America is undergoing seismic changes, but its politics barely budge

By Alexander Burns

In another age, the events of this season would have been nearly certain to produce a major shift in American politics — or at least a meaningful, discernible one.

Over a period of weeks, the coronavirus death rate plunged and the country considerably eased public health restrictions. President Joe Biden announced a bipartisan deal late last month to spend hundreds of billions of dollars rebuilding the country’s worn infrastructure — the most significant aisle-crossing legislative agreement in a generation, if it holds together. The Congressional Budget Office estimated Thursday that the economy was on track to regain all of the jobs it lost during the pandemic by the middle of 2022.

And in a blow to Biden’s fractious opposition, Donald Trump — the dominant figure in Republican politics — faced an embarrassing legal setback just as he was resuming a schedule of campaign-style events. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charged his company, the Trump Organization, and its chief financial officer with “sweeping and audacious” financial crimes.

Not long ago, such a sequence of developments might have tested the partisan boundaries of U.S. politics, startling voters into reconsidering their assumptions about the current president, his predecessor, the two major parties and what government can do for the American people.

These days, it is hard to imagine that such a political turning point is at hand.

“I think we’re open to small moves; I’m not sure we’re open to big moves,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “Partisanship has made our system so sclerotic that it isn’t very responsive to real changes in the real world.”

Amid the mounting drama of the early summer, a moment of truth appears imminent. It is one that will reveal whether the U.S. electorate is still capable of large-scale shifts in opinion, or whether the country is essentially locked into a schism for the foreseeable future, with roughly 53% of Americans on one side and 47% on the other.

Biden’s job approval has been steady in the mid-50s for most of the year, as his administration has pushed a shots-and-checks message about beating the virus and reviving the economy. His numbers are weaker on subjects like immigration and crime; Republicans have focused their criticism on those areas accordingly.

This weekend, the president and his allies have mounted something of a celebratory tour for the Fourth of July: Biden headed to Michigan, one of the vital swing states that made him president, while Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Las Vegas to mark a revival of the nation’s communal life.

On Friday, Biden stopped just short of declaring that happy days are here again, but he eagerly brandished the latest employment report showing that the economy added 850,000 jobs in June.

“The last time the economy grew at this rate was in 1984, and Ronald Reagan was telling us it’s morning in America,” Biden said. “Well, it’s getting close to afternoon here. The sun is coming out.”

Yet there is little confidence in either party that voters are about to swing behind Biden and his allies en masse, no matter how many events appear to align in his favor.

Democratic strategists see that as no fault of Biden’s, but merely the frustrating reality of political competition these days: The president — any president — might be able to chip away at voters’ skepticism of his party or their cynicism about Washington, but he cannot engineer a broad realignment in the public mood.

Mellman said the country’s political divide currently favored Biden and his party, with a small but stable majority of voters positively disposed toward the president. But even significant governing achievements — containing the coronavirus, passing a major infrastructure bill — may yield only minute adjustments in the electorate, he said.

“Getting a bipartisan bill passed, in the past, would have been a game changer,” Mellman said. “Will it be in this environment? I have my doubts.”

Russ Schriefer, a Republican strategist, offered an even blunter assessment of the chances for real movement in the electorate. He said that the receding of the pandemic had helped voters feel better about the direction the country is moving in — “the COVID reopening certainly helps with the right-track numbers” — but that he saw no evidence that it was changing the way they thought about their preferences between the parties.

“I don’t think anything has particularly changed,” Schriefer said. “If anything, since November people have retreated further and further back into their own corners.”

American voters’ stubborn resistance to external events is no great surprise, of course, to anyone who lived through the 2020 election. Last year, Trump presided over an out-of-control pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people and caused the U.S. economy to collapse. He humiliated the nation’s top public health officials and ridiculed basic safety measures like mask-wearing; threatened to crush mass demonstrations with military force; outlined no agenda for his second term; and delivered one of the most self-destructive debate performances of any presidential candidate in modern history.

Trump still won 47% of the vote and carried 25 states. The trench lines of identity-based grievance he spent five years digging and deepening — pitting rural voters against urban ones, working-class voters against voters with college degrees, white voters against everybody else — saved him from an overwhelming repudiation.

Yet the social fissures that have made Trump such a durable figure have also cemented Biden as the head of a majority coalition with broad dominance of the country’s most populous areas. The Democrats do not have an overwhelming electoral majority — and certainly not a majority that can count on overcoming congressional gerrymandering, the red-state bias of the Senate and the traditional advantage for the opposition party in midterm elections — but they have a majority all the same.

And if Biden’s approach up to this point has been good enough to keep roughly 53% of the country solidly with him, it might not take a major political breakthrough — let alone a season of them — to reinforce that coalition by winning over just a small slice of doubters or critics.

Faiz Shakir, who managed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said Democrats did not need to worry about making deep inroads into Trump’s base. But if Biden and his party managed to reclaim a sliver of the working-class community that had recently shifted right, he said, it would make them markedly stronger for 2022 and beyond.

“All you need to focus on is a 5% strategy,” Shakir said. “What 5% of this base do you think you can attract back?”

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