The weeks and months after national elections are a time for taking stock. Parties, pundits, and advocates have just a moment to reflect before the next political cycle gets fully underway. As they pore over how more than 150 million voters cast their ballots, the picture that emerges shows severe rifts that could upend our two-party system. The ability of the Republican and Democratic parties to maintain themselves as “big tents,” coalitions that can connect diverse populations and interests to win elections and drive the political direction of the nation, may be coming apart.
The Republican party, after losing the White House and control of the Senate, is locked in a battle between the forces who support Donald Trump and those who see him as an aberration who broke with their traditional values and positions. In November, a Reuters poll showed over half of Republicans believed Trump did not actually lose the election; by December, a National Public Radio poll found that that number had grown to nearly 75 percent. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that more than 70 percent of Republicans do not feel there is a need to change their message or their tone, and still want the former president leading them forward.
The true believers remain convinced there is no need to rethink their game plan, as indicated by the quick censuring of those, like Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), who have voiced challenges and suggest the need for some change. But, quietly, leaders and voters who see signs of trouble ahead are on the lookout for another path. In the wake of the January 6th insurrection, over 100,000 registered voters withdrew from the Republican party in protest. Former leaders of the GOP are also considering whether they have a future in today’s Republican party. The Washington Post recently covered a Zoom call that featured more than 100 “former elected Republicans and officials from the past four GOP administrations.” Reporter Andrea Salcedo notes that the topic was “how to best rally whatever anti-Trump momentum is left in the party,” including exploring the possibility of forming an altogether new center-right party.
Despite winning the White House and narrowly taking control of the Senate, the Democrats, too, show signs of strain. The wave election results of 2018 did not repeat; in fact, Democrats lost seats in the US House of Representatives, despite Joe Biden taking the presidency with a national vote count margin of more than seven million. Nor did Democrats make gains at the state level, where critical policy decisions are made. These results fuel a heated intraparty debate about how far to the left Democrats should move. While a moderate Democrat won the Oval Office, keeping the progressive wing of the party in the coalition could be challenging.
Common to both parties is the reality that their bases have changed over the past several election cycles. For Democrats, one major change has been its demographic composition. Pew Research Center reports that in 1992, 76 percent of Democrats were white, 17 percent Black, and six percent Latinx (with only one percent Asian or Native American). By 2016, only 57 percent of Democrats were white, 21 percent Black, 12 percent Latinx, three percent Asian, and five percent mixed-race or Native American. This shift has increasingly made itself felt in Congress. Five-sixths of a record 124 members of color in Congress are Democrats. This is also seen in the emergence of a politically powerful new generation of Democratic Party leaders of color, including Vice President Kamala Harris. The Republican party has seen its base move in the opposite direction, with the party remaining 86 percent white as of 2016.
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There is also an education divide between the parties. In 2020, Joe Biden won 57 percent of college-educated voters versus 41 percent for Trump, while Trump led 51 percent to 47 percent among voters without a college education. On the other side, according to Dante Chinni, writing for NBC’s Meet the Press, “The percentage with at least a college degree has declined by five points. The percentage without education beyond high school has climbed by seven points.… It’s happened as the number of college-educated Americans increased overall by five points.”
Chinni notes, “These numbers could be a warning sign for the Republicans. The party’s growth area in educational attainment, those with a high school diploma or less, is the one that is a shrinking percentage of the US population.”
A recent Gallup Poll illustrates the strain our party system is under, reporting that “Americans’ appetite for a third party has never been greater in…nearly two decades of polling on the subject, and now a majority of Republicans are joining the usual majority of independents in wanting that option.” What’s potentially at risk here is the continuation of a system that, for better or worse, the nation has relied upon to make room for diverse constituencies. Over the past decades, the ability of the established parties to find areas of agreement has diminished, leaving the government less able to act and too often gridlocked.
Of course, from an international perspective, the US two-party system is an aberration, as most countries provide room for multiple political perspectives through different parties, rather than relying on catchall two-party systems. A year ago, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) observed, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party”—a statement widely viewed as accurate.
The US party system has changed before—and, if not now, at some point it will change again. As the Lancet Commission’s recent analysis of our national response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, the current system is dysfunctional. It remains to be seen if a new system that changes that will emerge.—Martin Levine