It is a major assumption the largest political divide in American politics is the liberal/conservative divide. The notion I heavily supported by our two party system. The democrat candidate tends to be liberal while the republican candidate tends to be conservative. But there is another, less accepted school of thought in electoral politics the most important divide is not liberal/conservative, but populist/elitist. Never has the latter theory seen the light of day as in the 2016 presidential election.
Before diving into the subject, let me make note the populist/elitist divide is not partisan. A liberal can be either populist or elitist, as can a conservative. We could argue over classification all day, but some clear examples are populist Barack Obama versus elitist Mitt Romney in 2012 and populist George W. Bush versus elitist Al Gore in 2000. Ideology make no difference in the classification, and both populists an elitists have a solid chance to be elected president.
It should go without saying the 2016 candidates can be labeled with no argument. Donald Trump is a populist, while Hillary Clinton is an elitist. Trump is the antithesis of elitist, as he stands for everything the politically correct despise. He is running against Clinton, who is the most glaring example of a business as usual Washington insider anyone could name.
The divide is so sharp this election cycle because voters do not particularly like either candidate. While it is not unusual for voters to be motivated more by a dislike for one candidate versus a fondness for another, in this election, the feelings regarding the candidates burn within the electorate. The division is so stark, the election results may establish either a populist or elitist dominance for many subsequent election cycles as emotions run high.
I say may, because there is always at least one counterpoint. Trump won the Republican nomination against more savvy politicians because he stood out among them for being different at a time when GOP voters were rebelling against the old order. He might have lost against a smaller field. He most certainly would have lost against a single primary opponent. On the other side, he powers that be felt it was Clinton’s turn to get the nomination after rejecting her in 2008. Bernie Sanders socialist message might have prevailed against a less high profile opponent.