Wednesday, after two of the most destructive and tumultuous weeks in our nation’s history, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States. The remarkably broad coalition of voters from across the political spectrum that elected Biden and Kamala Harris are naturally hopeful that America can be governed constructively again. And many are simultaneously anxious that he won’t be able to pass the legislation and enact the measures the country needs to get back on its feet and to “build back better,” as his slogan had it. Even with the two amazing Senate wins in Georgia, the Democratic margins in both houses are razor-thin. Given the assumed level of Republican intransigence, how will Biden, Kamala Harris, and the Democrats ever get anything done?
The Biden/Harris challenges are monumental. No single moment is a more poignant symbol of the turbulence ahead than the siege of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The poisonous seeds of authoritarian populism have been planted and nurtured in America for the past four years, and they have taken root and grown heartily. Controlling these forces will be exceedingly difficult. Thus, there are ample reasons for profound skepticism that Biden/Harris will be able to convert its remarkably broad-based electoral majority into governing majorities.
And yet, this is precisely what the new Administration, and the leaders of America’s major political factions, now must create in order to govern effectively in these uncertain times. Lacking the kinds of large and reliable majorities that FDR and LBJ enjoyed, Biden must create what I call “majorities of expediency” to pass the key pieces of his program. What do I mean by majorities of expediency? The term is imperfect. It is not intended as a vacant abstraction of mere intention. Nor is it meant to suggest some implausible promise of “unity,” or the quieting of partisan passions. Rather, majorities of expediency refer to the conscious, purposeful will by leaders inside and outside government to do all in their power to build the alliances, issue by issue, that are necessary to govern effectively on behalf of the American people. This requires ad hoc partnerships of convenience and unlikely majorities on specific policies that will be vilified by those intent on disruption and division.
I am not naïve about all this, especially in these deeply polarized times. But I believe there is evidence that even in this awful moment of national trauma, ad hoc coalition-building may be possible. In addition, two realities give me some optimism. The first is the breadth of the Biden/Harris coalition. It’s the largest and broadest presidential electorate ever, and it provides credible evidence that a governing ethos is possible. Second, in spite of real differences that separate America’s disparate political factions today, I believe that enough of them now comprehend the profound dangers of governing failure and how it can lead to the rise of authoritarian populism. The political imperative of our time, therefore, is to marry these two realities into a force that can find ways to work together in Washington. I believe that they can.
The Biden/Harris Electorate Is Remarkable in Its Breadth and Depth
The 2020 election was a modern miracle. In the midst of a pandemic, in a country deeply divided by hyper-partisan rancor, traumatized by a President committed to delegitimizing the election itself, more people voted than in any election in American history—more than 155 million Americans. It’s the largest number of votes ever cast in America by more than 17 million. As dramatic as the total vote numbers are, the apparent distribution of votes garnered by Biden/Harris represents the broadest, deepest electorate of liberals, moderates, and some conservatives; Democrats, Independents, and some Republicans; men and women; whites and people of color; urban, suburban, and rural; low and higher incomes; college and non-college educated; and so on in any of our lifetimes. (Exit polls are imperfect, and we won’t have final exit analyses for some time, but we have used them as a guide to voting patterns in every post-election analysis for decades.)
This is both an achievement of electoral significance and suggestive of what is required to forge a sustainable governing ethos. Consider the following:
- Biden/Harris voters appear to be 55 percent white and 45 percent people of color.
- Biden/Harris handily won females by as much as 12 million votes (46 million versus 34 million); Blacks by more than 15 million votes; and Latinx by about 7 million.
- Biden/Harris appear to have won 15 million more votes among voters with incomes under $100,000 (64 million versus 49 million).
- Biden/Harris carried self-identified moderates and liberals by more than 46 million votes (70 million versus 24 million). Moreover, Biden/Harris apparently beat Trump/Pence among self-identified Independent voters by about 5 million (roughly 22 million versus 17 million).
- Biden/Harris won more first-time voters and city and suburban voters; and they increased the number and percentages of votes they received among rural, white, born again evangelicals, veterans and other critical demographic groups compared to the Clinton/Kaine vote in 2016.
- Overall, Biden/Harris received roughly 15 million more votes than Clinton/Kaine, including some as yet indeterminate number who voted for Trump/Pence in 2016.
In sum, this is the broadest, most diverse electorate animated by protection of democratic ideals, institutions and norms, constructive governance, and rejection of illiberalism in our lifetimes. It is poised to become the voice of a governing ethos committed to solving problems and confronting the disruptive forces of Trumpism 2.0.
A Nation of Factions Within Factions
The 2020 election did not change the fact that America is a nation of deep divisions influenced by eight, or more, political factions. These factions, within and outside of the political parties, have the financial resources necessary to inform (or misinform), organize, and mobilize voters on behalf of, and in opposition to, candidates up and down the ballot.
Prior to the Trump era, these factions operated within a twentieth-century mindset. They devoted their billions of dollars and substantial organizing and communications capacities to traditional political battles along narrow ideological, issue-specific, or party lines. But over the past four years, a new political consciousness has emerged. It is a profound awareness that as long as every well-organized and well-financed faction fails to be part of some alliances some of the time in order to achieve solutions for the American people, those with booming megaphones spewing daily disinformation and divisiveness will obfuscate truth, break trust, denigrate reason, trample civility, and crush our abilities to govern.
This view recently was emphasized by Reed Galen, one of the co-founders of the Republican-renegade-led communications effort, the Lincoln Project, who wrote in The Washington Post: “We must combat the…. forces [of nihilism and mayhem] everywhere and all the time. It will take the dedication of citizens of all political beliefs to recognize that what Trumpism represents is far outside the American mainstream. Progressives will need to join with conservatives. Independents will need to join the army of decency and democracy.”
This new awareness among major factions in the American body politics was manifest in the Biden/Harris electoral majority. It now must be realized in the difficult work of governing. The following is a brief synopsis of some of the more prominent factions that constitute the current political landscape.
The Three Republican Factions
Trumpism 2.0 and Its Allies. This wing of Republicanism is about to become a powerful privately funded constituency outside of government, aided and abetted by elected officials who support it, intent on continuing to threaten the institutions and norms of democracy, aligning with authoritarians around the globe, battling for control of the Republican Party, mounting primary challenges in 2022 against those it considers apostates. It will provide the chief opposition to formation of new productive governing alliances to solve our country’s most pressing problems.
Grassroots Conservative-Right Network. A powerful and purposeful consortium of conservative-right constituencies organized and mobilized by Americans for Prosperity (AFP). It’s a $500 million to $1 billion per electoral cycle, Koch family-led, grassroots political juggernaut. It achieved many of its down-ballot objectives in 2020 in the 30 states in which the network is most active. It surgically protected and elected Republican legislators, held onto most Republican governorships and narrowed the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. However, it also appears that a not insignificant number of people who voted for AFP-endorsed down-ballot candidates also voted for Biden/Harris in some critical swing states. While AFP mobilized many voters who supported the Trump/Pence ticket in 2020, anecdotal evidence and exit polls in critical suburban, and even rural, districts in battleground states appear to confirm that a not insignificant number of people who voted for AFP-endorsed down-ballot candidates also voted for Biden/Harris. Moreover, in the last 60 days, the leadership of AFP has congratulated and issued statements of willingness to work with President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris.
The New Voices of Conservatism. Finally, a creative, scrappy new voice of former or disaffected Republicans has emerged over the past several years. These are pragmatic, principled, patriotic, and open-minded conservatives who have become deeply offended by Trump’s appalling lack of character and his trashing of core conservative principles. So-called “Never Trumpers”—groups such as Republicans for the Rule of Law, The Lincoln Project, Stand Up Republic, Niskanen Center, R Street Institute, and others—are asking penetrating questions about the fate of the Republican Party. These discomforted and talented renegades are building influence among both grassroots Republicans and some local, state, and national Republican elected officials. They will be a voice and force for supporting broadly-based governing alliances on some issues, some of the time.
Democrats’ Multiple Factions
The Progressive Left. The progressive left is an increasingly influential force within American politics and the Democratic Party. They support major tax increases on the wealthiest Americans and a fundamental reordering of government spending priorities to address the inequities in our society from health care to climate, education to infrastructure, and to overhaul the structures and systems of both democracy and capitalism in order to better serve the middle class and those in greatest need. The progressive left’s spiritual leader is Bernie Sanders, along with his closest allies in Congress. Their institutional base includes groups such as Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democratic Socialists of America, the Sunrise Movement, and the Working Families Party. The progressive left has a sizeable and meaningful war-chest of at least several hundred million dollars per year from millions of online donors who contributed to the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The Center-Left. A second influential faction within the Democratic Party is the center left (which also refers to itself as “progressive”). This faction believes that sustainable change generally is incremental and requires a workable coalition of liberal, moderate, and conservative Democrats, collaborating whenever possible with center-right Republicans willing to build cross-partisan coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis. It consists of organizations that often do not agree with one another, such as the Center for American Progress, Third Way, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and many others. The range of groups on the center left consider themselves liberal pragmatists, their narrative and rhetoric generally are tempered, and while they share with the progressive left similar perceptions about many of the critical problems to be addressed, the specifics of their proposed solutions are as likely as not to diverge.
Democratic-leaning Single Cause Groups. There is a powerful, less cohesive, and therefore poorly understood, third force within the Democratic Party, one that does not align neatly with the progressive left or the center left. This is an inchoate collection of passionate single-issue or single-constituency groups, which bring their own energy and demands to bear on Democratic politics. They support almost exclusively Democratic candidates, have potent grassroots networks, possess hundreds of millions of dollars of organizational resources, and advocate relentlessly in both the electoral and legislative arenas for their respective agendas. Specifically, and most formidably, these are Black and Latinx groups, womens’ and LGBTQ organizations, environmental/climate change and immigration advocates and civil and human rights groups. While individual members of each of these single-focus groups consider themselves to be progressive left or center left, the most politically active Democratic-leaning single cause advocates tend to pursue their own groups’ specific interests without sharply defined political and economic ideologies.
Independents. Another critically important but often overlooked and misunderstood bloc of voters is “self-identified independents.” According to preliminary exit polls, they represented 28 percent of the 2020 presidential electorate (roughly 40 million voters). These voters, while not official members of political parties, align with one or the other on a range of issues and in support of various candidates. They likely are more “cross-partisan” than most conservatives and liberals. They trend younger, and their needs, interests, and perspectives are not as well understood as better organized cohorts. More single minded and single purpose than the other factions, they represent a critically important part of the Biden/Harris constituency and could become a significant factor for forging majorities of expediency in the 117th Congress.
Cross-Partisan, Democracy Reform/Bridge-Builder Groups. Finally, in recent years, a cultural and political reform community has organized outside of the major parties. Most of the leaders and supporters of this “bridging” and “democracy reform” work identify as belonging to the center-right, center-left, and independent political factions. Their agendas, however, are different from the priorities of the two major parties. They are devoted, for the most part, to passage of specific state electoral reforms (including redistricting, ranked-choice voting, open primaries, etc.); modernizing how Congress functions; lessening the influence of large contributions in politics; promoting bridging of cultural and political divides through enhanced listening skills, empathy-building and diverse, multi-stakeholder problem-solving; and re-imagining civic learning and building support for a robust program of national service for young Americans.
Eighty-one million voters from within from each of these factions, save of course those who voted for Trump/Pence, contributed to the Biden/Harris electoral victory. Why? Because they were terrified of four more years of belligerent leadership and broken government. They perceived an existential threat to the wellbeing of our country and to Americas’ relations around the world. They believed we could self-govern ourselves better than we have been.
These voters have called for a new political ethos. They have chosen governing to solve some of the nations’ most critical problems and combat Trumpism 2.0, and/or its progeny. It is now incumbent on the new President and his Administration, and leaders of these factions, to assert the will, and muster the courage and trust required, to build the alliances necessary to govern productively. Simply stated, the imperative of the Biden presidency is to lead the formation of alliances of expediency among whomever, whenever, and however in order to govern our country.
Creating Majorities of Expediency
Majorities of expediency will not solve all of Americas’ problems; and now that Democrats control both the Senate and the House, albeit by the slimmest of margins, there’s no doubt that there will be intense pressure from some Democrats for purely partisan solutions. And, indeed, some legislation and executive action critical to important constituencies of the Biden/Harris coalition will be enacted without Republican support.
But that fact does not preclude the imperative of majorities of expediency that is agreed to by a broad-based alliance of disparate factions. For without it, significant achievable solutions cannot be found for most critical problems, and Trumpism 2.0 will continue to divide and conquer and gain ground in the 2022 midterms.
I understand that authoritarian populism, which has been on the rise throughout the world in the age of social media, is ascendant and may be too powerful to contain. In addition, I understand that the instinct to fight fire with fire is stronger than ever. The argument is clear: If ends justify means for right-wing authoritarian populists, ends must justify means for those who oppose them. The problem with this argument is that authoritarian populism thrives in the stew of hyper-political partisanship that fails to find solutions to problems that matter to a broad cross section of Americans.
Mine is not a cliched call for “unity.” Unity is neither possible nor necessary. Majorities of expediency are not a call to “unite the county.” We are a nation of political factions. Each faction possesses its own financial, organizational, and leadership resources devoted to pursuit of its values and desired policies. Our cultural and political factions will never agree on everything. Passion and partisanship will and should remain a central feature of the American cultural and political experience. It is through our diversity of thought and perspective that we frequently can discover solutions that sustainably address pressing problems. Thus, the goal of majorities of expediency is neither unity nor creation of a perfect union.
What governing majorities mean, instead, is the acceptance of, and willingness to participate in, a regularly shifting set of majorities. The disparate factions that believe in a functional republic and oppose the destructive excesses of authoritarian populism that will be practiced by Trumpism 2.0 need one another more than ever. None can achieve what they want on their own. Thus, there are powerful incentives for conservatives, progressives, and independents to work together with whomever, wherever, and whenever they are able.
This should begin with a shared interest in managing the pandemic, including getting Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible and passing another stimulus package to address the economic traumas currently confronting our communities, health-care systems, small businesses, and families.
How coalitions come together on other issues will depend on a number of factors. The alliances around specific issues, causes, and solutions that are necessary to achieve some of these objectives, for the most part, will be opportunistic and episodic—one majority coalition for criminal justice reform, another for health care for all, yet another around a consensus for forward-leaning solutions on immigration, or for climate change or racial justice, or democracy reforms.
Over the past month, bipartisan alliances have passed the latest stimulus package, certified the election, and participated in the House impeachment vote. And, with the Democrats’ wins in the Senate races in Georgia, Chuck Schumer will control the legislative calendar in the Senate, meaning that Mitch McConnell can no longer just bury legislation that the House has passed, as he did in the last Congress. Further, several senators who are in line to become committee chairs are known to be skilled in the arts and science of bipartisanship, including Patrick Leahy (Appropriations); Jack Reed (Armed Services); Maria Cantwell (Commerce, Science and Transportation); Tom Carper (Environment and Public Works); Ron Wyden (Finance); Dick Durbin (Judiciary); and Patty Murray (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions).
So, what are some matters on which President Biden could create majorities of expediency in the months ahead? Here are three:
Infrastructure. “Infrastructure Week” was a running punch line of the Trump era. But with a President who actually cares about it, something could happen. John Barrasso, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, was recently quoted as saying that an infrastructure bill is something Republicans and Democrats could “work on together in a productive way.” It’s important to remember here that as Politico reported recently, the surface transportation law, now operating on a one-year extension, expires in the fall, which offers a ready-made opportunity to revisit the issue.
Criminal Justice Reform. A bipartisan bill was passed, and signed by Trump, in 2019, but there is still more to do. There is growing bipartisan sentiment for criminal justice reforms that include banning no knock warrants, making police disciplinary records public, rethinking juvenile sentencing, reducing incarceration, abolishing mandatory sentences, and expanding mental health and drug treatment in prisons. There is considerable support among conservatives, progressives, and moderates for these and other reforms.
Immigration/Dreamers. There are likely to be strong bipartisan voices for immigration reform from across the political spectrum. Since the election, the Evangelical Immigration Table, representing a range of evangelical voices, has issued a “Statement of Principle for Immigration Reform” calling on “Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in the 117th Congress to work together” to solve the various aspects of our immigration crisis. Biden is reported to be sending an immigration bill to Congress today, his very first day in office. Fourteen Senate Republicans backed immigration reform in 2013. The Senate GOP caucus has moved right since then, but the ten votes needed to clear cloture might be gettable. Watch Marco Rubio, who backed reform eight years ago.
There will be more. Some aspects of Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan could draw ad hoc majorities, especially those having to do with manufacturing and innovation. But even just accomplishing the above three would be astounding.
Will real progress on these and other issues be exceedingly difficult in the face of Trumpist 2.0 obstruction? Yes. And even if achieved, will these victories change the world? No. But they’ll be a beginning. Successful majorities of expediency in a few areas could beget progress in others. And collectively, when more and more Republicans reject the new iterations of Trumpism, as investigations and prosecutions reveal the depth of the un-Americanism of the Trump insurrection, the possibilities for alliances could increase. None of this will be a panacea; but it holds the promise of a return to governing sanity that would be as effective a counterforce to rising authoritarian populism as anything our elected leaders could do.
Joe Biden Is the Right Man for This Moment
Inspiring disparate interests to align with others to govern productively will require exceptional, courageous, and creative leadership from President Biden and from all parties. Courageous leadership of course requires listening, empathy, relationship-building, laser-like focus on resolving differences, tough love, and tougher decision-making. Not every problem can be solved through consensus or cajoling; some matters simply are too contentious and divisive. But the many problems that do lend themselves to problem-solving among diverse stakeholders require dialogue that is disciplined, evidence-based, and results-oriented.
It also requires a measure of forbearance. It frequently takes courage for members of Congress to break with their faction or caucus and join with others to form a majority of expediency. It therefore is critical that the conservative right and progressive left find ways to reward such members with support at election time, or at least thoughtfully refrain from punishing or launching primary challenges against them. A good signal in this regard might be what Emily Seidel, CEO of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-controlled conservative-right grassroots network, was quoted as saying recently that AFP “will continue to look for ways to support those policymakers who reject the politics of division and work together to move our country forward.”
President-elect Biden is as seasoned and poised for courageous leadership to build these alliances as any President in modern times. His 40-plus year history of bipartisan friendships, his deep knowledge of how Washington and Congress work, and his personal empathy and warmth have all contributed to a career of bipartisan accomplishments. As Senator Chris Murphy (D Conn.) said recently, “If Joe Biden says that… he has a unique ability to work with Republicans to get big stuff done, I don’t think right now is the time not to believe him, given all he has accomplished over the past year.”
Moreover, there still are leaders in Congress from both parties (although their effectiveness has been blunted in recent years) who potentially possess the courage and skills necessary to build alliances to govern productively. In the House, this includes the nearly 60 Republican and Democratic members of the Problem Solvers Caucus and 12 leaders of the bipartisan Committee for the Modernization of Congress. In the Senate, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, and possibly Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman. James Lankford, Pat Toomey, and John Barrasso could support certain Biden initiatives.
There also are talented mayors and governors of both parties who forge governing coalitions among diverse stakeholders and craft meaningful solutions for their cities and states. These include Republican governors such as Governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Democrats such as Governors Jared Polis of Colorado and Jay Inslee of Washington, all of whom have influence within their respective National Governor networks.
Two months before the shameful siege of the Capitol by MAGA followers, incited by the President himself and his congressional allies, 81 million Americans voted for Biden/Harris. These generally are Americans committed more to country than to party and who champion democratic institutions and norms. They span the ideological spectrum from some on the progressive left to some on the conservative right, and of course everyone in between.
What makes the next months and years so exceptional and the potential for forging majorities of expediency so possible is the elegant alignment of the man, the moment, and this remarkably broad electoral majority. We are not in another FDR or LBJ moment, and Biden is neither of those men. Rather, he has come to power just as our nation has been awakened to the profound dangers of our fragility. We understand, perhaps as never before, that failure to govern is not an option. It is an incitement to chaos.
A Biden Administration that is fortified by the broadest, deepest, and largest coalition of voters in recent times, led by one of this era’s most skilled relationship builders, and a nation in desperate need of problem solving is perhaps our last, best chance for governing our republic in order to create a more just society and erect a bulwark against the ravages of authoritarian populism.