‘While there’s no doubt that the two main parties remain bitterly hostile to one another, new fault lines within them will take center-stage.’ Photograph: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images
No one faction is likely to prevail. Instead we can probably expect years of modest and incremental policy agenda
Everyone agrees that American political parties are deeply polarized. However, last week’s elections point to a new political dynamic. While there’s no doubt that the two main parties remain bitterly hostile to one another, new fault lines within them will take center-stage.
Intra-party factions have a long history in American politics and have often been engines of change. Emerging now is a four-way struggle between ideologically distinct factions, which may render compromise difficult.
The American political landscape increasingly resembles European multi-party systems, which rely on delicate and shifting coalitions that inevitably have a strong centrist bias. Looking under the hood of America’s two big parties, it is evident that the current factions have the potential to yield similar outcomes.
The main fault-line within the Democratic Party is well-known. There’s a deep programmatic divide between a progressive faction, advancing bold but controversial policy proposals such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and a more centrist party establishment, focused on electability and bi-partisanship.
Interestingly, both factions have claimed validation from the recent elections. Centrists point to Biden’s increased vote share among white males in the Rust Belt states as evidence that flipping swing-voters is the most reliable way to electoral success. Meanwhile, progressives underscore that their candidates did well in many congressional races, increased youth and minority turnout, and that the size of the so-called Squad almost doubled in the House.
Division within the Democratic party is likely to intensify. Biden has already signaled that he intends to govern by seeking to find common ground with the Republicans willing to work with his administration. This will frustrate progressives, who argue that moving towards the center is a recipe for losing further congressional seats in 2022.
Republicans are also divided. Despite losing the election, Trump has retained the loyalty of all but a rump of Never-Trump usual suspects who have been consistently critical of him. Clearly, Trump – or Trump-ism – aren’t going away. The President performed better than expected in these elections and is reportedly considering running again in 2024. So he will remain a powerful force within the party, savaging anyone willing to work with the Democrats.
Yet the rest of the Republican party did well electorally, picking up seats in the House and in state legislatures. If they also manage to retain control of the Senate, the prospect of scoring some policy victories may embolden a more pragmatic faction of Republicans, willing to cooperate with the Democrats. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has already made clear that a Biden administration would have to compromise, on Republican terms, or expect systematic obstruction.
The latent cleavage within the Republican Party mirrors the explicit one within the Democratic Party. In both parties, there is a radical wing ready to pour scorn on a more centrist one for opposite but ultimately symmetrical reasons: making too many concessions to the other side.
The consequence will be a four-way struggle, with only two concrete possibilities for effective government, both of which appear improbable. One is cooperation between the two centrist factions across party lines, which would have to crystallize around a moderate, pro-business agenda. While this is likely to please Wall Street, it is also sure to inflame the two more radical factions in both parties.
The other option – which depends on a Democratic capture of the Senate – is a leftward shift of the Democratic party. But that would surely alienate centrist Republicans, creating an unbridgeable gulf between the two parties.
All the other alternatives point to institutional gridlock. In fact, political scientists argue that such gridlock can be strategic when intra-partisan conflicts run deep: extreme factions on both sides encourage obstruction as a set-up for the next election, when they hope their side will increase its power at the ballot box. Refusing to make compromises can be good electoral strategy – even if it is bad for governing.
The paradox emerging from these elections is this: although ideological conflict is at a fever-pitch high, both between and within the parties, the most likely outcome remains a modest and incremental policy agenda.