passive agents of it. In some instances they facilitated the change that would establish the new Establishments; in others, they merely embodied change already taking place.
The most important point to take away from the past is how much the present conforms to it. Donald Trump is unquestionably a non-Establishment nominee. However, there have been others — and being one is no guarantee of victory, despite others’ success. Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly an Establishment nominee. There have been many in this role too — and being one is no guarantee of defeat, despite others’ failures. What is guaranteed is that the Establishments of both parties will continue to evolve, regardless of this election’s outcome and perhaps as a result of it.