Soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump has made a career out of opposing all things “politically correct.” With his rhetoric In many ways representative of the radical right, scores of Americans have questioned if his time in office further polarized an already divided nation.
A split Democratic Party wanted (by some accounts, needed) an uninflammatory candidate in order to augment their chances of winning this election – someone in the middle that both the progressives and right-leaning party members could settle for, and that Blue moderates could even be excited about. So, Joe Biden received the nomination. A known bridge across aisles, and the former Vice President to decidedly bipartisan Barack Obama, Biden is coming into the presidency with a Democrat controlled House and currently undecided Senate. Throughout his campaign, Biden promised to prioritize cooperation between parties, as he tactically avoided isolating his centrist Republican counterparts by attributing increased party division almost entirely to Mr. Trump.
As Biden was an official that oversaw the enactment of the Affordable Care Act under a Democratic congressional supermajority, it’s a wonder how these promises will play out. But, personally, as someone aligned with far-left leaning values in a center to right-leaning country, I wonder if cooperation is even something still worth pursuing; if it ever was.
Many of the issues that America is facing are ones that cannot wait. Our timeline for avoiding global climate destruction has hit the sub-decade mark, lenient pandemic regulations will likely infect over 20-30 million Americans in total and have allowed the crisis to snowball further than necessary, and issues of social justice that are just being raised fall into the category of problems which have already been made to wait for too long. Yet, ideologies that put these issues as uncompromising focuses of their agenda are far from accepted by the political establishment in the United States. So, if you want to prioritize and enact change within these areas (or their far-right equivalents), how does compromise impact your ability to do so?
Looking back at some of the most consequential federal legislation ever passed, including the Civil Rights Act, the Patriot Act, Medicare/Medicaid Acts, the New Deal Legislation, the Affordable Care Act, and the tax cuts bills that wrote Reagan’s trickle-down economics philosophy into law (ERTA), will surely lend some insight. All were passed under Blue or Red Executive majorities, and many were authorized without compromise. The Affordable Care Act was changed and diminished at every step of the way in attempts to sway Republican Congressmen, only for its negotiated end proposal to fail to garner a single red vote. So, if Republicans were going to refuse to endorse anything Obama and his party members put on the docket anyways, why would he not have simply forgotten the GOP and made his bills as extreme as he could while still winning enough of the Democrat vote to pass? Why appease a group whose leader, Mitch McConnell, identified the “single most important thing” for the GOP to be making Obama “a one-term president?” Why not try to get as much done as you can? If anything, Obama’s commitment, time after time, to bipartisanship shows its worthlessness to the Republican party. Merrick Garland’s SCOTUS seat was snatched away, in spite of years of Presidential negotiation with Senate Republicans, on the basis of some alleged constitutional conflict only to have that same party leader, McConnell, turn around four years later and seat Barrett with his own majority, claiming that this time it’s different. Even in the absence of radicalism, Republicans maintained their policy of “Obama obstructionism” for close to a decade.
In inter-party compromise, oftentimes politicians and groups that are actually radical are villainized as “distracting” from realistic achievements and progress. In reality, far-out ideas shift mainstream perceptions of the “center” of American politics closer to radicality by grounding and normalizing initially more off-center ideas in comparison. As much as Mr. Trump might have emboldened his party, his success was still founded at least in part in the work of far-right leaders before 2016 to “shift the center” of America, thereby making the country an environment where his election was feasible. What is considered achievable will change because of increased extremes, even though those extremes will still not be accomplishable in full. The idea that working towards policies which deviate too sharply from the center reduces the probability of any success at all is a fallacy when the majority of politicians do not lean towards significant deviation. Outsiders (both elected and otherwise) motivate the majority to compromise less through the threat that they will lose power and popularity to more radical groups, thus enacting change in addition to all of the monumental change that progressives and far-right groups have enacted on their own.
I want to believe in collaboration, but policies of appeasing the moderate are far from ideal. Consistent “settling” never has been or will be coherent with a consistent change in any arena of politics. Electing centrist officials and passing centrist policies, repeatedly, will only result in a Groundhog-Day government. For better or for worse, most influential change occurs as a result of tremendous teamwork; just not across parties. Whatever your philosophy for bipartisanship among citizens, a system of absolute pragmatism will never deliver meaningful results in American politics because, in a majority centrist country, pragmatism’s base rests in delivering the illusion of progress. Our political climate and structure make it so that effective “working with the system” has to mean working with majorities.