PRESIDENTIAL politics, when I was young, largely took the form of party conventions, and lasted perhaps six months before the quadrennial elections in November. Now, they are mostly a matter of state primary elections, and the preparatory jockeying starts just after the previous election. Thus they are already in full flood, more than a calendar year before the elections of 2016.
The Democrats began this round assuming that their nomination would go to Hillary Clinton, if she chose to run. That may still prove to be the case, although she is not creating quite the hoped-for enthusiasm. A few other candidates are offering themselves, but none appears likely as yet to take her place.
The competition is more intense in the Republican Party, which has no potential candidate with a comparable aura of inevitability. For a short while, Jeb Bush, a former Governor of Florida and member of the Bush dynasty, was thought to be such a one. But he has not fared well in the campaign process so far.
The Republican Party, at this point, is a mosaic of different groups: social conservatives exercised about abortion rights and same-sex marriage; libertarians who want to reduce radically the size of government; anti-tax activists; wealthy donors wanting to retain their existing tax advantages; anti-immigrant groups; coal companies that are resisting the notion of human-caused climate change; and business interests of all sorts, from Wall Street to local shopkeepers.
It is an uncomfortable coalition in many ways, and its multiplicity of candidates mirrors that.
The candidate generating the most enthusiasm so far has been the celebrity tycoon Donald Trump. He seems to have little concrete idea of what he would do as President, but he has managed to give voice to much of the floating anger among the Republicans’ predominantly white and male constituency.
He is strongly anti-immigrant, even to the point of proposing to build a wall along the border with Mexico. He is also dismissive of science, and insulting to women, which seems to please this audience.
No one else has captured the anger quite so effectively, though not for want of trying. The Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, tried to trump Mr Trump by proposing a wall along the Canadian border as well. But that proved too bizarre, even for the irate among us, and he is now out of the running.
What seems significant about the Republican process is not so much the individual candidates as the prevalence of anger. It is hard to say what that means. We have always had hard-fought elections, but not, in my lifetime, one that was so riddled with contempt for anyone who is not white, male, anti-gay, and at least presumed Christian.
Perhaps the reason is that the culture and demography of the country are moving in the opposite direction, which leaves some conservatives feeling threatened.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. He blogs at billcountryman.com.