But, today, circumstances are anything but normal. Troubling realities are gathering like so many storm clouds that could blow political stability far and further adrift. Even under normal circumstances, the political party in power generally faces strong headwinds in off-year (mid-term) elections. The Democrats are riven with dissent, and the GOP, relative to the principles for which it once stood, is in tatters. The gathering storm on the political horizon should give the Democrats night sweats and real Republicans nightmares.
America has faced troubling times and troubling circumstances many times in the past. Fortunately for us, presidents who came to power during troubling or uncertain times often brought political vision and communication skills that instilled confidence and, sometimes, calmed troubled waters (think Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan).
Americans, today, and for several years, have not enjoyed the solace that inures from steady and calming presidential leadership. The Trump presidency nursed and used divisiveness as a presidential prerogative to the immense disservice to the country. President Biden, unfortunately, does not possess the calming influence, nor, perhaps, the political skill or judgment to calm a restive electorate that is rapidly losing confidence in America’s sense of direction.
For the first time in our history, one major political party has adopted a strategy of discrediting an American election. For the first time in our modern history, a presidential candidate refused to concede a lost election, having declared before the voting began that he could only lose through fraud. For the first time in our history, the Capitol of the United States was violently attacked by supporters of a defeated president.
Tens of millions of Americans have been persuaded by a defeated president that his successor is an illegitimate president. No American president has assumed office in the face of such vitriol since 1861. Abraham Lincoln, however, turned out to be one of the strongest, decisive, and most effective presidents in American history.
President Biden’s approval rating, however, struggles to tread water at 38% in some polls and no better than 42% in others. Vice President Kamala Harris, today, offers no positive counterweight, with approval ratings languishing at 28%. A recently popular Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, was handily trounced by a Republican neophyte with no prior experience in elected office, Glenn Youngkin, who effectively ran against the cancel-culture wing of the Democratic Party.
Stability in America has continuously resided at the proverbial middle. Political wisdom has consistently demonstrated that politicians veered too far from the center at their peril. Americans generally became uncomfortable with politicians who flirted with those who resided comfortably at the far right or far left of the political spectrum. That, sadly, does not seem to be the case today. Americans who have traditionally identified as center-right or center-left are now more apt to find comfort with politicians who campaign closer to their party’s left or right extremes. The moderate center is becoming an increasingly lonely place to call home.
The voters who elected Biden nationally are not the same as those who elected Ocasio-Cortez and her squad sisters locally. Indeed, most center-left Democrats are no more comfortable with the squad than are traditional center-right Republicans. The Biden Administration is in real trouble without the firm support of the broad swath of those who identify as traditional Democrats.
As Mark Penn, a Democratic strategist, recently opined in The New York Times, Biden can’t connect with the conventional Democrats in his party without distancing himself from the more radical leftist progressives in the party. Even the widely popular infrastructure bill could not have limped to the President’s desk without the help of 16 Republicans. The so-called progressive wing of his party would have left Biden empty-handed if the vote on infrastructure had depended only on Democratic votes.
As political rhetoric becomes more extreme on either side of the center, Americans react by overreacting and coalescing around the extremes within their respective parties. Today, for the first time in memory, Americans appear to be vacating the middle. And that does not auger well for our liberal constitutional democracy.
The wide arc of history has been steadily moving leftward. The basic needs of the governed have been steadily addressed by those who govern. Democrats generally address those needs more aggressively than Republicans, but both sides have, to varying degrees, been responsive to the legitimate needs of the people. Laissez-Faire Capitalism has been dead for over 100 years in America. The primary difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats admit it, and Republicans do not.
Nonetheless, more Americans today self-identify with the more extreme poles of their parties. According to Gallup, Democrats who consider themselves liberal have doubled to 51% in the last generation, while those identifying as conservative have halved to 12%. Conversely, 58% of Republicans identified as conservative a generation ago, while today, 75% consider themselves Conservative.
For most of my life, Democrats and Republicans generally agreed on America’s overarching historical priorities. The political debate in the country generally focused on how best to achieve those priorities. That isn’t the case today because there has emerged a substantial dichotomy about (as the expression goes) what America is all about.
According to a Pew Research survey conducted right after the last presidential election, 80% of Biden voters and 77% of Trump voters believed we not only had different political priorities, but we also fundamentally disagreed about core American values.
America is in the midst of an unofficial stress test. The people are watching and listening and making judgments accordingly. So, Americans took temporary comfort when the President and other Administration officials quickly dismissed rising prices as a passing blip, owing to temporary shortages and increased demand resulting from the COVID pandemic.
However, this week, there has been an onslaught of economic reports suggesting that inflationary pressures are more severe than initially reported (a very short time ago). Now, many economists suggest that significant inflationary pressures will be with us for at least a year or more. Most Americans just assume that no one really knows. They tune out the Administration’s talking heads, and confidence in our leadership suffers accordingly.
While Biden cannot be blamed for a twenty-year war in Afghanistan for which nothing beneficial was attainted, he has inherited much of the resentment the nation feels about that lost cause. The colossal and deadly mayhem that accompanied our withdrawal was on President Biden’s watch and that is where the buck stops. Small wonder then that President Biden’s poll numbers continue to slide ever lower. The USA/Suffolk University Poll completed last week confirms that the President’s approval rating continues to sink. According to those surveyed, just 38% of Americans approve of the job the President is doing, while 59% turn thumbs down on his performance. More disturbing for Democrats, two-thirds of Americans do not want to see Biden run for a second term.
Simultaneously, and most ominously, China is taking note. So is Russia. And so, concurrently, we see tensions deliberately ramp up in the Taiwan Strait in the East and on the Ukraine-Russian border in the West. Is there anyone who doesn’t think this increase in tension is anything more than a test of American presidential resolve? The potential for a hot test of American resolve and leadership is very real and, perhaps, likely. The outcome is entirely uncertain.
All of this portends rough sailing ahead. The political weather front appears unstable, leaning toward stormy—Batten down the hatches.