Both Parties Are Heading Toward a Reckoning

The 2020s will be a decade of political evolution and realignment, no matter who wins this election.

Supporters wait to hear Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak at the East Las Vegas Community Center about the effects of COVID-19 on Latinos in Las Vegas on Oct. 9.
Supporters wait to hear Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak at the East Las Vegas Community Center about the effects of COVID-19 on Latinos in Las Vegas on Oct. 9.
Supporters wait to hear Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak at the East Las Vegas Community Center about the effects of COVID-19 on Latinos in Las Vegas on Oct. 9. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

As the results of the U.S. election become clearer throughout the day, they’re looking more and more like a narrow victory for Democrat Joe Biden with a closely divided Senate. Hardly the mandate Democrats were hoping for. In the best-case scenario, it seems, they’ll face at least another two years (and maybe longer) of gridlock and intense hyperpartisan fighting in Washington.

Back in September, I wrote in these pages that the 2020s would be a decade of major political evolution. My prediction was based on history. Every 30 to 40 years, the party system has gone through a significant reshuffling, a realignment that shifted the balance of power and the core issues of politics, as internal party tensions became overbearing and new problems to address arose. At the same time, around every 60 years or so, the United States has also gone through an era of major political reform, in which the fundamental rules of democracy shifted in response to public dissatisfaction with institutions. And I noted that both of these cycles were coming due for an era of upheaval in the 2020s.

Of course, history is not clockwork. There’s no guarantee the 2020s will follow the pattern. And the likely outcome of this election suggests more stagnation than immediate change. More and more Americans feel deeply dissatisfied with how the U.S. political system works and are exhausted by the trench warfare of national politics. The stakes are higher now, with the economy uncertain, the pandemic still raging, and climate change continuing to grow more severe and destructive. The pressure will continue to build, and hyperpartisan polarization will continue to intensify, fueling anger, distrust, and dysfunction.

As the results of the U.S. election become clearer throughout the day, they’re looking more and more like a narrow victory for Democrat Joe Biden with a closely divided Senate. Hardly the mandate Democrats were hoping for. In the best-case scenario, it seems, they’ll face at least another two years (and maybe longer) of gridlock and intense hyperpartisan fighting in Washington.

Back in September, I wrote in these pages that the 2020s would be a decade of major political evolution. My prediction was based on history. Every 30 to 40 years, the party system has gone through a significant reshuffling, a realignment that shifted the balance of power and the core issues of politics, as internal party tensions became overbearing and new problems to address arose. At the same time, around every 60 years or so, the United States has also gone through an era of major political reform, in which the fundamental rules of democracy shifted in response to public dissatisfaction with institutions. And I noted that both of these cycles were coming due for an era of upheaval in the 2020s.

Of course, history is not clockwork. There’s no guarantee the 2020s will follow the pattern. And the likely outcome of this election suggests more stagnation than immediate change. More and more Americans feel deeply dissatisfied with how the U.S. political system works and are exhausted by the trench warfare of national politics. The stakes are higher now, with the economy uncertain, the pandemic still raging, and climate change continuing to grow more severe and destructive. The pressure will continue to build, and hyperpartisan polarization will continue to intensify, fueling anger, distrust, and dysfunction.

At a certain point, something has to give. It is impossible to say what or how, exactly, but there’s one thing we do know: The way the United States is doing democracy is broken. There are alternatives. Some include electoral reforms that would expand the number of parties, thus breaking the zero-sum binary that is sowing division and hatred. New parties would offer a path for new coalitions to form, scrambling today’s escalating hyperpartisan warfare. Maybe that’s the answer, maybe there’s another one. But all signals point to turbulence ahead, and if the United States doesn’t have a plan, chaos will win.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at New America and author of the book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. Twitter: @leedrutman

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