Polarisation is endemic to America’s current party system. Polling data attests to growing divides between American partisans around almost every issue, from the economy to racial justice to America’s role in the world. The withering of the ‘rally around the flag’ affect in response to President Trump’s mismanagement of the COVID pandemic was one manifestation of a political discourse that has palpably rejected unity. Trump’s refusal to concede the election ended a long-standing tradition of conciliatory calls for unity, epitomising the deterioration of inter-party civility. While both major parties are increasingly straying from the centre, the Republican Party is undoubtedly driving polarisation. The events of the January 6th insurrection confronted the Republican party with the ramifications of capitulating to its most extreme elements and revealed the true extent to which the norms of bipartisan tolerance had declined.
President Biden was sworn into office pledging to “mend the soul of the nation”, reconciling the divisions that have immersed American politics with increasing severity since the Obama era. Biden has the credentials to fulfill this promise. He scored in the top 20% of all senators in the lifetime bipartisan index and retains credibility across both sides of the aisle, with 40% of the bills he cosponsored in the Senate being ones introduced by Republicans. Renowned friendships with foremost Republicans, including Mitch McConnell and the late John McCain, encouraged optimism that Biden could promote cooperation and compromise. Yet, his first several months in office seem to have wrought little change.
Historically, the election of a new president has been followed by a pause in adversarial politics, motivated by a bipartisan commitment to getting back to business. Biden’s initial net approval rating, while higher than any Trump score, was strikingly lower than typical modern-era averages. Zero Congressional or Senate Republicans voted in support of the $1.9 trillion USD COVID relief bill, Biden’s largest legislative initiative to date. Indeed, House Minority Whip Scalise described the targeted relief bill as “an attempt by Speaker Pelosi to further promote her socialist agenda”. If a global pandemic could not induce bipartisan compromise, there seems little promise that Biden will be able to motivate cooperation going forward around other issues on his legislative agenda.
It appears that the legacy of Donald Trump’s political philosophy, and his enduring influence amongst Republican policymakers, continues to embolden inter-party confrontation. Trump’s 2016 election to the presidency indicated to the Republican congress that bipartisan appeal was no longer a necessary condition for electoral success. His divisive rhetoric had tangible effects on the conduct of politics in Washington. The total absence of bipartisan initiatives under his administration and two impeachment proceedings polarised along party lines were stark evidence. The recent ousting of Liz Cheney for her refusal to empower Trump’s allegation that the presidential election was stolen underscores the pervasive influence Trump continues to exercise over the Republican party. While not the most trenchant conservative, Cheney’s replacement, Elise Stefanik, has embraced the catchcry of “beating the most radical socialist agenda in this country” and acknowledged Trump as a “critical part of our Republican team”. The result of loyalty to Trump is a relentless push away from establishment conservatism and a movement towards to far-right populism. In this context, the prospect for cooperation seems more and more tenuous.
The problem for Biden is that polarisation is multi-causal and hard to shift. While polarisation is certainly not unique to American parties, polarisation in the United States is uniquely pervasive. The dynamic ecosystem of campaign financing, interest group lobbying, and partisan media has caused party leaders to lose ownership over their party’s messaging, leading to the amplification of extreme ideas. More so than any period in American history, affective polarisation amongst the American public – meaning the hostility constituents feel towards members of the opposing party – actively discourages policymakers from pursuing bipartisan compromise. America lacks the institutional guardrails that insulate the major parties in most other democratic countries from extended periods of division. For example, in Australia, proportional representation, compulsory voting and preferential voting constrain the success of radical outsider candidates and commit major parties to appealing to the median voter.
Biden has not given up on his commitment to working across the aisle; reports from Washington continue to express hope for a bipartisan deal on infrastructure investments, though partisan debate over funding has stalled these plans. However, Biden’s presidency is a small comfort in a political system that shows little sign of correcting course away from extremism and inter-party hostility. Beyond generational replacement or a fracturing of one of the major parties, releasing its extreme elements, there seems to be a shortage of solutions for a party system now defined by its divisions. With Democrats expected to lose their narrow majority in the House in the 2022 midterms, it seems that Biden’s policy platform, designed to facilitate unity, will only be further frustrated by intensifying divisions.
Alice Nason is a Politics, International Relations and American Studies student at the University of Sydney. She is currently undertaking an honours year, writing a thesis on the role of diplomacy below the presidential level in sustaining American influence in the Indo-Pacific during the Trump administration. Alice was formerly a research fellow at the Global Business Policy Council, a think tank that examines the implications of geopolitics on international business, and interned at the management consulting company Kearney, where she focused on public-sector consulting. Her core interests lie in American foreign and domestic politics, party polarization and the liberal international order.
Alice is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.