America seems deeply divided. The House of Representatives is split 222-213 between Democrats and Republicans, meaning just five seats need to flip to put Republicans back in control (two seats are still technically contested, including one won by just six votes). After the Georgia runoff races, the Senate is split down the middle, 50-50. Half the country, as in 2016, appears to believe the presidential election was stolen from their preferred candidate. It appears as if polarization is here to stay.
Or, maybe not. A careful look at underlying shifts in support among the parties suggests that America is in the middle of a political realignment. The process has yet to play out, but when it does it is likely that neither the MAGA wing of the Republican Party nor the democratic-socialist wing of the Democratic Party will be calling the shots.
That’s because, while these two factions may appear dominant in American politics today, there are other factions still looking for a political home in our two-party system.
The first faction, which we might call the New Liberals, is in many ways the party of the suburbs. Generally college-educated people, often White, who are tolerant and not socially conservative but who, for the most part, live in traditional family units and want their children to go to good colleges. With many expressing visceral dislike for President Trump, they swung to Joe Biden in the presidential election but appear to have trended back toward the GOP in the Georgia runoffs.
The second faction, which we might call the New Conservatives, are an aspirational group. Very often from immigrant families, they want the freedom to run a business and are worried by democratic-socialists who remind them of people who ruined their home countries. They want an end to the lockdowns but also to be made whole for the money they lost during them. Many voted for Trump during the presidential election but appear to have swung to the Democrats in the Georgia runoffs — perhaps in disgust at the Senate’s refusal to allocate more relief money to ordinary Americans (as anecdotal evidence from activists suggests).
This suggests America’s supposed polarization can be defeated by a party appealing to both groups and suppressing the instincts of its more vocal extremist wing. As the brief characterizations above suggest, they both have elements of traditional conservative and liberal leanings. This suggests that either major party might be able to unify factions. America’s two-party system is built to encourage big tent coalitions.
What may prove most difficult is suppressing the more vocal factions. There is evidence that MAGA supporters failed to come out and vote in the Georgia runoffs, indicating perhaps a lack of appetite for compromise. Similarly, if the democraticsocialists refuse to compromise and insist on ramming through things the centrists view as extreme, they can just as effectively drive off centrists.
This is why it’s important to realize that the realignment is still under way. How it will work out is yet to be seen. The emergence of MAGA as an identifiable political block, with many of its supporters deserting the Democrats, was simply its first manifestation. How the Biden federal government handles vaccinations and the end of lockdowns might determine the way the realignment proceeds. Too much bureaucracy could unite MAGA and the new factions, for instance.
Moderation is vital and necessary to ending America’s polarization. Compromises will have to be made. The side more willing to compromise may earn substantial rewards and be in power for quite some time. An example is the political realignment in Britain in the 1990s, when Tony Blair repudiated old-style socialism and made his Labour party friendly to free markets. The party won three elections easily and was only unseated by a Conservative Party that had adopted much of Blair’s agenda.
Americans may be distraught at what they see happening to their country today. The scenes in Washington this week seem to suggest that America is irrevocably decided. Underlying patterns of voter behavior suggest otherwise, and that a more moderate and more unified America is just a couple of elections away.
Iain Murray is vice president for strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, He wrote this for InsideSources.com.