For much of its recent history the nation has gotten along well enough with a two-party system which functions effectively if not always harmoniously. This is true even with and partly because of divided government when the White House and the two chambers of Congress are—as is often the case—in separate hands.

With all branches now under GOP control, the imbalance is more noticeable though the results have not been favorable.

Even with the ideological schisms that are intrinsic to and accentuated in our form of democracy there has always been ample latitude for vigorous partisan debate with plenty room for strong dissent.

And there have always been sufficient constitutional safeguards and enough vigilant custodians of our welfare and security willing to invoke them.

At least until now.

These constraints have been institutionalized through a combination of responsible party leadership, a Chief Executive willingly beholden to the rule of law, and a judiciary prepared to enforce those laws when they are in danger of being violated.

A fourth component no less important is a diligent, free and unrestricted press which can hold to account any and all who breach these norms.

When these mechanisms are working in orderly fashion government can go about its business in a mostly normal way. When they get too far out of whack we can have trouble.

While both parties and specifically politicians have fallen into some disrepute as accomplices to the mounting disorderliness, it is instructive to see what role they continue to play and whether their impact may be diminishing.

But before looking at where we seem to be going, a short look at the past:

Evolution of the two-party system

The most notable aberration in the two party model occurred in 1912 with the formation of the so-called “Bull Moose Party”—later to be called the Progressive party–nicknamed after President Theodore Roosevelt who after an attempt on his life during his losing campaign to defeat his GOP protégé, William Howard Taft, described himself in a speech as “fit as a bull moose.”

The Progressive party was all but extinct by 1918 giving way to the modern era when Republicans and Democrats have pretty much dominated with a few splinter parties such as the American Independent (far right), The Green Party (far left),  the Libertarian Party and several other weak challengers putting up candidates who have not generally fared very well at the polls.

In 2016 the Independent’s presidential nominee, Richard Duncan, collected 2.7% of the total popular vote–the most of any of the third party candidates on the ballot. The Green’s perennial nominee, Jill Stein, picked up a bare 2.2%.

Arguably the most persuasive third party candidate in recent times was the formidable consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, who turned down the Green Party nomination in 2000 running as an Independent.  He received a mere 2.74% of the votes for his efforts but which some claim was enough to throw the election to George W. Bush over Al Gore.

Going back further, Texas businessman, Ross Perot running in 1992 captured 18.9% of the vote gaining the largest share of any Independent candidate since Roosevelt’s failed bid 80 years earlier. Some have argued that gave the presidency to Bill Clinton.

In fact the last U.S. president who was neither Democrat nor Republican was Millard Fillmore a member of the long defunct Whig party formed mainly in bitter opposition to Jacksonian Democrats. It lasted only a decade until its collapse in 1854.

The one president who we can safely say belonged to no party was George Washington who was elected before parties were invented in 1781 with the coming of the Federalists and a year later the Anti-Federalists.

That was until now.

The Re-positioning of the Parties

Donald Trump who has disavowed any real allegiance to the GOP could just as well have run as a third party candidate and although he might not have won, he would have destroyed any opportunity for an authentic GOP opponent who might have run against him.

And that is exactly what mainstream Republicans feared most so they swallowed hard   and were forced to embrace Trump who was more or less thrust upon them.

Now they are saddled with a leader who disavows any real affiliation with his party, was once a Democrat, campaigned as a Neo-Populist and is governing as an extremist. From the looks of it Trump’s putative party—the GOP—would probably like nothing more than a parting of the ways.

But that marriage has long been sanctified and only a very messy dissolution lies ahead depending upon the outcome of Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller’s investigations into very serious White House misconduct that could lead directly to the Oval Office.

Republicans are now stuck with a monster albatross which they cannot shed and the party leadership appears to be paralyzed on just how to deal with a growing clamor to bring order to an Administration spinning out of control without enraging a president whose cooperation they still need.

The survival of this presidency may not be the foremost concern. It will come second to the survival of their own political careers, but the two are inextricably tied as may become apparent in the 2018 mid-term elections.

It is being said that both parties are now forced go through dramatic realignment given the bitter aftermath to the November 2016 election.

However there is much more to this than party repositioning.

The entire body politic is going through a painful and perhaps historical realignment which is pitting angry, alienated citizens who espouse one set of values and feel they have already lost much against an equal number generally satisfied with their lot and mainly interested in holding on to what they have.

Trump has been masterful in exploiting this widening cultural and economic gap and until now has only come up against token opposition. His ultimate fate depends less upon the future successes of his party than on the political resolve to bring him down despite the fierce opposition of his rabid supporters.

The Republican Party as it was structured for more than a half century can look at a past during which it has made its fair share of important contributions regardless of those who congenitally hold it in disfavor.

It’s No Longer your Grandfather’s GOP

But it is no longer the party of  the GOP’s presidential standard bearer in the 1964 campaign, Barry Goldwater, the “father of conservatism” and a self-styled populist with great integrity whose extremist rhetoric contributed to his swamping by Lyndon Johnson in that election landslide.

He would find much about today’s GOP unrecognizable and the election of Donald Trump unconscionable.

He would consider any president who would risk national security, insult those in his own Cabinet, desecrate women, repeatedly lie, condone the rigging of a U.S. election, profit financially from his position, disparage the justice system—and that’s only a short list— to be devoid of all morals.

It is quite likely that many in today’s Congress would agree but with a few notable exceptions (Sens. Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, John McCain) are unwilling to challenge Trump.

Today the GOP in its current iteration is at risk of disintegrating under a leader who is on a daily basis issuing defamatory tweets attacking even members of own party which they are forced to repudiate.

Meanwhile, though his popularity is reaching new lows, Trump continues to bask in the adoration of his followers who could care less if the Republican banner is getting tarnished. They voted for a man who could channel their frustration and what he says or he says it about is of no consequence.

But even if they are becoming less important as the declining numbers of new registrants in both major parties indicates, they have symbolic significance.

The resentments have become so visceral that those who nominally identify with either one of the parties are automatically considered the other’s enemies!

It is into this dystopian abyss that someone with dictatorial aspirations and no natural constraints can do significant damage if not checked.

The breakdown of the two-party system will not be a good thing if it tilts the nation in an extreme direction either Left or Right along with the investiture of unchecked power in the presidency.

And the Democrats have their own work to do and weaknesses to overcome.

If the GOP is in disintegration, the Democrats are also more marginalized and risk becoming irrelevant themselves as they struggle to find new leadership and a message that can return them to power.

The deep fissures in their party exemplified by the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton stand-off are also on display with older leaders under strong challenge to step aside and emerging ones not yet fully equipped to assume the mantle.

Both parties are in difficult transition and will have to adjust their compasses. But each through their leaders and their followers has a higher obligation to hold the nation safe from those whose actions threaten to shatter it beyond repair.