The emergence of populist, extremist candidates has dominated the public's attention in the 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses, although there is no assurance that one of those candidates will eventually win election.
On the left, Bernie Sanders' popularity signifies discontent with the center and business as usual. Sanders is a self-identified socialist who has caucused with the Democrats in Congress but steadfastly refused to align himself with that party. Nevertheless, he now is in a hard fought battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On the right, in a once crowded field of more than a dozen only three candidates remain. Donald Trump has effectively tapped into an angry electorate's desire for political change. Many of his supporters feel disenfranchised. A true demagogue, Trump has modified his positions to cater to the far right GOP base. At times, some of his comments appear designed to attract media attention while not necessarily representing his actual political views. He styles himself as a dealmaker, but a close examination of those deals raises serious questions about his business acumen, e.g., several of his business have gone bankrupt, leaving him personally unscathed financially but harming his creditors and investors. Trump's main opponent at this point in the contest is Ted Cruz, a senator with whom other senators find cooperation very problematic. Cruz, like Trump, seems happy to be a loner and taps into much of the same anger as has Trump has. The only non-extremist remaining is John Kasich who has struggled to gain traction with voters.
Electorates tend to have normal distributions, i.e., graphically represented by a bell shaped curve. Consequently, effective governance generally occupies the center of the political spectrum formed by the electorate. Attempting to govern from far right or far left (as opposed to somewhat right or left of center) imposes the views of a minority upon the majority and can set the stage for political disruption, perhaps even revolution. Sharp political swings in some South American countries, in which government shifts abruptly from the far right to far left or vice versa, exemplify these problems. In the United States, post-Civil War reconstruction provides the clearest and saddest examples of this pattern. Policies and laws that might have fully integrated freedmen into the nation's political and economic mainstream fell victim to struggles between Radical Republicans and white supremacists (for a fuller exposition of this history, cf. Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction).
Effective governance in the center entails civility (i.e., respecting one's opponents and avoiding ad hominem attacks) and compromise by finding common ground on goals if not means (i.e., people have shared values and nobody has all of the good ideas). Neither civility nor compromise seems very popular in 2016.
The 2020 election cycle seems likely to be more polarized and divisive than the current election. If so, at what point does representative democracy stop functioning? When will power, which abhors a vacuum, gravitate to such an extent to the presidency that the President becomes a de facto dictator?
For example, national government provides essential services upon which most people depend. These essential services include national defense, transportation infrastructure, law enforcement, enforcement of health and safety regulations, social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and much more. The President lacks statutory authority to spend federal funds until Congress appropriates them. In the past, brief government shut downs have occurred when Congress failed to appropriate funds. What might happen if Congress becomes so dysfunctionally polarized that it is unable to pass spending authorizations for an entire fiscal year? Alternatively, what might happen if Congress and the President are so polarized, and Congress unable to override a Presidential veto, that the government must operate for an entire fiscal year without fiscal authorizations? You may have be able to suggest other scenarios caused by government paralysis.
Furthermore, the U.S. political system presumes a two-party system. If the Republican and Democratic parties collapse at the same time, what will happen? Nations with more than two major political parties can sometimes function through coalition governments, a more viable political alternative in which the head of government is a prime minister who is not also the head of state (Great Britain, unlike the US, is an example of this). Thus, in the U.S., a multi-party political system will more probably result in government paralysis, or near paralysis, than in effective government. Weak, ineffectual government will inevitably degrade security, diminish economic growth and competitiveness, increase the federal government's cost, and erode democracy's underpinnings. Italy, which has a prime minister and multiple weak parties, illustrates the long-term consequences of ineffectual and ineffective governance.
New political parties have occasionally replaced an existing U.S. political party, e.g., the Whigs disappeared as the Republicans rose to national prominence. The odds seem to be against two new political parties simultaneously replacing the two now dominant parties. However, if only one of the current parties collapses (or is shattered into irreconcilable fragments), perhaps a new party will emerge, forming new coalitions, articulating a fresh agenda, and constituting a vibrant, healthy opponent for the other party.
Representative democracy is not ideal, but it is the best system of governance of which we know. I remain optimistic about the future of democracy in the U.S. I do not think that the United States is at risk of devolving into a collection of independent states, as might happen with Great Britain. Nor do I believe that most Americans want tyranny, even though I am persuaded that most Americans want good governance and are unhappy with the current performance of Congress, the presidency, and probably the judiciary.
Hopefully, a plurality of citizens – what Richard Nixon once described as the silent majority – will decide to act. This silent majority (albeit one with a different composition than the one Nixon identified) by restoring civility to public discourse, becoming more involved in political processes, courageously voting for the common good instead of self-interest, and pushing elected officials to govern effectually through compromise and respect for the dignity of all can revitalize American democracy.