Following one of the most divisive years in politics, one thing is certain: both parties are fragmented and struggling to unify around a common party platform. In the coming years, whichever political coalition can re-tether itself to reality and sanity will prove dominant in the years to come.
To predict imminent dominance by either political party seems a bit, well, insane given that the 2020 election has underscored that America is deeply divided and that the two sides are in positions of near parity. Moreover, our partisan divisions are increasingly overlapping with some of our most fraught social divisions—those that run along the lines of race, religion, and geography.
However, the underlying roots of our partisan divisions may not run as deep as we think. In fact, a new study by Populace called the “American Aspirations Index” found that “there is stunning agreement on the long-term national values and priorities that Americans believe should characterize the country moving forward.” While there are still some key divisions in partisan issues like immigration, both Biden and Trump supporters share a sense of urgency around core issues like healthcare, helping the middle class, infrastructure, and criminal justice reform.
Still, despite these underlying agreements, political science literature has reached something approaching a consensus that partisan division in America is more the result of negative polarization than anything else. That is, Republicans and Democrats are voting against the other side more than they are voting for their own side. Moreover, as Republicans vote against Democrats and Democrats vote against Republicans, they are principally propelled by their fear of the most extreme elements housed on the other side of the aisle. As much as GOP voters may disagree with centrist Democrats on certain issues, when casting their ballots, they are voting more against progressives like AOC more than moderates like Joe Manchin. The same goes for Democrats, who tend to loath Josh Hawley, but respect mavericks like Mitt Romney.
As such, on both the left and the right, flirtations with extremism are weakening the potentially broad-based appeals of both liberalism and conservatism. What undergirds the equitable and nasty partisan division that currently defines American politics is each party’s willingness to house and support their own version of unreality — a radical faction that may motivate elements of the base, but whose principal effect is to alienate roughly half of the entire electorate.
We might finally be approaching a point at which one of the two major parties will in effect shout “Enough!” and return to the reality-based version of itself: Either of the two parties will cast off the extremist elements to which it has been offering safe harbor. In doing so, that party will take much of the wind out of the sails of negative polarization.
On a practical level, whichever party follows this course will begin consistently notching electoral victories, in large part, because they will attract the large bloc of independent voters who are craving steady, rational policymaking. New data from Ballot Access News, which tracks registrations in 31 states, found that independents account for 29.09 percent of voters and now surpass Republicans. Several years ago in 2001, registered Republicans eclipsed independents by roughly 10 percentage points.
Once one party throws in its lot with reality, the other party will respond in kind. Conversely, if neither party flees from its own version of fantasy, a possible third party will soon arise to fill the reality void in our politics.
This is not to say that either of the two parties will simply tack towards the ideological middle. Surely, the work of re-tethering to reality will entail moderation on some, perhaps many, policies. Last week, for example, Senator Joe Manchin was able to single handedly halt President Biden’s 1.9 trillion-dollar COVID-19 relief bill until the scope of the stimulus checks were paired back.
The essence of the shift to the middle will be in harmonizing liberal or conservative initiatives with certain facts and principles that Americans broadly accept and understand to be true. For example, despite the rise of “wokeness,” “anti-racism,” and “successor ideology” on the left, the vast majority of Americans — black and white, left and right — still accept the equal and inherent worth of the individual (no matter a person’s background, talents, intelligence, or outward-facing characteristics) as a fundamental truth of human existence. They may differ on how to reckon with the fact that our nation’s history is rife with failures to live up to this truth, of course.
Some may favor limited affirmative actions to make up for the enduring wrongs of the failures of the past. Others may view such correctives as contravening the very principle of equal liberty and dignity. However deep these differences of opinion may be, though, they are not fundamental; they do not evince a divergence on the core principle of the primacy of the individual. In sum, the overwhelming majority is still a far cry away from the ascendant position within portions of the left that the grievances of the group ought to take precedence over the rights of individuals.
Similarly, on account of common sense and experience, Americans are quite aware of the human propensity to wrong and harm one another. This is why Americans overwhelmingly support funding police forces. Yet too many in the Democratic Party have played footsie with those who are willing to deny such principles and reality. By failing to renounce the more extreme demands and slogans of “The Squad” and party-affiliated activists, Democrats routinely alienate a good deal of would-be voters from their fold.
On the other side, the Republicans are extremely guilty of allowing unreality to seep into their public messaging and policy-making. From his lies about the size of his Inauguration Day crowd (defended by Kellyanne Conway as “alternative facts”) to his shameless 2020 election-related conspiracy theory peddling, Donald Trump often assaulted the role of truth in our public life, culminating in an actual Trumpist assault on Capitol. Apart from the most committed of Trump’s base, the vast majority of Americans — both Democrat and Republican — have been disgusted by all this. Why? Due to the simple fact that the majority of us do not structure our lives around fantasies. To make it in this world, we have to reckon with this world. Thankfully, many of us still ask the same of our political leaders.
Both parties are capable of fully rediscovering reality. Despite the hostile takeover of the Republican Party by the conspiracy theory-prone Donald Trump and the rise of utopic thinking on the fringes of the political left, both Republicans and Democrats have it within themselves to resist the pulls of ideology, wishful thinking, and conspiracy theorizing run amok in favor of reality. After all, both American liberalism (in the New Deal sense of the word) and American conservatism (in the National Review-inspired, Reaganite sense of the word) have had a commendable relationship with truth and reality through the years. Yes, they fought bitterly and had their deep cultural, political, economic, and moral disagreements, but neither side ever wantonly aimed to overrun the dictates of truth and reality in the way that certain elements of the progressive left and Trumpism manifestly have.
The most pressing, near-term question of American politics will be which of the two parties can best advance their ideological objectives within the confines of reality. Democrats can push for police reform, strengthen the welfare state, and combat climate change, but they will only prove successful if they do so without betraying most Americans’ straightforward (and sound) understandings of justice, truth, history, and human nature. The same goes for Republicans with respect to whatever their post-Trump policy objectives prove to be.
One of the two parties will meet this challenge and reap the electoral rewards. If neither does, a successful third party will be with us in due course. Either way, I am hopeful that reality and truth will eventually prevail in our politics once more.