The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Will American politics stay stuck? Biden has a plan for that.

President Biden in the Oval Office on Jan. 13. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Can any party, movement or politician break through the immobility of American politics that leaves us divided roughly equally in election after election after election?

As a nation, we were once accustomed to long periods when one party was largely dominant — the Republicans from Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 to 1932, and the Democrats from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory that year to 1968.

No party has achieved the same authority since. The Republicans won the presidency, with Jimmy Carter’s four-year interlude, from 1968 to 1992, but the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives throughout the period. Since 2000, we’ve stayed very close to 50-50 in presidential elections and control of Congress has bounced back and forth.

Some Republicans saw George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 with 50.7 percent of the popular vote as the beginning of a realignment toward the GOP, while Democrats had comparable hopes for their party after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory with 52.9 percent of the vote. Neither wish was fulfilled.

No wonder the political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch and Lynn Vavreck refer to our politics as “calcified” in their important (and aptly titled) recent book on the 2020 election, “The Bitter End.”

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Creating a durable political majority won’t be easy, but Democrats have a better shot at doing so. As research by the political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz shows, they represent a broader swath of middle-ground opinion than Republicans do, and President Biden’s program, with its emphasis on problem-solving, is built for coalition-building.

House Republicans hope to block this possibility by destroying Biden’s presidency through investigations and by creating governing crises with such maneuvers as resisting a debt-ceiling increase. But none of this expands their base.

Republicans are limiting their realignment possibilities by orienting their strategy, particularly in the House, toward keeping their large far-right faction happy. But the GOP has little room to grow on the right — only five House Democrats represent districts Donald Trump carried in 2020. Its vulnerabilities are in the more moderate districts, particularly the 18 GOP House districts that Biden carried. Six of them are in New York, five are in California, and they largely have a suburban character.

The willingness of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to court chaos will play badly in such places and could put him in conflict with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is looking at a 2024 Senate map very friendly to Republicans. But it’s favorable only if they can field less-extreme candidates and convince swing voters that the GOP is a reasonably sensible governing party.

All of this gives Biden and his lieutenants hope that they can isolate McCarthy in the coming debt-ceiling fight, especially if a handful of Republican House members in Biden districts see their political interests best served by backing away from the right wing’s game of economic chicken.

In the meantime, the outcome of the 2020 and 2022 elections suggests a realignment opportunity for Democrats. To make it happen, they need first to tend to their own base, halting Republican gains among Latino voters (modest in most places, larger in Florida and Texas) and restoring Black turnout to something closer to 2020 levels. But to end the electoral deadlock, they need to renew themselves among working-class voters of all races, including White defectors from the old FDR alliance.

Contrary to myths that the Republicans have become a working-class party, the GOP continues to count on strong support from higher-income voters. Nationally, Trump beat Biden 54 percent to 42 percent among those with annual incomes of $100,000 or more, the 2020 Edison Research exit poll found. Even so, defections to the Republicans among once-Democratic White voters without college degrees, particularly in the Midwest, have been key to many of the GOP victories since 2016.

And here is where the 2022 election pointed to new possibilities. In Michigan, an especially dramatic example, Biden’s 39 percent showing among White, non-college-educated voters in 2020 was already up eight points from Hillary Clinton’s share in 2016, exit polls found. In her reelection last November, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer continued the trend, bumping this proportion up to 42 percent.

In Pennsylvania, Biden improved slightly on Clinton’s White, non-college-educated vote, and in 2022, victorious Democrats Josh Shapiro in the governor’s race and John Fetterman in the Senate race surged ahead of Biden with this group — by nine points in Shapiro’s case and four in Fetterman’s.

It’s true that Democrats had especially strong showings in both states. In House races nationwide, 2022 Democrats only matched Biden’s 2020 share of the White, non-college vote (owing in part to racially polarized voting in many southern states). Nonetheless, Whitmer, Shapiro and Fetterman demonstrate that the country is not inescapably locked into 2016 voting patterns and political stasis.

Biden’s politics are geared to realignment. On the one hand, he is making an issue of the extremism of the Republican House, and right-wing radicalism plays badly with moderate suburbanites. At the same time, he emphasizes again and again that his program, from infrastructure to new investments in green and tech manufacturing, is aimed at creating well-paying jobs for Americans — across races — who did not graduate from college and do not live on the coasts.

His rhetoric, like his program, reinforces the idea that Democrats celebrate the pride and dignity in the work done by those who lack university degrees, which happens to be a majority of Americans.

Perhaps it’s foolish to imagine that a president whose approval rating has touched 50 percent in only one recent poll can lead a realignment that escaped Bush and Obama alike. But American politics can’t remain stuck forever. For the next two years, it’s Biden who will be reaching out to would-be converts while the GOP spends its energy ostracizing dissenters and coddling zealots.

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