Polarization and progress in US politics
The divisions in American society have grown to record levels in recent years, the result of a process of polarization that has taken place faster than in other democracies. We have heard a lot about “populism,” “tribalism,” and in general the notion that cooperation across different groups is becoming impossible. In US politics, personal attacks, demonization, and violent attitudes have permeated many areas of debate. People don’t trust the other side, and this generates a vicious circle where politicians find themselves locked into a more adversarial approach, in which reasonable dialogue becomes more difficult.
Joe Biden was elected president one year ago, with a margin of victory of 7 million votes, but the results of the 2020 election were still a shock to those who thought that the Republican Party would be widely rejected due to the unpalatable personality and methods of Donald Trump. Sure, enough people abandoned Trump to keep him from being re-elected (although just 43,000 votes across three states could have shifted the Electoral College), but the Republicans did better than expected in Congress, and are almost certain to regain control of at least the House of Representatives in next year’s mid-terms. The number of swing voters – those who change their mind between presidential elections – is now stably below 10%, meaning that the vast majority of the voting population is set in their convictions, and appears less and less open to considering the views of the other side.
For those of us who welcomed the populist reaction against an arrogant establishment that spread across the United States and Europe starting in 2016, spurred by decades of policies that damaged the middle and lower classes, the situation could seem disheartening. Over the years, I have repeatedly emphasized the fact that somewhere around 8-9 million people voted for both Barack Obama and then Donald Trump, to make the point that the revolt was not so much about right-left or racial divisions, but about those who felt left out, reacting against the perception of a system that benefitted only the elites.
Now, we find ourselves in a situation where no Republicans are willing to vote for President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, despite it containing measures that would help many of their constituents, and some of the few Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill have even received death threats for doing so. Are those who seemed driven by anti-globalization and anti-Wall Street sentiment incapable of breaking free of more superficial divisions in order to make progress on such important issues?
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There is no shortage of blame to be attributed to individual actors in the American political system. Trump’s obsessive desire to prove that he is “winning” drives him to continue his scorched-earth approach towards politics, putting immense pressure on Republicans not to break with him, even when his positions are patently dishonest (such as regarding the results of the 2020 election). If he were able to put his ego aside for a moment, the former president could actually take a victory lap, and point to all of the areas where he succeeded in changing US politics, such that the Biden administration is moving in a similar direction on issues such as industrial policy, foreign wars, and China.
Then there are the politicians who have exacerbated partisanship in Washington. An obvious example is the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell. It is hard to think of anyone who has more brazenly pursued party goals over the public interest in recent years. Most famously, he wielded his power to block Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016 for months, claiming the need to wait for the next election – an action he later called “one of my proudest moments” – only to rush through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett just one week before the presidential vote in 2020.
The Supreme Court is indeed emblematic of the new level of polarization. In the past, most justices were confirmed to the bench with comfortable majorities, while more recent nominees have gotten through with party-line votes and often acrimonious debates. Despite the protestations of the justices themselves, who have taken to expressing their views in public, the Court is understandably seen as increasingly politicized, a key player in making policy indirectly when partisanship generates gridlock in Congress.
Democrats are certainly not without blame. First, they failed to recognize the power of Trump’s political messaging, focusing almost entirely on the troubling aspects of his personality, and then, they spent years treating him as illegitimate while using hoked-up propaganda (Russiagate) to try to remove him from office; and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also not above blocking useful legislation to deny Trump a political victory. Fortunately, there were some in the party who sought to focus on the underlying socio-economic issues, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but it was hard to escape the vortex of anti-Trumpism, which mostly burned the possibility to build bridges with those on the other side whose grievances are not all that different. It might have seemed worth it to get rid of Trump, but political campaigns have consequences, and now it is evident just how deep the divisions have become.
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The results of this process are worrying, starting with the serious danger to the stability of American institutions. Trust in Congress remains low (although it hit lower points during the initial reaction to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), trust in the Supreme Court is plummeting, and worst of all, in the aftermath of the 2020 elections things are if anything getting even worse, with continued excesses in the “redistricting” process and a concerted Republican effort to prepare to contest future elections, that could conceivably lead to a constitutional crisis in the near term.
Then there are the new culture wars. The ill-conceived approach of focusing on cultural and social differences with Trump supporters rather than the fight against the policies of post-industrial financialization, has helped elevate clashes over political correctness/wokeness to the pedestal of political conflict in the country. In education, the good intention of raising awareness of structural racial problems at times degenerates into emphasizing differences, while the insistence on a militant pro-LGBTQ campaign down to the level of elementary schools ultimately encourages more division. This embrace of identity politics also offers Republicans an easy way to win elections by playing the grievance card, even when their economic policies are unpopular.
It would be naive to think that cultural questions can be divorced from socioeconomic issues, but the discussion of how to address the very real problems that affect American society cannot involve the assumption that anyone who does not accept the most extreme proposals is automatically racist or approves of discrimination. Dialogue is premised on a minimum level of respect, however difficult that may seem given the need for serious reforms to address long-standing injustices and guarantee civil rights.
So where does all this leave the US as a country? On one level, those who welcomed the challenge to the neoliberal world order can legitimately fear that as the populist wave recedes, American politics will revert to the patterns of the past in which neoliberal centrists will pursue policies that benefit the elites and hurt the working class. This is already apparent in the Republican Party, and the Democrats, despite having a desire to “go big” with social policy, are being forced to reckon with centrists who worry about the price tag of the new programs.
Taking a broader view, though, allows us to see that while there is a risk of falling back into the confines of a debate that ignores the true needs of the country, the parameters of the overall discussion have changed. The populist revolt and the pandemic have made it abundantly clear that the government can intervene rapidly and effectively to avoid disaster, without worrying about public debt; the effects of fragmented supply chains and dependence on foreign production in key sectors has spurred a return to elements of industrial policy; and the rise of China has made it clear that the United States loses real power when we have elevated inequality, when we are absent from key economic sectors, and when our foreign policy hurts, rather than helps other countries.
The practical results of this recognition in the US institutions are evident: a withdrawal from disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East, increased funding for fundamental scientific research and innovation, a review of supply chains and production in key economic sectors, and a new round of investment to modernize the country’s infrastructure. These policies have gained considerable support in public institutions, due to the recognition of the global challenges that face us in the coming decades.
The social spending in Biden’s agenda is an important addition, and we need to remember that all of these policies will play out gradually over the next decade, so even if politics descends into 2000s culture war redux in the coming years, the lasting changes wrought by the reaction to the failures of the past four decades will be felt over time. In conclusion, the risks from the current state of polarization in the US are significant, but it is clear that on some of the underlying reasons for today’s divisions, important progress is being made.