David Shribman, the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.
Of all the upheavals in American civic life – the disruptive presidency of Donald J. Trump, the paralysis of the institutions of government, the undermining of established political customs, the coarsening of public dialogue, the diminution of the role of Congress – one has gone virtually unnoticed, and it may be the fundamental problem besetting politics in the United States:
For the first time in American history, both major political parties – the organizing institutions of American public life – are riven with division, dissent and disillusion.
For more than two centuries, American parties, like their Canadian counterparts, have had divisions; it is the natural state of large political organizations in pluralistic societies extending over vast expanses of land. The 19th-century Whigs, once a major American party with towering figures such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, divided over expansion of slavery into the unorganized territories of the country. The early-20th-century Republicans were split over the extension of economic reform, and their late-20th-century successors were divided over the role of religious conservatives in the party. For much of the past century, the Democrats have split over race issues and, during the Vietnam period, over war policy.
But never before have both parties suffered at the same time the sort of major fissures that hobble the parties today, with a war raging between the GOP establishment and the Trump insurgency among the Republicans and with a death struggle between moderates and progressives in the Democratic Party, particularly among the nearly two dozen presidential candidates and over the issue of impeaching Mr. Trump.
“This is a very important development in a very unusual time, and it is not a good thing for the political system,” said Kathleen Iannello, a political scientist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. “It adds instability to our politics, it creates even more tension at a time of real contention, and it alienates the public.”
Just recently, Senate Republicans told the Republican President that they objected to White House plans for tariffs on Mexican imports, with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas warning administration officials there was not “a single” Republican lawmaker who agreed with the Trump initiative. Perhaps not since the troubled post-Civil War presidency of Andrew Johnson (1865-69) has a Republican Congress so clearly rebuffed a president of its own party.
At the same time, Democrats wrangled over whether to impeach the President, whether to embrace economic and environmental policies that Republicans have demeaned as “socialist” and whether even speaking openly about co-operating with the GOP is a betrayal of Democratic values. The irony is that much of this contention grows out of critiques of the presidential campaign of former vice-president Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has portrayed himself as a unifier against the Trump ascendancy even as his willingness to work with Republicans has divided the Democrats.
“The natural state of the Democratic Party might actually be to argue,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice-president for policy at Third Way, an organization of moderate Democrats. “The people who vote for Democrats are moderates, but the activism and the money comes from the more progressive wing of the party. It produces a natural split that the Republicans ordinarily don’t have because usually the money, the activism and votes all come from the same place. Trump upended that, and that’s why we’re in a situation that probably has no precedent.”
The result is an unusual and toxic alchemy: hyperpartisanship at a time of party divisions. This is a twin crisis for the established political order that Canada has seldom, if ever, experienced. There were, to be sure, two competing Canadian parties on the right that united under Stephen Harper in 2003 but, as Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, put it, “We haven’t had two splits at the same time anywhere near the level of the party divisions in the United States today.”
The stereo divisions in American politics come, ironically, at the first time in more than a century that every state legislature but Minnesota’s is dominated by a single party. These divisions are marked by debates over just how strong the competing factions are, and over just how seriously one side should take the other.
Mr. Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans have not dipped below 77 per cent in the more than two years he has been President and have spiked as high as 90 per cent at some times this year, according to the Gallup daily tracking averages. And yet, establishment Republicans revile Mr. Trump – some members of the Bush family voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 – and believe he is an inauthentic Republican as well as a threat to a party that is more than 160 years old.
“The decline of the old-line elite with the Republican Party,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a historian at the University of New Hampshire, “is one of the most striking phenomena in our politics.”
But old-line views on trade and foreign policy persist in the GOP despite Mr. Trump’s assault on them.
“I believe a majority of the congressional Republicans do not agree with the President on trade,” said former representative Vin Weber of Minnesota, a top advisor to the Republican presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, “and, though it is less obvious, there are also big divisions on our approach to alliances and treaties and immigration.”
These divisions come at a time when party leaders worry that demographic forces are endangering their future. As long ago as 2012, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina worried that “we’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
Former governor William F. Weld of Massachusetts is Mr. Trump’s lone – and on the campaign trail, sometimes lonely – challenger for the Republican presidential nomination, and he says he believes the President has widened the divisions within the party.
“My strategy,” he said in a recent interview, “is to enlarge the Republican Party to include a new influx of minorities, millennials and suburban women.”
Many Republicans who revile Mr. Trump’s personal comportment, his crudity, his exposure on social media and his willingness to cite untruths nonetheless support his policies on taxes, judicial appointments, health care and economic and environmental regulation.
Meanwhile, a bitter struggle rages on the right over the true nature of American conservatism, the role the Republican Party plays in the conservative movement, and the response of conservatives to Mr. Trump’s emergence as a powerful political force by mobilizing elements of the electorate – industrial workers, union members, the poor and the less educated – that have historical roots in the Democratic Party and Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal.
In a manifesto published this spring called Against the Dead Consensus, some 15 leading theorists on the right wrote: “The 2016 election laid bare profound but long-hidden ideological divisions among America’s conservative intellectuals.”
Their critique of conservatism spawned a broad debate on the nature of the creed and its response to, or accommodation of, Mr. Trump, whose GOP allegiances (and his opposition to abortion rights) are recent and who is dismissed as a political opportunist by some conservatives.
For the Democrats, a similar division became clear at the party’s California state convention in San Francisco last month when former U.S. representative John Delaney of Maryland, a presidential candidate, was booed for two minutes after expressing skepticism about extending Medicare, the federal health plan for the elderly, to all Americans, and when former governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, another presidential aspirant, was jeered for arguing “socialism is not the answer” and for questioning the virtue of job guarantees for all Americans.
Mr. Hickenlooper’s response to the scorn expressed by Democrats in a state that delivered only 32 per cent of its vote to Mr. Trump, the smallest rate received by a major-party candidate in 92 years: “If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up helping to re-elect the worst president in American history.”
A few days later, Mr. Biden was attacked for his opposition to federal funding for abortions under Medicaid, the U.S. health plan for the poor. “Understand this: Women of means will still have access to abortions. Who won’t will be poor women,” shot back Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, also a presidential candidate. Not long after, Mr. Biden reversed his position.
Meanwhile, the Democratic congressional leadership has been chary of impeachment, and a new wing of progressives is determined to impeach and try the President for, among other things, obstruction of justice. But not one of the 17 Democrats in races considered toss-ups in next year’s congressional elections – generally occurring in “swing” ridings – publicly supports impeachment.
Over all, Democratic progressives account for about 95 members of the House of Representatives, which has 435 seats. Their more moderate rivals, known sometimes as the New Democrats, number 101, some 40 of whom won their seats in last fall’s midterm congressional elections and 21 of whom prevailed in districts that Mr. Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election.
“If the party wants to maintain or enlarge its majority in 2020, it needs to keep attracting independent and some Republican voters, which won’t happen if it’s identified as left-liberal, advocating unaffordable 'Medicare for all,’ free college for all, a guaranteed income for people who don’t work and abolition of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency,” wrote Morton Kondracke, a prominent liberal-oriented journalist now leading an effort to promote centrism in American politics as a way, as he put it, “to combat the tribalism and paralysis that I seriously think threaten American democracy.”
These divisions have many causes, some economic, some cultural, some simply as the result of festering impatience with politics and with political leaders. But what is common in both parties – and what may in the end be the principal cause of the dissension within both – may be the failure of the respective political elites.
“The elites have done a terrible job taking care of America,” said former GOP representative Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, a onetime chairman of the American Conservative Union and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative Washington think tank. “They have ignored the Pittsburghs and the Oklahomas, and globalization has left a lot of people behind, and that has produced legitimate reasons for liberals like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – and Donald Trump on the Republican side – to speak to these needs.”
The result is a political crisis in the United States that endangers all institutions in American life.
The only possible comparison is when northern and southern Democrats split in the 1950s, principally over racial integration, a fissure that overlapped briefly with the Republican split of 1964 and beyond between the conservative wing of the party identified with Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and the moderate-to-liberal wing identified with Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York. The Democratic split was coming to an end with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s advocacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, occurring just when the Republican split was beginning.
“The split this time is unlike the Goldwater-Rockefeller situation,” said Mr. Kessler of Third Way, “because there is nothing that politicians like more than winning elections, and Trump won an election.”
And above all it is the 2020 election that is the preoccupation of all the principals in this debate – and the reason that these divisions are so significant, and so portentous.