This is sustainable only because elections are so close. Politicians learn big lessons from big losses or big wins, so neither of our parties has learned much in a long time, and neither can quite grasp that it just isn’t very popular and could easily lose the next election.
This dynamic has many causes — from the advent of party primaries to the evolution of the media and much in between. Polarization doesn’t have to mean deadlock, but a long-term pattern of growing negative polarization, in which each party sees the other as the country’s biggest problem, creates incentives for the parties to seek narrower but ideologically purer wins rather than build broader if less ideologically coherent coalitions.
Yet the pattern isn’t inevitable, and it’s crucial to see that the very closeness of elections blinds politicians to potential ways of breaking out of it. As the political scientist Frances Lee has shown, the minority party in Congress now always thinks it’s one election away from power and so sees no reason to change its appeal or to bargain to address the country’s longer-term needs. Younger politicians who have known only this period assume there is no other way — that short-termism is unavoidable and governing means frantically expending rather than patiently amassing political capital.
This also intensifies party cohesion. As the political scientist Daniel DiSalvo has argued, internal factions let parties evolve toward new voters and vice versa, but our era has seen fewer and weaker factions. Narrow elections invite strict unity, so the parties now hunt heretics rather than seek converts. Witness, for instance, the Arizona Republican and Democratic Parties censuring Gov. Doug Ducey and Senator Kyrsten Sinema for undermining party unity. Both parties act as if they have too many voters, rather than too few.
Breaking this pattern would have to start by acknowledging a truism: Bigger majorities are possible if politicians seek broader support. That sounds obvious, yet it has eluded our leaders for a generation because it requires seeing beyond our age of deadlock.
That doesn’t mean reaching for the center in a shallow ideological sense, let alone hoping swing voters catch up with the priorities of party activists. It requires not so much offering different answers to the questions that have long shaped our political divisions but taking up some new questions better rooted in the public’s contemporary concerns — about new sources of financial insecurity and high living costs, threats to parenthood and childhood, dangers of concentrated corporate power, sources of cultural dislocation, perils of internet governance and other challenges that scramble familiar partisan dogmas. Such questions can be answered in right-leaning or left-leaning ways, but they first need to be asked.
Some Republicans have long pointed to the need to move beyond the terms of Reaganism, and some even hoped that Donald Trump’s ascent might enable such a move. But Mr. Trump’s vile cult of personality only reinforced the trench-warfare dynamics. He mostly offered a model of how to squander opportunity: He won independents by six percentage points in 2016 and then lost them by 13 in 2020. That Republicans are even contemplating nominating him again shows they are not attuned to the need to break out of the age of deadlock.
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