A Tale of Two Parties

Why Democrats and Republicans both face crises of political purpose today

It may come as a surprise that Democratic political advocacy groups have launched an inquiry into their party’s performance in the 2020 election. After all, Democrats now control both houses of Congress and the presidency – not exactly the portrait of a political party in need of introspection. But this success obscures the deeper crisis of political purpose both Democrats and Republicans face in the wake of the Trump years. 

Though candidate Biden handily prevailed over an incumbent president – no mean feat in and of itself – Democrats lost more than a dozen seats in the House and only took control of the Senate only thanks to the idiosyncrasies of Georgia state election rules. These results ought to befuddle Republicans as much as Democrats: their party picked up seats in Congress even as it lost the presidency, while President Trump’s interventions in the Georgia Senate run-off races likely cost Republicans those two seats and the Senate. 

Many Republicans also went along with President Trump’s attempt to remain in power despite his loss at the polls, with Senate party leader Mitch McConnell only acknowledging Biden’s win after the formal Electoral College tally made it impossible to deny. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) went so far as to object to the count even after a pro-Trump mob sacked the Capitol and threatened the lives of lawmakers on January 6. President Trump’s second impeachment and trial split the party, producing the most bipartisan votes to impeach and convict a president in American history. 

It’s probably best not to read too much into these GOP splits on impeachment, though. State parties censured those like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Sen. John Cassidy (R-LA) who either voted to impeach Trump in the House or to convict him in the Senate, while House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-WI) made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to solicit the former president’s help in the 2022 mid-terms. More interesting will be the likely clash between Senators Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Hawley over the future direction of the GOP, with the former voting to convict Trump and gambling on a revival of GOP orthodoxy while the latter went all-in on support for Trump’s election lies.

But no matter who emerges on top in the coming internal GOP fracas – and Trump appears intent on remaining at the center of the party’s attention – it will still confront the fact that it lacks a coherent political and policy agenda. For lack of any real alternative, Trumpism will define Republican politics and policies for the foreseeable future – with or without Trump himself. In practical terms, Trumpism combined orthodox conservative economic ideology on tax cuts and deregulation with Trump’s own brand of vulgar xenophobia and a belligerent, neo-isolationist foreign policy. Trumpism broke with Republican orthodoxy on trade to little real effect, and a massive and often-promised infrastructure investment program never materialized.

Looking ahead, it’s likely that Republicans will hew to the substance of Trumpism while ditching Trump’s own offensive personal style. Though there may be pockets of dead-enders scattered in think tanks and newspapers across the country, few Republicans will likely rally around the flag of George W. Bush-era compassionate conservatism at home and preventive war abroad. That probably means a kinder, gentler version of America First overseas and the usual elixir of tax cuts and deregulation at home, along with a moderate skepticism toward trade and a less inhumane but similarly hostile attitude toward immigration. It may take time to shake out, but Trumpism without Trump amounts to a return to 1920s-era conservative orthodoxy.

For their part, Democrats face a crisis of political purpose that lurks beneath the surface of their recent electoral successes. While normie voters with bread-and-butter concerns remain the Democratic Party’s electoral base, the party itself has slowly but surely become a vessel for the preoccupations of a vocal faction of highly-educated professionals. This emerging progressive elite occupies high-status administrative and bureaucratic positions in institutions like think tanks, philanthropic foundations, and, when there’s a Democratic administration in Washington, the upper echelons of the federal bureaucracy. 

These professionals tend to support left-wing proposals like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and defunding the police that are both bad ideas on the merits and unpopular among normie Democrats of all backgrounds. Worse, they often take otherwise popular policies like raising the minimum wage or maintaining social insurance programs and cloak them in the mantle of alienating – and sometimes incomprehensible – progressive political rhetoric. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contest, highly-educated professionals found a kindred spirit in Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and dismissed former Vice President Biden as an out-of-touch political dinosaur – only to see Warren fare poorly and Biden win the nomination decisively with his normie coalition.

This pattern repeated itself in the general election, with Biden outperforming Democrats in many House and Senate races down ballot. Some elected officials like Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) blamed the party’s subpar showing on an unwillingness to challenge to activist slogans like “defund the police” and the constant use of esoteric jargon like “Latinx.” These arguments remain persuasive, but they face stiff headwinds: President Biden seems to see his role less as putting his own stamp on the party and more as managing its various constituencies, highly-educated professionals and single-issue activists among them. Moreover, progressive elites also hold disproportionate sway over influential institutions affiliated with or otherwise sympathetic to the Democratic Party, from unions and think tanks to university campuses and major media outlets.

In other words, today’s Democratic Party suffers from a fundamental disconnect between the progressive elites who staff the party and the normie voters who put it in power. As things stand, it’s hard to tell what this unstable coalition actually stands for – much less how it might produce a coherent worldview with a persuasive political narrative to back it up. Many normie Democrats would share Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-SC) post-election exasperation: “Sometimes I have real problems trying to figure out what ‘progressive’ means.” Much will depend on whether or not President Biden succeeds in beating the pandemic and jump-starting the economy, of course, but not even full employment after COVID can fully repair the rift that’s opened up between progressive elites and normie Democrats over the past decade.

If Democrats can’t come up with a compelling narrative that convinces ordinary Americans of all backgrounds that the party represents their interests and can effectively advance the common good, America’s politics will remain deadlocked between two inchoate national political parties. Should they continue to privilege the priorities of progressive elites over those of their normie base, Democrats will find themselves unable to build a political coalition that can deliver in concrete ways for the American people. 

To do that, they’ll need to dispense with the Brahmin leftism that’s seized the elite progressive imagination and embrace an inclusive liberal patriotism that appeals to all Americans instead. The building blocks are there, but the broad center-left needs to start putting them together – and there’s no time to waste.