001. – The state of politics I.

Joe Biden, the 46th President was inaugurated almost five months ago, so it is a good time to examine the state of politics in America. This post will discuss the two parties, and I will analyze the state of institutions in a later post.

Last November, Democrats managed to unseat the incumbent president, retain their majority in the House of Representatives and take control of the Senate. Even though Democrats run the executive branch and both chambers of the legislature, the country is divided. Moreover, both the Democratic and Republican parties are in turmoil. In this post I will share my thoughts on why both parties are struggling.

To understand the present, we have to look back to the 2020 election. There is no doubt Democrats achieved their main goal of defeating Donald Trump. On one hand, this looks like quite an achievement.  Only three incumbent Presidents before Trump have lost re-election since WWII, and only once between 1896 and 2020 has a party lost control over the executive branch after one term; in 1980 when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.  But from another perspective, the Democrat’s victory seems underwhelming. The Democratic Party barely unseated a president – who had approval ratings in the low 40s, in the midst of a pandemic, economic crisis and civil unrest. Not only did Republicans pick up seats in the House of Representatives, but there is a tie in the Senate, and the GOP did very well in state elections. Biden’s victory left the United States in almost the same situation as it was before the election. Its two parties have very deep ideological differences, the party in power has very slim majorities in Congress, and yet the President pursues a very ambitious agenda with little or no bipartisanship and compromise.

Both parties face unique dilemmas of their own. I list and explain these dilemmas below:

Democrats

1.      Who can win in 2024? Whoever the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 will be, their job will be to unite progressives, moderates and independents. In the last two presidential elections the Democrats nominated elder, moderate politicians who built their path to nomination by being linked to former popular presidents; Hillary Clinton is the wife of Bill Clinton and served as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, while Joe Biden was the Vice-President of Barack Obama. If Biden won’t run in 2024, his Vice President is likely to win the nomination. The question is, can Kamala Harris keep the Biden coalition together?

2.      The party is divided. There is a strong progressive movement within the Democratic Party, and it is facing a similar dilemma as Republicans did in the early 2010s with the Tea Party movement. Can the moderate wing of the party contain radicals by pursuing some of their policies? Will establishment candidates lose primaries to radicals if their agenda does not reflect much or any of the radical wing? If radical candidates get nominated, will they jeopardize the party’s chance for victory?

Power within the Democratic Party is shifting to the left. The President, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi are pursuing an ambitious agenda of progressive policies. While balancing between the different factions of their party they need to keep in mind that centrist and independent voters can easily be alienated if the party moves too far to the left. However, the establishment seems to have a tight grip on the party – as radical candidates fail to succeed in elections, the establishment itself is shifting to the left. In 2020, Donald Trump’s personal traits pushed a lot of voters away from the GOP. An agenda considered too progressive by moderates can push a lot of voters away from Democrats in 2022 and 2024.

3.      The Democratic Party has a demography problem. Dems have based their strategy on turning out minorities and women in huge numbers. In recent elections they managed to win decisively among minorities, but white working class and rural voters are fleeing from the party. Last year, Biden did well among minorities while he could also appeal to the white working class. Democrats need to realize that probably nobody else who ran for the nomination, could have done the same thing. By nominating Kamala Harris for Vice President, the party made her de facto successor to President Biden.  Getting minority and women’s votes might not be a big challenge for Harris, but losing too much support among working class whites can cost Dems the White House in 2024.

Republicans

1.      Will Donald Trump run in 2024? The former president keeps the Republican Party in limbo. It is unclear whether he will run again in 2024, so the party is not able to move on from the Trump era. Donald Trump is still very popular among Republicans and he did not lose last year’s election by a lot. Actually, Biden secured his Electoral College victory with razor thin margins in several states. Thus, Trump’s return in 2024 is more than likely. The two factors that might keep him in retirement are his age and a possible criminal prosecution or conviction.

2.      Who will be electable in 2024? Donald Trump is a very divisive political figure. He received more than 74 million votes last November, which is more than any presidential candidate ever received prior to 2020. But on the other hand, his opponent Joe Biden got more than 81 million votes, which is now the record. Re-nominating Donald Trump would be a risky endeavor for the GOP. He proved his ability to turn out masses both in his favor and against, as the 81 million votes Biden received were also the product of Trump, and not the fruit of Biden’s charisma. Trump’s popularity within the party is undisputed, but there is nevertheless an anti-Trump movement on the right. It is very unlikely that anybody can defeat Trump in the primaries if he decides to run, but a nasty infight within the GOP can do a lot of harm for their prospects in 2024. If the former President will not run, the most likely scenario is that the GOP will nominate a Trumpist or Trump loyalist to be President. Somebody less divisive might bring in new voters, but they might not be able to turn out key constituencies who helped Trump to victory in 2016.

3.      Does the GOP need an agenda? According to the latest news, Trump has begun to work on a “new Contract for America” with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In recent history Republicans have been kicked out of power in federal politics three times; in 1992, in 2008 and in 2020. After George H. W. Bush lost reelection in 1992, the party drafted a conservative legislative agenda named “Contract with America”. Republicans campaigned on this program in the 1994 midterms and they won a majority in the House after 40 years. In 2008, John McCain suffered a massive defeat to Barack Obama in his effort to succeed George W. Bush in the White House. In 2009, the Tea Party took off as a fiscally conservative movement within the GOP, and in 2010 many Tea Party-backed candidates helped Republicans to victory in the House of Representatives. However, the comprehensive policy paper in the 1990s and the ideological movement in the 2010s played a vital role in making Newt Gingrich and John Boehner Speaker of the House, Republicans fell short in their bid to oust the incumbent Democratic President both in 1996 and in 2012.

The 2020 election was different from the previous two I mentioned. Donald Trump was very close to getting re-elected to a second term, and the GOP barely lost its majority in the Senate while it picked up seats in the House. This time some Republicans could feel that they don’t have to rebuild their party, so there might be less enthusiasm to pursue an agenda.

4.      The Republican Party has a demography problem. After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, many argued that the GOP’s only way to become competitive again was to increase its support among minorities. In the 2010s, the party had several young, non-white rising stars including then Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley and US Senator Marco Rubio. Then came Donald Trump. Trump didn’t do much worse among minorities than Romney, while he managed to get large numbers of working-class whites vote for him. This was enough to win in 2016, but in 2020 Biden won back some blue-collar workers in the “Rust Belt”. Moreover, large Black and Latino turnout handed Democrats slim victories in the “Sun Belt”. It is not impossible that Republicans can win another presidential election by reviving the Trump coalition, but recent voting trends and demographic changes predict a grim future for the GOP unless they find a way to attract new voters outside of their traditional base.

The two parties face many other dilemmas, but I consider these to be the most important with regards to the upcoming elections. Many now ask, if both parties are in a turmoil, why don’t new parties emerge? Before I analyze the state of institutions, I will write about the two-party system in my next post.

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