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.
U.S. President Donald Trump certainly flaunts his strong, racially tinged nationalism and strategic disregard for democratic procedures. But he has so far stopped short of openly glorifying violence and still appeals to democratic themes—such as his false claims that he won the 2020 election—in claiming legitimacy; a real fascist wouldn’t even try to pretend his rule was cemented by democratic means. In that vein, Trump can more appropriately be compared to European leaders like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Viktor Orban in Hungary, who are authoritarian populists.
Given that the U.S. political landscape has become so Europeanized, it makes sense to look at classical European political science for insight into which partisan dynamics are most likely to shape the United States in the near future. The concept of polarized pluralism, originally developed by the Columbia University political scientist Giovanni Sartori to explain the stalemate of Italian party politics in the 1960s and ’70s, appears particularly illuminating in this regard.
Sartori’s key intuition was that ideological fragmentation and polarization can take place at the same time. He predicted two main consequences of this double whammy. First, political discourse becomes “centrifugal,” as parties on the extremes have an incentive to distinguish themselves from others by outbidding each other with more and more radical stances. Second, governmental action becomes “centripetal,” as the only possible governing majorities are ones that unite the various strands of the center in cross-party coalitions that settle for the little they can agree on.
Italy in the 1960s and ’70s featured bitter attacks on the very legitimacy of the democratic order from two parties: the Communists on the far-left and the neofascists on the far-right. Between them lay a multitude of fragmented parties and party factions that gravitated around the centrist Christian Democrats, with the Socialists to their left and the Liberals to their right. But this framework made alternation in leadership effectively impossible; all the factions of the center had to stick together in a succession of unstable coalitions to keep the far-left and the far-right out of power.
Sound familiar? Italy half a century ago displays an uncanny likeness with what is already taking shape in the United States today: a residually and internally fragmented centrist government—condemned to tow a status quo line in order to keep together its cross-partisan appeal—besieged on both sides by radical opposition. This sort of polarized pluralism is bound to only be further consolidated if the Republican Party retains control of the Senate after January’s runoff elections in Georgia—mandating an intraparty coalition to get anything done.
Biden’s cabinet nominations—and the reactions they have elicited—are providing us a preview of what’s to come. Both Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin are prominent figures of Washington’s centrist establishment, and their appointments are designed so as not to alienate the moderate wing of the Republican Party. Both, however, have already been sternly condemned by Trumpists and progressives alike as signaling a return to the “swamp.”
What’s important to highlight here is that, for Sartori, the kind of residual centrism that results from polarized pluralism was a cause for concern, not reassurance. Even though its status quo bias may please business interests in the short run, polarized pluralism also tends to undermine the legitimacy of the whole political framework in the long run, since it both generates and frustrates increasingly radical social demands.
The lesson contemporary Americans can draw from the history of continental European party politics, then, is that in situations of polarized pluralism—even if the center holds—increasing strain may be placed on the country’s institutional framework as a whole. The fact that Trump has so far refused to accept his election loss—as well as the delegitimation of the democratic process among large swaths of the Republican base that has ensued—is not to be taken lightly. Nor is there any easy fix for polarized pluralism, since it is a reflection of real social divisions that increasingly correspond to solidified ideological blocs.
The comparison to Europe over the past century may invite speculation that the United States is faced with a radical choice between a complete breakdown of the political system—as happened in Italy and Germany during the interwar years—and a radical overhaul of the underlying socioeconomic order comparable to the postwar welfarist revolution. The most probable scenario, however, remains something more akin to the stagnation and breakdown that happened in Europe after all the midcentury’s sound and fury. For now, the United States is likely to be governed by a form of residual centrism defined primarily by opposition to the far-left and the far-right—perpetually kicking the can down the road and maintaining a veneer of stability while social dissatisfaction continues to brew beneath the surface. Eventually, it will boil over.