The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The country is hugely divided on how much it should change — and how fast

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on May 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

American politics are so tense and divisive right now that in his inaugural address, President Biden said the country is in an “uncivil war.” But what, exactly, are we fighting about?

That’s a trickier question than it first appears. Much of the language of American politics today is vague, with participants often intentionally invoking terms with contested meanings (“cancel culture,” “woke”). And we all still toss around words such as “liberal,” “progressive,” “moderate” and “conservative” — as if categories used in the era of Bob Dole and Bill Clinton still fit a time of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

But take a step back, and it becomes clear that our core divides are fairly simple. I think most of today’s political fights are really about two underlying questions: Will power — cultural, economic, social and political in particular — be taken away from the kinds of people (wealthy, White, Christian, male) who have traditionally dominated most of American life? And, if so, how much and how quickly?

The first question divides the two parties. The second splits the Democratic Party.

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Let’s start with the division between the parties. For decades, the Republican Party has generally defined itself in its opposition to big programs (Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the health-care initiatives of Clinton and Barack Obama) and advocacy of more limited government. At the same time, and particularly after the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the GOP embraced a somewhat related posture: defending America’s power status quo — particularly the wealthy, Whites, Christians and men — from challenge and change. The Republican Party thus became the political home of those opposed to, for example, affirmative action, aggressive enforcement of civil rights laws, abortion rights, increased immigration, same-sex marriage and higher taxes on the rich.

But what became clear during the Donald Trump presidency, and is even more obvious now, is that those two postures are not equally animating forces in today’s GOP. The Republican Party of today is far more committed to defending groups such as White people, Christians and the wealthy than it is invested in any kind of small government ethos.

It’s true that Republicans today, say, oppose expanding Medicaid. But the Trump administration substantially increased government spending and deficits and expanded government power whenever it saw fit. And with Trump out of office, Republicans at the state level are merrily passing laws restricting how teachers can talk about racism, how transgender students can compete in sports and how social media sites can regulate content. Most important, in state after state, Republicans are using the power of government to make it harder to vote.

This isn’t in any sense a party about limited government. The GOP is now defined by “an all-consuming form of resentment politics,” said Johns Hopkins University political science professor and political party expert Daniel Schlozman.

While Republicans are unified around defending the historical power of White Christian America, Democrats are divided over how much they want to disrupt that old order.

Until fairly recently, the Democratic Party had a genuine center-vs.-left ideological divide. The center was best exemplified by Clinton and his acolytes: a willingness to reduce the size of government, an embrace of big business, and wariness about the Democrats being too closely associated with what they deemed troublesome voices among people of color, women and other traditionally marginalized groups. Policies such as welfare reform and charter schools exemplified this center’s vision, much of which was strongly opposed by the party’s left.

But over the past five years in particular, the party’s left wing got more assertive. With its calls for wealth taxes, reparations, single-payer health insurance and reducing police funding, the Democratic left essentially wants to create a new America. Meanwhile, the party’s centrist wing has backed away from many of its 1990s stances and embraced many of the general goals of the left. “The party’s center of gravity has shifted decisively leftward,” said Schlozman.

Now, the party’s divisions on policy are increasing not over what stance to take but how far to go. Medicare-for-all vs. a public option? A committee to study reparations or full-blown reparations? Big ideological rifts don’t really exist in today’s Democratic Party, which is one reason Biden has so far largely been able to keep the party unified behind his agenda.

But of course there are still major intraparty tensions on the Democratic side. Why? Because while few Democrats are as defensive of America’s traditional hierarchy as Republicans, many of them aren’t necessarily committed to totally overturning it either. These Democrats usually cast their more cautious approach largely in terms of electoral considerations — they would support bigger changes but fear the electorate isn’t there. That might be true at times, but in my view, these Democrats are also motivated to fear big change because they are part of the very power constituency that’s in line for upending.

So the Democratic Party is divided between a bloc that is wary of yielding too much power to Black Lives Matter activists, socialists, “the Squad,” Twitter liberals and others seeking broad, systemic change and a bloc that fully embraces those voices. A lot of fights in the Democratic Party, while ostensibly about policy or ideology or electability, are actually proxies for: “Does this make Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and those aligned with her more powerful, or does it make Nancy Pelosi and those aligned with her more powerful?”

For example, when Jamaal Bowman last year challenged then-incumbent Rep. Eliot L. Engel in the Democratic primary in a New York City-area congressional district, the race struck right at the heart of the party’s fissure. The district is heavily Democratic, and either candidate was going to hold the seat in the general election. But Bowman had signaled that he would align with Ocasio-Cortez if elected, so the race became a proxy fight for her wing of the Democratic Party vs. the Pelosi one, which embraced Engel. Similarly, last year’s Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts between incumbent Edward J. Markey (supported by Ocasio-Cortez) and Joe Kennedy (supported by Pelosi) was another heavily contested proxy battle — even as the two men differed on almost no major issues.

On one level, this is an old story — politics has always been about power. What’s different is that in many ways, today’s politics is only about power.

We don’t really debate small government vs. big government much anymore, and even when we ostensibly are, we really aren’t. We are debating whether to defend America’s traditional power structure (the GOP position), upend it (the AOC position) or do something in between (effectively the Pelosi position).

And that explains why politics today is so toxic. Power, unlike education policy, is zero-sum.

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