American politics have amounted to a two-party system for so long that most people can hardly imagine anything else. And while the world has been upended in many ways, in the United States Democrats and Republicans still slug it out as ever, with few switching sides. Elections are decided by tiny swings in a few competitive jurisdictions.
But look carefully at the political landscape and you will discover three movements, not two: a progressive left, a large center and a nativist right. The latter has been building for a while fed in part by economic despair and was brilliantly deployed by Donald Trump. Its representatives will probably refuse to convict Trump in his Senate trial.
A realignment of politics to reflect this three-movement reality faces many obstacles, from the electoral system to exhausted fatalism among the voters themselves. And the beginnings of it may be visible in reports of pockets of Republicans around the country who are leaving the party, having had enough.
On a wide scale, such a thing has potential to jolt the country out of a shocking paralysis. Americans are asked to accept that the country cannot fix burning problems. It is a paralysis that has trampled American majorities on the actual issues and is corrosive to democracy.
Americans endure the worst gun massacre rate in the developed world, want change but cannot have it. Americans endure tens of millions without basic health insurance, want change but cannot have it. They suffer the worst inequality in the developed world, want change but cannot have it. They largely don’t deny global warming but have endured leaders who embarrass them before the world and endanger the planet by doing so. They suffer the world’s only student debt crisis — a term that exists nowhere else.
There is another America, dynamic and innovative and still leading the world in scientific and technological advances. It is capable of wielding power hard and soft with humanity and intelligence. But it is largely absent from our politics.
Change is desperately needed, and change could come if politics more closely resembled the three political movements. How that happens is largely a question of Trump’s fortunes from this point onward, which in turn depend on whether enough Republicans break with him, convict him in the Senate and block him from running again. That seems unlikely to occur, despite initial signs of modest rebellion in the Republican ranks.
That’s because Trumpism will not be easily expunged. All polls (including a Pew study from January) show a majority of conservative voters believe the stolen election narrative and many still back him powerfully. This base will shrink a little, but still amounts to about a third of the country and hence most of the GOP vote, and it is ready to burn down the house.
If Trump forms a third party that may push the GOP in a more traditionally centrist direction, which may push the Democrats leftward to a more “progressive” place. But the more likely scenario is Trump still hanging around, stirring the stew and itching to run again. Even if he’s blocked, much of his toxicity will stay.
This stain on the Republican Party will remain until the planetary upheavals caused by globalization and technological disruption, and the national transition to a diverse and multi-racial America, have all played themselves out and people have calmed down.
Until then, what’s a centrist Republican to do? Do Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, John Kasich and even Susan Collins, and much of the conservative commentariat, really have more in common with Trumpism than with President Biden?
They don’t. Most of them have no wish to deny climate change, would agree to reasonable gun control, don’t want millions without health insurance, and also don’t seek to ban abortion (nor do centrist Democrats wish to throw open the borders or defund the police).
What has kept centrists in the Republican Party has been loyalty, hope that Trump is a passing phase, and antipathy toward the progressive left. The latter is in line with many voters on both sides who don’t think gender is a construct, that universities should be spaces safe from trigger warnings, that group identity defines a person or that a stupid joke should get you “cancelled.” Centrist Democrats basically feel the same way; a third of party supportersfear the progressives.
Biden, by virtue of the 50–50 Senate but also because of his nature, will probably govern from the center. It is not difficult to imagine the progressive wing of the party losing patience and breaking away. That would make it much easier to draw in Republican refugees.
Might such refugees arrive? It’s worth contemplating, because a repositioned Democratic Party, strengthened by an influx of centrist former Republicans and shorn of the far left, could emerge as the plurality. Such a new party could forge policies that move the needle on all the above issues. That should please the American majorities that have been stymied by an obstructionist GOP skillfully exploiting the system — from gerrymandering to an ant-majoritarian Senate and Electoral College — to block change.
Such a newly centrist Democratic Party would have decent odds of at least a plurality in most parts of the country. This could finally end not only America’s inability to address the immediate burning problems but also enable it to finally pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which, of course, was once supported by the GOP).
Of course, the U.S. system is inhospitable to a map with more than two large parties, because all but two states hold a winner-take-all presidential election. A third party takes votes away from the major party closest to it and hands power to the other side. That’s what Teddy Roosevelt did in 1912 when he split the conservative vote, ruining William Taft’s reelection run and giving history Woodrow Wilson. It’s also how Ross Perot gave us Bill ClInton and Ralph Nader gave us George W. Bush.
It can only happen if one of the two major parties has gone off the rails.
If Americans are really lucky, a rejiggered landscape might also enable reform of an electoral system in which a voter in one place (like Wyoming) has the power of 70 in another place (like California); this system has its apologists on grounds of federalism and exceptionalism, but it is not democratic and it basically assumes, in most cases incorrectly, that Americans identify more strongly with their state than with the country. Change is closer than it seems, if one considers the unheralded successes of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
Such developments would have once been inconceivable. But if Trump has a legacy, it is that nothing is inconceivable anymore — not if it’s not illegal and sometimes even if it is.