The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Irony of Our Polarized Age

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the economy during a speech in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building’s South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, D.C., November 23, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The intense polarization of this period in American politics results in a lot of close elections and narrow majorities. And yet, that same polarization makes it hard for both parties to respond appropriately to the message and meaning of a narrow election or a narrow majority. This is a key dynamic underlying the apparent collapse of the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” agenda, at least in its aggressively partisan form.

A close election and a narrow majority call for a modest agenda and for some bipartisan policy-making. That’s inherent in the logic of democracy: A close election means you don’t have a clear mandate and a lot of the public isn’t with you. And it’s inherent in the logic of our particular system of government, which guards large minorities against small majorities and often requires some cross-partisan accommodation for significant policy change.

But the political psychology of a bitterly partisan time firmly resists modest agendas and bipartisan policy-making. The sense of apocalyptic panic that drives our politics now persuades partisans that it’s impossible to work with the other party (despite obvious evidence to the contrary, like two years of huge pandemic-response bills or this year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, among other measures). And the same sense also persuades those same partisans that their own agenda — unattenuated by naïve compromises and unsullied by any loss of nerve — is utterly essential to the future of the country.

This leaves today’s two major parties incapable of processing the implications of today’s elections. Sometimes that incapacity takes truly dire forms. Over the last five years, each party has lost a narrow presidential election and gone on to essentially pretend the loss didn’t really happen. The Democrats blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss on misinformation on Facebook or Russian psyops. To explain Donald Trump’s loss, Republicans reached for even more delusional conspiracies about large-scale election fraud that wasn’t there. Both forms of denial were only possible because of the narrowness of the election in question, and yet both contributed to the intense fear and mistrust of the other party that makes it hard to respond appropriately to a close election result.

And each party has also managed to avoid learning from the narrowness of the presidential election it won in this same period. This is how the Democrats ended up looking at pretty much the narrowest congressional majority in history and seeing an FDR-style opportunity for transformative governance. The very narrowness of their majority meant that they had no margin for error in pursuing that agenda. And this also meant that the legislation that embodied their ambition had to be, in essence, a map of their coalition rather than a tool for addressing a problem the public prioritizes or appealing to any constituency beyond their base. Since it was a map of a coalition that is unpopular with half the public, the legislation didn’t prove appealing to people who weren’t already committed partisan progressives. And unfortunately for the Democrats, that category includes several Democratic members of Congress.

That doesn’t mean the bill didn’t have a chance. It surely did, and it came close to passing. Some form of it may yet pass next year. But it does mean that the bill has always been a symptom of the dysfunction that afflicts our politics now, rather than a remedy for the problems Americans face.

This is also why the response within the Democratic coalition to the setback the BBB agenda has suffered is taking the form of outrage at the endangered moderates who are essential to their narrow majority rather than at the safe-seat progressives who are threatening it. The notion that the bill was smothered by one senator’s opposition literally ignores the existence of half the Senate — since after all there are (at least) 51 senators opposed to the bill. Ignoring half of our politics is pretty much how both parties are getting through this period.

That’s one reason why Republicans shouldn’t take too much solace from the Democrats’ anguish. Some schadenfreude is appropriate, of course — it’s hard not to relish such a well-deserved failure of the other party. But Republicans are at least as guilty of ignoring all that recent elections have been screaming at us to notice. Even now, almost all Republican politicians are at least passively abiding (if not actively encouraging) the self-evidently stupid, reckless, and self-destructive prospect of Donald Trump running for president again — a prospect not only poisonous for our beloved country but also plainly abhorrent to the voters Republicans should want to win. But like the Democrats reacting to the fate of BBB by raging at Joe Manchin and promising to double down, many Republicans take a narrow loss as a reason to keep doing the same thing.

A bigger loss for either party would stand a better chance of getting it to change its ways. That’s part of what explains Manchin himself, of course: In his home state, his party lost the last presidential election by 38 points. But close elections are one of the symptoms of our intense division, so election results don’t seem likely in the near term to help bring our parties to their senses.

Generally speaking, the desire to win elections can be counted on to motivate political professionals and even many devoted partisans to respond to voter pressures. But the political psychology of this supposedly populist period actually makes it very hard for voters to be heard. The pros and the partisans have come to understand our politics as a sharp, binary choice, but close elections call for a politics of far more fine tuning. So even as it creates close elections, the partisanship of this era makes it nearly impossible for politicians to govern accordingly.

Politicians that grasp this have a real opportunity, and could advance their party’s agenda more than the blinkered partisans can. The recent Virginia governor’s election offers Republicans a hint of what that might look like. Joe Manchin offers such a hint for the Democrats. The infrastructure bill offers lessons to both. But so far it doesn’t look like either party is all that interested in taking a hint. Ironically, as long as each continues to ignore reality the other can afford to do the same.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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