29 December

For the past several decades, pundits have clamored to ascribe fluctuations in U.S. politics and policy to partisan polarization. From Bill Clinton’s impeachment to the global war on terrorism, and from Obamacare to “build the wall,” virtually all salient political issues are said to divide American society into two irreconcilable partisan camps.

Yet to the extent that polarization implies a hollowing of the middle ground, its supposed prevalence in U.S. politics doesn’t square with the fact that an adamantly moderate centrist—Joe Biden—ended up winning the 2020 presidential election. To be fair, Biden’s victory certainly drew on anti-Trump sentiment. But that raises the question of how Biden prevailed over those candidates further to the left, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the first place. The crystallization of a centrist camp around him during the primary process demonstrated that progressives don’t comprise a majority, even within the Democratic Party. Wasn’t polarization supposed to imply a run to the extremes?

To make sense of Biden’s victory—and begin thinking about some of its possible consequences —it is necessary to dissect the United States’ two main political parties. Doing so makes clear that mere partisan polarization is an inadequate description of U.S. political reality. That’s because, in addition to the bitter conflict between the two parties, there is also an increasingly salient conflict within each. And this largely overlooked internal conflict is set to play a decisive role in determining future political outcomes.

Recognizing this intrapartisan rivalry allows contemporary U.S. politics to be analyzed in terms of a four-way struggle more reminiscent of continental European multiparty systems than the increasingly obsolete two-party system dynamics familiar to U.S. political commentators. This transformation doesn’t necessarily spell the death of U.S. democracy, but it does mean we need to start thinking differently about it.

Extending this analogy with European multiparty systems can help Americans better understand the gridlock within their own. Hanging on to the myth of U.S. exceptionalism obscures important lessons that can be learned from the Old World.

So how exactly does the U.S. political spectrum map onto those on the other side of the Atlantic? For starters, the progressive faction of the Democratic Party explicitly models itself on the continental European tradition of social democracy. Proposals such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal may be perceived as “radical” or “far-left” in the United States, but they appear pretty familiar from a European perspective. Most continental European countries take for granted their publicly funded universal health care systems, and many Northern European countries have already implemented sweeping new environmental regimes under social democratic leadership. Sanders may not be that far off when he suggests the United States take after Sweden or Denmark.

Moving toward the center, the more moderate faction of the Democratic Party has a surprising number of features in common with the European tradition of Christian democracy: from their self-presentation as centrists blazing a moderate middle path between the far-left and the far-right to their goal of restoring social harmony through political compromise—aptly encapsulated in Biden’s campaign promise to “restore the soul of America.”

In this respect, it is noteworthy that Biden will be only the second Catholic president of the United States. While his religion does not determine his political persuasions, he has maintained that it functions as an important source of inspiration for him. Biden places rhetorical emphasis on notions such as human dignity, social civility, and the resolutely multilateralist conception of international affairs. It’s a similar approach to that of Germany’s current chancellor, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union.

On the other side of the U.S. political center, there is a residual rump of traditional Republicans, most of whom have remained submerged during the Trump era but may now resurface along with the political ambitions of figures such as Mitt Romney, John Kasich, and Larry Hogan. More socially conservative and free market-friendly than centrist Democrats—often invoking former President Ronald Reagan as inspiration—this ideological current can be likened to the right-leaning strand of liberalism traditionally espoused by European liberal parties or the British Conservatives under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Finally, on the far-right of the contemporary U.S. political spectrum, there is a form of authoritarian populism that was, until recently, considered quite foreign to the country’s political culture: Trumpism. Some commentators have debated whether one might go so far as to label it a form of proto- or neofascism.