Is the United States an ungovernable country? It is impossible for either of the two parties to assume power without pleasing their base — and impossible to govern without displeasing it. That is the dilemma facing Joe Biden.
In 1969, the year Richard Nixon was sworn in as 37th president of the United States, one of his advisors published a largely neglected work whose influence is still making itself felt a half-century later. In “The Emerging Republican Majority,” Kevin Phillips explains how the Republican Party could hope to build a lasting majority in the United States with this new president.
Five years later, the Republican Party held fewer than one-third of the seats in the House of Representatives. And yet, however inaccurate Phillips’ premise might be, it has inspired numerous pastiches over the years.
Thus, during the Clinton years, two Democratic analysts published “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” Subsequently, Karl Rove, architect of the electoral victories of George W. Bush, dreamed openly of a lasting Republican dominance — before the partisans of Barack Obama saw in their protegee the savior who was going to deliver the country to the Democrats for decades to come.
And so forth.
The reason for these erroneous predictions and these broken hopes is always essentially the same: In a country so complex, heterogeneous and divided, endowed moreover with only two major parties, electoral coalitions are intrinsically unstable. These alliances are too vast and the groups composing them too divergent in their interests for them to hold together sustainably.
In other words, as soon as a party is called upon to govern — and thus to make decisions — it is called upon to offend certain segments of the electoral coalition that brought it to power.
That is what George W. Bush experienced in seeking to find his way on the subject of immigration between the chambers of commerce, who wanted to increase it, and the cultural conservatives, who demanded that it be restrained. Obama, as soon as he took a position on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, found himself wedged between the unions, who saw in it a source of employment, and the environmentalists, who saw in it a source of pollution.
The Biden administration is caught in the same dynamic, simultaneously on several fronts.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place, between the Base and the Center
On various major issues, the Democrats are stuck between the more left-wing, militant base of their party and the rest of the electorate. The divisions were already particularly pronounced in the last months of the 2020 campaign, after the murder of George Floyd, when that base demanded a “defunding of the police” and refused to condemn the violence perpetrated by protestors during the demonstrations against racism. The loss of a dozen seats in the House of Representatives was attributed to this position by some elected Democrats.
And yet, since Biden’s arrival in power, these fissures have multiplied. The abyss between Democratic voters and the rest of the country forces Biden to do a big split that the best gymnasts would struggle to accomplish.
The same kind of problem would be seen in the Republican camp if Donald Trump had been reelected. In fact, even today, one continues to see a rupture between the Republican base, which still believes in the Trumpist lie of the “electoral fraud” of 2020, and the overwhelming majority of the American electorate, which rejects it.
Now, with Republicans currently relegated to the minority benches, the spotlights are now fixed on the Democrats, divided in their management of the country. The issue of the pandemic constitutes a striking example of that. Popular discontent having pushed Democratic authorities to rapidly abandon their restrictions has perhaps in point of fact concealed a very simple reality: The majority of Democratic voters still support the restrictions!
A similar dynamic is to be seen in two other politically charged matters for Democrats. When Americans are polled about the causes of inflation — still the No. 1 political problem for the White House — the plurality points the finger at the significant increase in public spending. And yet, the majority of Democrats accuse private businesses of raising prices in order to increase profits! The difference is key, because it implies diametrically opposed approaches to coping with inflation.
Then, in the wake of the debate over “systemic racism” and identity politics, the question of the role that the educational system should play is becoming increasingly important. On this front as well, Democrats find themselves in a deeply uncomfortable political position — torn among themselves and detached from the rest of the electorate, opposed as a whole to the teaching of certain of the most controversial perspectives.
The most basic manifestation of this gap is to be seen when the time comes to evaluate whether the United States is actually going in a good direction. While modest, it is nevertheless a clear plurality of Democrats who say yes. The problem: Across the entire American population, 60% of Americans say no.
Two-thirds of Democratic voters responding answered in the affirmative. And at the same time, across the whole of the electorate, nearly 60% said no.
In January, Biden was called upon to deliver his annual State of the Union address. The tradition has it that the president begins by calling this state “solid.”
In this affirmation, Biden has his party behind him — but does he have anyone else?