Today, we are trapped in an ugly politics of parity that diminishes the nation. The two parties are joined in a destructive struggle – both trapped, neither really able to vanquish the other, but each with a realistic chance of winning any time the battle is rejoined. The result is not only a rising political acrimony but a diminished set of policy options for the country.
The politics of the Two Americas has changed the partisans. With the two parties closely matched and with each party having an equal change for victory, there are strong incentives to get as many votes as possible, to elevate the passions, from your existing partisans. The result: partisans have become more partisan. Politics has become more polarized. America has become more divided.
The current divide has actually formed over the last half-century, when no party has really succeeded in dominating at the polls over extended periods or commanding the realm of ideas. This uncertainty has invited a series of bold efforts by the Democrats and Republicans to become the leading party of the era, but each fell short, shaking up political loyalties without creating a new majority in the country. Kennedy and Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, Clinton and Gore all fell short. That set us on the road to political deadlock and deepening political divisions, particularly in the last decade.
In this culminating period since 1992, closed by three national elections, our politics has become cultural, with each side offering distinct and counterpoised views about government, values, the family, and the best way of life. The politics of culture has pushed other voting issues off the public agenda, though not out of the consciousness of ordinary voters.
That is not the way it was and, most importantly, not the way it has to be. I am frustrated with the diminished politics that parity fosters. The Two Americas is a very healthy place, even though plenty of people like myself, Democrat and Republican, will figure out how to win power in our divided world.
The Republicans, for their part, hold on to office unsure of their own mandate and public support, and use power ruthlessly to entrench their incumbency and to demonstrate that they can make progress. They will center their mandate on a Reagan view of the world, where America stands alone fighting for freedom, reliant on an unequaled military; they will claim to cut taxes and government and promote faith and family. They will seek “steal” some votes from the other side, focused heavily on Hispanics. The Republican strategy for becoming the indispensable party and breaking the deadlock is to enlarge their side of the Two Americas, allowing the other America to wither.
For their part, the Democrats, short just a handful of seats or votes, have fallen into the politics of maneuver, battling passionately over small issues and working desperately not to offend the right, left, or center.
There are plenty of ways that Democrats can win tactically, battling hard to win, but within the framework of our current divisions. My book explores those, and with the stakes so high, shows how Democrats have an honest chance of winning in 2004. But with the Republicans in control of all the levers of power, being just tactical and living with the status quo, may be the riskier course.
I hope that the Democrats will break out of this trap by acting boldly to change the rules of the game – draw different lines that confound the deepening cultural politics that limit what issues get addressed. The greatest threat to the current parity and issue conflicts is a “new fight” – drawing of new conflict lines with new issues that diminish or replace ones that were previously all-important and that make politics more or less important for various groups.
I believe these are times for Democrats to champion a 100-percent America. At a time of rising inequality and stagnant living standards, Democrats can once again put the spotlight on where our nation falls short in expanding opportunity. We can poise the choice between a 100-percent America and the current Republican course that privileges the few. We can scorn the greed and special interest politics and champion the nation. Indeed, we can recall JFK’s original opportunity vision, where America was admired for the kind of society we created.
A half century of inconclusive battle has not so dampened spirits that voters do not rise up to this new call to arms. But they want one America, not two.
Stan Greenberg is chairman and chief executive officer of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Greenberg has served as polling adviser to President Bill Clinton, President Nelson Mandela, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and other world leaders. He is the author of the book The Two Americas.