Why our parties can’t govern

In the U.S., political parties are supposed to be coalitions, not movements.

What’s the difference?

In a coalition, you are expected to agree on one big thing. If you support the party’s candidate — for whatever reason — you’re one of us. No further questions. In a movement, you’re expected to agree on everything — not just which candidate you support, but also positions on government spending and foreign policy and race relations and vaccine mandates and filibuster reform. Disagree on anything and you can be banished from the movement. You’re not one of us.

Our parties started becoming more ideologically uniform a long time ago, back in the 1960s. Democrats embraced civil rights and made it clear that racists — who had been tolerated in the Democratic Party since the Civil War — were no longer welcome. The anti-Vietnam war movement said the same thing about war hawks. At the same time, Barry Goldwater defined the Republican Party as an exclusively conservative party and embraced the radical right (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”).

Since the 1960s, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have gone the way of the dodo bird. They have become nearly extinct in their native habitats (liberal Republicans in the Northeast, conservative Democrats in the South).

The trend toward ideological conformity didn’t start with Donald Trump, but he accelerated it. These days, if you want to be a Republican candidate, you don’t just have to embrace Trump: You have to accept “the big steal” — the view that Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election but was denied victory because the election was rigged. Otherwise, Trump will find a primary candidate to run against you no matter how much it damages the party’s chances of winning.

Democrats are not so extreme. President Biden is an old-fashioned Democrat in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. During his first year as president, Biden proclaimed his support for bipartisanship and unity — values that don’t have much appeal to Republicans.

One consequence: In a Statista poll taken in December, by 62 to 38 percent, Americans called Biden “a weak president;” 40 percent called Biden “very weak.” Only 12 percent called him “very strong.” That’s the main reason Biden’s job ratings are so low. Americans want a president to be strong and decisive like Ronald Reagan. Not weak and “wishy-washy” like Jimmy Carter. Imagine how Lyndon Johnson would have dealt with Joe Manchin. Or Kyrsten Sinema.

Biden’s decline in the polls began in August 2021, with the catastrophic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Losing a war in such a humiliating way was bound to have serious political consequences. It made the president of the United States look weak and hapless.

Right now, Biden’s signature domestic program, Build Back Better, appears doomed. Democrats are certain to be infuriated if voting rights — a defining cause for the party — also fails to pass.

Meanwhile, extremism has found a home in the Republican Party. How else to interpret Republicans’ acceptance of what was effectively a coup attempt on Jan. 6, 2021 — an effort to nullify an election and keep Donald Trump in power? What saved democracy was the fact that U.S. military leaders refused to intervene.

It is difficult to think of a coup anywhere that has succeeded without the active or tacit support of the military. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had said before the election, “We have established a very long, 240-year tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics.” Thank goodness that tradition held in 2021.

Trump seems to have complete control of the Republican Party right now. That could be a problem for Republicans because Trump has little support outside the conservative movement. The best Republican strategy for dealing with Trump appears to be to ignore him. Move on. That’s how Republican Glenn Youngkin won the race for governor of Virginia last year.

Democrats, however, need Trump — to mobilize their base, especially if they see Biden as a disappointment. That is very likely why President Biden put aside pleas for bipartisanship in his speech on Jan. 6 and accused “the former president” of spreading “a web of lies” about the 2020 election and putting his own interest above the country’s interest.

Republicans want the 2022 midterms to be a referendum on Biden. That is what midterms have always been. As a result, Democrats are very likely to lose their bare majority in the House of Representatives. The slightest tilt could give Republicans control of the Senate as well.

Trump supporters see Biden as the enemy because, in their view, he won by a cheat. Trump is defining his party’s agenda as revenge for that cheat.

But revenge is a personal agenda. It’s not a governing agenda.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

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