American politics is stuck in trench warfare. Over the past half-century, since Lyndon Johnson enacted his Great Society agenda on a wave of liberal optimism, neither party has enjoyed sustained control of the executive and legislative branches of government at the same time.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Most western countries suffer from the rural/urban divide that plagues US politics. Right-wing, illiberal populism has challenged establishment parties in nearly all of them. In some, racial authoritarianism has become part of the permanent political fabric. Elsewhere, mainstream parties have used compromise to invite alienated constituencies back into the fold of conventional politics, thus marginalizing radical movements that seek to subvert liberalism.
Our own democratic system is in danger of collapse. Can any of our political leaders summon the courage to break the stalemate by building a more expansive and representative coalition?
The roots of contemporary political polarization in the US can be traced to the dissolution of the Democrats’ once mighty transracial working class New Deal Coalition, which defied both sectional and urban/rural divides. Torn apart by the social upheaval of the late 1960s, Democrats focused more narrowly on courting urban voters, both minorities and professional class whites, while Republicans shed their country club image to pursue alienated working class whites. Over the next half-century, the parties slowly polarized around race and geography.
This process of realignment reached a crescendo in the past decade, when uniformity among representatives of the same party became much more pronounced. Between 2011 and 2016, the last year for which data on party unity votes is available, 73.06 percent of all votes in the House of Representatives involved the majority of Democrats voting against the majority of Republicans. During the 1970s, the figure was 37.02.
Party discipline makes sense when parties enjoy majorities, yet the framers of the Constitution deliberately enshrined a bicameral legislature to obstruct majority control. They designed the Senate, in particular, to resist sharp swings in popular opinion: only one-third of its members is up for election at once. The possibility of full control is tantalizing, never more so than in the run-up to the recent election, when Democrats hoped to win both Congress and the Presidency. With two more Senate seats, they might have enacted an ambitious agenda, even reshaping Republican bastions in the Supreme Court and state legislatures. In practice, however, the pursuit of unified control usually yields functional gridlock.
The 2020 election results pose a particular setback to Democratic ambitions. The outcome provides clarity on one of the laziest elements of Democratic strategy. Since 2002, when political scientists John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued in The Emerging Democratic Majority that the country’s growing racial diversity would lead to a major leftward shift, many Democrats have assumed that they can achieve their political goals through patience. The recent inroads by Republicans among all minority groups, but especially Latinos, should put these assumptions to rest.
Meanwhile, although the election ensured that the Republicans’ state-level gerrymanders will endure, the party remains in the minority in the House of Representatives. If it can’t win a majority when the median seat already tilts three points to the right due to the success of its gerrymanders, it’s hard to imagine it winning a durable advantage in its current incarnation. Stalemate, it would seem, is here to stay.
Though American political sclerosis is especially severe, plenty of other western countries have faced their own version. In Britain, where political divides cleave along regional lines, Conservatives tend to do well in more rural, southern districts, while the Labour Party has long dominated the northern urban industrial heartland. After the 2016 Brexit referendum threw the country into turmoil, leaders of the major parties struggled to determine how to pursue departure from the EU—or even whether the referendum result should be respected. The new Tory Prime Minister, Theresa May, strained to balance demands for a complete exit with calls to maintain UK access to European markets. May was bedeviled, in particular, by right-wing activist Nigel Farage, whose UK Independence Party had agitated for the Brexit referendum. Farage formed a new Brexit Party in 2019, promptly decimating the Conservatives in European parliamentary elections. After Parliament rejected May’s draft agreement with the EU for the third time, she resigned and was succeeded by Boris Johnson.
Underestimated by most observers, Johnson decisively broke the stalemate through canny compromise. Calling for new elections, in his campaign he took the gamble of courting working class northerners, usually a Labour constituency, who had nonetheless voted for Brexit. Knowing that bringing these voters into the Conservative fold would give him a decisive majority, Johnson compromised on the laissez faire economic principles that traditionally characterize the Tory economic agenda. He announced an end to the party’s notorious austerity programs in favor of new social spending, including a massive investment in the country’s National Health Service. The strategy was successful: Johnson smashed Labour’s northern “red wall,” ending the debate over Brexit by winning 56 percent of the seats in the new parliament. Farage’s Brexit Party was shut out.
The same year, a left-wing coalition of social democratic parties won control of Denmark’s parliament by pursuing the inverse strategy: ceding ground on social issues but redoubling its support for the welfare state. Long governed by social democratic coalitions, Danish politics shifted after 2001, when concerns over immigration and Islamist terrorism ushered a conservative coalition into power. These conservative parties, which drew their greatest strength from rural districts, won reelection twice and, after defeat in 2011, narrowly retook power in 2015, partnering with the Danish People’s Party (DPP), a far-right, outspokenly anti-immigration party. In defeat, the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, elected a former labor activist, Mette Frederiksen, as its new leader.
Recognizing the attrition of working class constituents in the DPP, Frederiksen took the unorthodox step of shifting her party left on economics but right on immigration policy. Borrowing from their rivals, the Social Democrats began to criticize the development of “parallel societies,” demanding that immigrants, particularly Muslims, integrate into secular Danish culture. The party supported the conservative ruling coalition’s efforts to restrict immigration, including attempts to send migrants back to their countries of origin, limit refugee resettlement and ban burqas and veils. They even supported legislation to demarcate immigrant “ghettos,” where residents are subject to Danish-centric educational requirements and harsher legal penalties than the general Danish population. Frederiksen explained such policies as fidelity to the social contract, arguing that investments in the welfare state must be accompanied by sincere efforts to forge a foundational common culture.
Objectional as Frederiksen’s policies may be to many liberals, they worked as electoral strategy. Her coalition won a majority in the 2019 parliamentary election; the Danish People’s Party lost more than half of its representation. Once in power, the Social Democrats eased some of the anti-immigration policies they had supported while in opposition, while passing legislation to limit carbon emissions and increase social welfare spending. They are not the only left-wing party to have found success by knitting a tactical retreat on immigration to assertive support for social welfare: Jacinda Ardern, the Kiwi Prime Minister and an international feminist hero, allied with the anti-immigration New Zealand First Party to form her first governing coalition.
How could the Democrats or Republicans emulate the success of parties abroad to break out of their own rut? Incorporating a new swathe of voters, while maintaining core constituencies, would be a tricky maneuver for either party to pull off. But, as the examples from abroad suggest, it is possible.
In a 2016 post-mortem of the US presidential election, political scientist Lee Drutman plotted voter preferences on a two-dimensional scatterplot. The two axes measured economic and social/identity attitudes along a liberal to conservative spectrum. Interestingly, Drutman found that respondents skewed liberal in the former category but conservative in the latter. The second most common location for respondents within the scatterplot’s four quadrants was economically liberal, socially conservative—a category poorly represented by the polarized US party system. Such voters were nevertheless key, Drutman concluded, to Trump’s 2016 victory. Indeed, although Trump’s most notable legislative accomplishment, a corporate tax cut, was consistent with traditional Republican laissez faire principles, he campaigned on economic themes more commonly associated with the left, including protections for Social Security, direct negotiations between Medicare and pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices and an interventionist industrial policy.
According to Drutman, voters who are economically liberal but socially conservative constitute nearly 30 percent of the electorate. They don’t fit neatly into either party, but, as in the UK and Denmark, they form the largest persuadable pool of uncommitted voters. The implications are clear: to win their support, Republicans need to shed some of their economically conservative positions, while the Democrats should pursue social moderation.
Such a compromise might prove easiest for Republicans. The 2020 election results suggest that many minority voters, assumed to be decisively alienated by Trump’s racism and xenophobia, were in fact receptive to his campaign. Imagine how many more might respond to a more consistent, dignified entreaty reminiscent of George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism—which did indeed win many Latino supporters. As astute and ambitious conservatives have observed, the Republican Party’s voters are now overwhelmingly working class and increasingly multi-ethnic.
The issue on which Republicans could most effectively cede ground is health care: their inability to devise an alternative to Obamacare proved their undoing in the 2018 midterms. It was a cudgel with which moderate Democrats bludgeoned Republicans. Accepting the welfare state, at least in some forms, would allow Republicans to regain their edge with older voters and cater to the kitchen table concerns of their working class constituents. Trump’s 2016 primary triumph shows that the Republican rank and file do not share the laissez faire absolutism that animates many of the party’s elites. If a Republican presidential candidate were to emulate Trump’s 2016 campaign, without the indiscipline and petty cruelty, he or she would stand an excellent chance of crashing through the Democrats’ Rust Belt “Blue Wall” and reestablishing the party’s dominance in the Southwest.
Democrats can take heart that their economic proposals are fairly popular with voters. Health care and expanding Social Security should rank high as party members think through which policies to prioritize and which to sacrifice in pursuit of a larger coalition. On social issues, however, Democrats, and the broader culture with which the party is identified, have become increasingly out of touch. The nuttier aspects of cultural leftism—such as the excuses made for the defund the police slogan and for the looting and rioting during the Black Lives Matter protests—proved a major vulnerability in 2020, as both moderate Democrats in the House and Trump television ads have highlighted.
Like Denmark’s Social Democrats, the Democratic Party could bring some social conservatives who like big government into their coalition by embracing stricter immigration law. This approach should not mean mimicking the Trump administration’s inhumane policies, nor emulating many of the laws enacted in Denmark—some of which, were they to become law in the US, would blatantly violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. It would entail supporting tighter border controls, advocating punishments for businesses that employ undocumented immigrants and reducing visas and work permits, particularly for low-skilled workers. It is no coincidence that the two greatest expansions of the American welfare state—the New Deal and the Great Society—were passed during periods when federal law imposed severe limits on immigration. However, such policies, once seen by many American leftists, including Bernie Sanders, as a sensible corollary to a generous welfare state, are unlikely to gain acceptance within a Democratic party committed to ethnic and racial diversity, particularly given its increasingly woke left wing.
The Democrats could also give ground on gun control, a cultural issue in the United States that liberals elsewhere in the world are lucky not to confront. Here, the Supreme Court’s newly entrenched conservative majority makes passing federal gun control legislation that will survive judicial review a near impossibility. Democrats in rural America face a terrible disadvantage on this issue: despite its moral primacy, the practical impossibility of achieving gun control reform makes it a prime candidate to jettison.
Will either party evaluate its priorities and make the ideological compromises that might allow American politics to escape its fifty-year rut? It certainly would not be unprecedented in US history: two of the twentieth century’s most successful presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, built popular support by accepting shifts in the public consensus and adjusting their agendas accordingly.
Making major changes to party policy is much harder in a presidential than a parliamentary system of government, however. While American party leaders coordinate policy positions, representatives ultimately choose how to run their own races, with considerable leeway to depart from official party platforms. Party unity, particularly among Democrats, would likely dissolve if party leaders challenged the ossified consensus. Unless they intervene in primary elections, a risky use of political capital, they cannot replace recalcitrant members, as Boris Johnson did with the Tories who undercut his first effort to pass a Brexit bill. Perhaps most dauntingly, most members of Congress worry far more about their party primary than their general election due to the low number of genuinely competitive seats, partly caused by the success of gerrymandering. Their reelection generally relies more on maintaining the loyalty of past supporters than cultivating new allies. In short, the interests of individual members are at odds with those of the party as a whole.
When American party leaders have made major compromises, the decision has often followed a series of defeats that weakened resistance to change among the party membership. Eisenhower accepted the New Deal because Republicans had lost six straight presidential elections; Clinton, only the second Democrat to win a presidential election since 1964, pursued his “triangulation” strategy following a historic rout in the 1994 midterm elections. Compromise in US politics tends to be a last resort, a path out of the wilderness, rather than a pre-emptive shift to take the offensive. The mirage of total control is a powerful deterrent.
If American politics remains in its rut, deepening the frustration of citizens whom democracy is failing, other alternatives will arise. In fact, they are already here. The Republican Party can still achieve a legitimate majority, but the possibility that it will win by authoritarian means instead increases by the day, as its leaders’ fidelity to democratic norms steadily wanes. A GOP that embraces a populist economics might do so not as a play for electoral gains but to guarantee a corrupt bargain with a populace that has chosen to favor economic well-being and a racialized social contract over liberal democracy. In doing so, it would emulate the example of right-wing autocrats in Poland, Hungary and Turkey, whose commitment to generous social spending is sealed by ethnonational solidarity rather than shared liberal principles.
We have four years to restore the American social contract. After that, it may be too late.