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Can Democrats break America’s political stalemate?

Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) leads President Biden as he arrives to the Capitol for a luncheon with Senate Democrats to discuss an infrastructure plan on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.
Greg Nash

It was inspiring to watch a scrappy U.S. men’s soccer team battle mighty England to a 0-0 draw in the World Cup’s first round. But let’s face it: Americans have little use for moral victories — we want to score and win.  

It’s time we applied that principle to our national politics. Since 2000, the competition between Democrats and Republicans for governing power has been stuck in a virtual tie. Tenuous control of the White House and Congress keeps oscillating back and forth because U.S. voters are reluctant to entrust either party with a big or lasting majority.

When neither party can win a popular mandate for change, it’s hard for our country to make sustained progress in any direction. American democracy seems trapped in a political doom loop of intensifying polarization, identity-fueled tribalism and parity between two minority parties.

As the parties migrate toward their respective ideological poles, they vacate the pragmatic center and get smaller. Amplified by social media, dogmatic and extremist voices drown out temperate ones and drive out independents, who now constitute roughly a third of the electorate.

Elected officials who try to find common ground are deemed disloyal by their party and invite primary challenges. In fact, U.S. policymakers are more likely to lose their seats in primaries than general elections. 

Evenly balanced, geographically segregated, the parties increasing resemble Appalachian clans locked in a blood feud. And the battleground they fight over has shrunk drastically, to the same four or five swing states that determine which party ekes out wins every two years.

The voters’ split decision in last month’s midterms elated Democrats, but it was a perfect confirmation of this partisan deadlock. While holding the Senate, Democrats lost the national popular vote by three points (51 percent-48 percent) and saw further erosion in their Hispanic, Asian and Black support. And the president’s job approval ratings remain in the cellar.

In “The Bitter End,” political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch and Lynn Vavreck predict that one of the parties will have to suffer a landslide loss to arrest this “calcification” of U.S. politics.

Today’s cycle of narrow wins and losses doesn’t give either party strong incentives to change course, since this year’s loser could plausibly be back on top two years later. But the same dynamics dictate that they probably won’t be in power for long or have a majority big enough to do big things.  

That’s why Democrats need a new strategy for breaking America’s political stalemate. That can be done only by dramatically expanding their coalition. Feeding activists more “unapologetically progressive” catnip to boost turnout won’t work, because there’s no leftwing majority in America. In fact, it’s more likely to further alienate the minority working-class voters who are already drifting away from the party.

The first step toward a solid Democratic governing majority is to stop hemorrhaging these voters. The second is to consolidate the party’s hold on independents, who broke modestly their way in the midterms. The third, and most difficult, is to start whittling away at the GOP’s enormous margins among white working-class voters.

Independents in swing states recoiled from the GOP assault on abortion rights as well as the anti-democratic extremism of Trump-endorsed election deniers. A third Trump White House run, on a platform of raw political vengeance, presents Democrats with a golden opportunity to make deeper inroads among moderate and Republican-leaning independents. 

When it comes to swaying working-class voters, however, Democrats are bumping up against a ceiling. “The cultural left has managed to associate the Democratic party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter,” says Ruy Teixeira, a liberal political analyst.

Such views are deeply unpopular across lines of race and ethnicity. Black, Hispanic and Asian voters, for example, are strongly opposed to “defunding the police,” even as members of the House’s leftwing “squad” continue to demand it. They want more police, vigorous prosecution of violent criminals and humane but effective action to stop the growth of homeless encampments.

The Democrats’ ceiling, moreover, isn’t just cultural. Their economic message also reflects the ideological predilections of college-educated professionals and urban elites who fixate on the iniquities of capitalism and wealth redistribution rather than the aspirations of non-college voters for economic growth and abundant opportunities for good jobs and upward mobility.

The same goes for the left’s fanciful “Green New Deal,” the environmental equivalent of a Soviet-style Five-Year Plan for a state-directed reordering of the U.S. economy. Working-class voters will support reasonable steps to combat climate change. But it’s far from their top priority, and they see little merit in abolishing fuels like natural gas, which is key to any realistic clean energy transition as well as a source of well-paid production jobs.

So, Democrats face a momentous choice. They can stay their current course and hope the pendulum swings back their way in 2024. With Trump rampaging across the political landscape, it’s certainly possible they could recapture the House (though the Senate looks iffy) and hold the White House. But given their low cultural and economic ceilings, they’d likely be hampered by the same narrow margins and constrained ambitions that have plagued them for two decades.

Or Democrats can aim higher by embracing a tiebreaking politics of persuasion. That’s the harder course, entailing as it does difficult conversations with progressive activists and reorienting party policies around more empathy toward working class voters. But the prize – the political realignment America needs to break out of today’s partisan and ideological stasis – is worth the effort.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags 2022 midterms 2024 election Democratic Party John Sides partisanship the squad

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