One year ago, as the nation reeled from the horror of January 6th, some dared to hope that with Donald Trump out of the White House, political sanity and stability were on the horizon. It was not to be, because our political party system – the seventh in our history – has become fundamentally dysfunctional and dangerous. And in 2021, the first year of what should be the post-Trump era, this bad situation got even worse.
The Founders feared and hated political parties. Most Americans say “the two major parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.” People love to hate parties, but there has never been a modern democracy without political parties. It is inevitable that political actors will congregate based on shared beliefs. It is vital, then, that a nation-state’s party system be healthy and provide voters with reasonable choices that the majority can embrace, or at least tolerate.
Most citizens, even those living in democracies, are passive about their politics. They wait until just before election day to consider the choices the parties have presented them. Those choices — made by activists, party officials, and in most of the U.S., base voters who choose to participate in primary elections — establish the parameters of public policy. Even in a primary system, the choices are narrowed by who decides to run, and who can win a low-turnout contest dominated by their party’s most ardent supporters.
Fear of defeat is supposed to compel parties to offer mainstream policies and candidates that can attract majority support. But in our bizarre two-party system (in which minorities can win and govern via the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate, and the sorting of liberal votes into big cities, and in which it is difficult to form a third party), a party doesn’t need to be popular. It just needs to be less unpopular than the other party. It’s like the old joke about two men trying to outrun a bear. To survive, you don’t need to be faster than the bear, just faster than the other guy.
For most of our history, the two-party system served us reasonably well. But in 2016 and 2020, Bernie Sanders’ socialism and Donald Trump’s nationalism rocked our party system. The Clinton/Obama Democratic establishment hung on to power but continues to be besieged. But the GOP, dominated by Reaganites since 1976, fell to Donald Trump and the culture war populists who had long been on the party’s fringes. Let’s look at what happened to the two parties during 2021 and where our party system stands as the 2022 midterms approach.
The Democrats won the 2020 elections, but that didn’t end the conflicts between moderates and progressives. Immediately after the election, centrists pointed the finger at progressives for close losses, especially in competitive U.S. House districts. Moderates know that allowing their party to be defined by labels like “socialism” and policies like “defund the police” leads to defeat in the suburbs. President Biden’s dropping approval rating, the losses in the recent Virginia elections, and Republican leads in generic ballot polls contribute to Democratic angst. The willingness and ability of moderates, especially Sen. Joe Manchin, to water down, if not outright defeat, progressive policy goals in the Build Back Better legislation infuriates the progressive base.
And the problems are not confined to Washington, D.C. The municipal elections in Seattle in 2021 were a case study in Democratic divisions. The party organization and liberal activists endorsed leftist candidates for mayor, city attorney, and city council, all of whom lost to more moderate alternatives endorsed by long-time establishment Democrats, including former governors. Primary battles between moderates and progressives are becoming commonplace in the Seattle area. The Democratic Party is at war with itself in one of its most reliable liberal bastions.
Even as moderates continue to win most of the primary battles, the persistence of progressives is pushing the party to the left. Joe Biden’s agenda — including universal prekindergarten and community college, paid family and medical leave, child care and elder care support, and an expansion of Medicare — flies in the face of Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over.” Ominously, independents increasingly view Democrats as too extreme, and more extreme than Trump’s Republicans.
Last year deepened and widened the fissures in the Democratic Party. They head into the midterms divided, dispirited, behind in the polls, with an unpopular message and their party’s future in doubt. Republicans, on the other hand, are energized, confident, and united. No one should be fooled by the brave opposition of Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. There is no Republican civil war.
Republicans didn’t reject the January 6th insurrection: They rationalized it and assimilated it into their message. Republicans in 2021 embraced the big lie of the stolen election, resisted efforts to investigate the insurrection, and blocked voting rights legislation in Washington while enacting laws at the state level making it harder to vote and easier to steal elections. Extremists like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert run wild on national TV while the surviving establishment figures cower in silence. Donald Trump remains, by far, the most popular and influential figure in the Republican party.
In May, back when some hope remained, over 150 Republican or former Republican leaders and I issued a manifesto and launched a new political movement, a Maquis-like resistance movement. We said our goal was to “either reimagine a party dedicated to our founding ideals or else hasten the creation of such an alternative.” In other words, over time, we seek to either restore or replace the current Republican Party.
Alas, as we head into 2022, the party shows no signs of restoration. The Republican Party is now run by people who support Trumpist proto-fascism, or are willing to tolerate it to advance their careers and achieve policy objectives. On the current trajectory, it seems likely that our movement will have to turn more and more towards option B: the creation of something new on the center-right.
Last year solidified the Republican Party as the party of Trump. They stand on the precipice of winning back at least the House in 2022, and they seem perfectly willing to employ authoritarian tactics to achieve the ends demanded by their white Christian-nationalist base.
America’s party system, driven now by tribal conflicts over race and culture, is completely broken. Republicans are a danger to democracy and the Constitution, yet Democrats seem unable or unwilling to unite behind a centrist agenda to stop them. Republicans will likely win the 2022 elections, which will embolden them to stay the Trumpist course and further divide and confuse the Democrats.
John Adams famously said, “there is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties.” Adams and the other founders would have preferred a future without parties, but we now know that is unrealistic. Perhaps what our system needs is more parties and more choices. Maybe the current sickness of our party system will finally move us towards that needed realignment.
This article first appeared in the Niskanen Center’s newsletter.