(CN) – Analysts on both sides of the aisle agree: America is in crisis, brought on not by immigration or hate but by political contention.
“There’s no question that we’re divided now, and the election proved that and the current debate proves that,” said Lee Edwards, an historian and distinguished fellow with The Heritage Foundation.
Whether voters rally around a strong ideologue or a moderate leader in part depends on whether they perceive the country as being in a state of crisis, Edwards said. He pointed to presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected during the Great Depression, and Ronald Reagan, who followed a period of 1970s stagflation.
“It all depends where we are, and whether we’re at war, whether we’re at peace, so I would say in this case, in a crisis, voters look for more sharply defined candidates,” Edwards said. “Things are contested enough so I think that people are looking for clearly defined candidates and programs.”
Building on its annual survey, the Pew Research Center reported this past February that except on employment, most Democrats and Republicans disagree more about national priorities each year.
Seth Masket, director of Denver University’s Center on American Politics, said he thinks the nation’s system of democracy is under threat.
“Trump is certainly a part of it, but he’s not the only part of it,” Masket said. “There has been an undermining of some democratic political institutions and an undermining of democratic norms, like you don’t threaten to jail your opponent when you’re running for office and you don’t call the media the enemy of the people.”
This type of crisis “favors the authoritarian type who says, ‘We’re in a crisis, I’m the only one that can fix it,’ then the response to that is to say, ‘This person is creating a crisis, elect me to fix that,’” Masket said. “So extremism begets for extremism.”
By this standard, it’s not surprising to see poster progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, as an early front runner. A poll released Tuesday by Morning Consult shows Sanders’ promise to strengthen America’s social safety net has earned him 23 percent of early electorate support.
Still, the candidate most favored in the polls is a tried-and-true moderate, former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden has not yet announced his candidacy but still holds a steady third of early voter support.
“People who like Biden feel like he’s someone who can actually win, he is someone who is seen as safe, he is embracing of Democratic values but not seen as too far left,” Masket said. “Supporters of Sanders go the other direction, they say here’s someone who actually believes in things and that’s how you win, by putting forward a vision that people can rally behind.”
Pursuing a message of unity and bipartisanship in his campaign for president, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper agrees America is in crisis.
“America today is facing a crisis of division,” Hickenlooper has said. We’re as divided as any point since the Civil War.”
Touting gun reform and balanced oil and gas regulation as accomplishments during his two terms in the Colorado statehouse, Hickenlooper says his track record is as purple as the Centennial State’s voters. But that’s not the only way he stands out.
Instead of fighting fire with fire, Hickenlooper is offering Americans a bucket of water.
“There’s an interesting rationale that Hickenlooper has been using which is basically we want to lower the temperature,” Masket said. “But it’s difficult to convey that in a campaign environment.”
Hickenlooper has his share of fans in Colorado, but many wonder how far their hometown hero can run.
“I think Hickenlooper is fascinating, but he won’t get traction because he is a moderate and our current climate doesn’t favor that,” said Dough Schmidt, a self-described centrist who lives in Boulder.
Hickenlooper hasn’t gone viral with the electorate yet, but his shoe leather campaign from the soybean farmers of Iowa to survivors of gun violence and hate crimes in South Carolina seems to be leaving an imprint in the cement that can’t be washed away so easily.
“Most working households in America lack the savings to cover any major unforeseen expense, like a sudden house repair or medical bill,” Hickenlooper said in a speech at the North America’s Building Trades Unions’ annual legislative conference in Washington on Wednesday.
While many Democratic candidates are building platforms out of similar values, they will ultimately vary in their scope and shade of blue. Hickenlooper describes health care as a right and supports “universal, affordable coverage,” but his proposal falls to the right of Sanders’ promised single-payer universal health care system. Where Sanders promises to make tuition to public universities free, Hickenlooper outlines strategies for making higher education affordable.
“We’ll expand Pell grants to be used to pay for apprenticeships, not just for college,” Hickenlooper told workers’ unions. “We’ll pair regional companies with their local community colleges and union apprenticeships to ensure there is a clear training-to-job pipeline. We’ll make community college free for all those who cannot afford it.”
Vermont Democratic Party chair Terje Anderson recalled speaking to a fellow party member weighing support of Hickenlooper in one hand and Sanders in the other.
“You can get into this discussion of ‘Is it progressive? Is it socialist? Is it liberal? Is it practical?’ People stick all kinds of labels on it, but it’s really interesting to me when I talk to people that I know who aren’t terribly politically active and you find the most bizarre combination of who appeals to them,” Anderson said.
“I’m excited about the slate of folks who are running and I want to kick all of their tires, I want them all to go out and show us who they are,” Anderson said. “I think it’s going to be a healthy primary.”