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Political Paradox

Nancy Ohanian

Democrats were initially elated with the election results in 2020. Not only had they ended the retrograde four year reign of Donald Trump, they had held the House and taken the Senate. At long last, after decades of gridlock, progress might be made on a wide range of urgent needs, from confronting climate change, to racial justice, to economic inequality, to a wide range of deficits in the social safety net, such as child care, paid leave for childbirth, free community college, and many more. It was a heady 24 hours.

Then they noticed that Democrats had actually lost seats in the House, and controlled the Senate only by 50-50 with the Vice President as tie-breaker. Substantial numbers of voters who had voted for Biden because they despised Trump then turned around and voted Republican down-ballot. It was, in short, scarcely a landslide. In contrast, in the two previous periods of major reform (Franklin Roosevelt 1933-36, and Lyndon Johnson 1964-68), the Democrats held overwhelming majorities in both chambers.

The Republicans in Congress are determined to give no aid and comfort to the Democrats, so it is up to the latter to pass whatever is to be passed, on their own.

The Republicans in Congress are determined to give no aid and comfort to the Democrats, so it is up to the latter to pass whatever is to be passed, on their own. And while Republicans are mostly unified around a hard Right agenda and the leadership of Trump, the Democrats have both an activist progressive wing and a substantial body of moderates. In neither chamber does either wing of the party have a majority to pass legislation. So while progressives are pushing hard for their vision of major reforms to address urgent needs, the moderates are riding the brakes.

The division is not only in Congress. Polling reveals that while the bulk of Biden’s program is popular, the basic political orientations of the American electorate are nowhere close to providing progressives with a mandate. The Economist/YouGov Poll of October 16-19 2021 gives the following distribution of ideologies among registered voters nationwide: 

Liberal 31%

Moderate 33%

Conservative 35%

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And here is the distribution by the party people identify with:

Democratic 37%

Independent 35%

Republican 28%

No segment is even close to a majority. The ideological Moderates and the party Independents determine who wins elections. Both major parties are dominated by activists who cluster near the extremes ideologically. This is especially true of Republicans, where the Far Right is hegemonic in the party, allowing little room for moderates. There is much more room for moderates among the Democrats, but the activists still skew to the progressive end of the continuum.

Thus, in terms of electoral strategy, the Democrats are in a stronger position than the Republicans, precisely because they care about and appeal to moderates, while Republicans from Trump on down seem entirely focused on stirring up their base with outlandish conspiracy theories that will turn off moderates. Still, even Trump sometimes sees the need to appeal to moderates, as when he endorsed the moderate Glen Youngkin for governor of Virginia, perhaps realizing that a hard-core Trumpist could not win in that state.

impeachment unavoidable

The United States confronts some of the most fundamental challenges we’ve ever faced, challenges that demand radical changes of direction. But the country is not yet prepared to go there. By the time enough people realize how bad things are, things will be even worse.

Thinking paradoxically can be a lot of fun, but living a paradox, not so much…

John Peeler