The 2016 presidential election was decided for Donald Trump by 78,000 votes that won him three states: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In 2020, he lost the Presidential election by 92,000 votes in three states: Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona.
On Jan. 5, two runoff Senatorial races will be held in Georgia, with control of the Senate at stake. Meanwhile, the Democratic House majority, perhaps only seven seats, will be the smallest in decades, and may disappear in 2022.
These narrow victories exacerbate partisan differences and discourage bipartisan cooperation as the parties jockey for wins in the next turn of the electoral wheel.
America needs one of the two parties to become a durable governing majority.
That pattern of a genuinely majority party had been the norm in American history since the Civil War. For most of that time, until the 1930s, it was the Republican Party that was dominant. From the Depression into the 1980s, it was the Democratic Party.
Occasionally the minority party would break-through, which kept the dominant Party in tune with majority voter sentiment. But mostly, the dominant party would control the government.
This led to more stable and less frenzied politics than we have today.
Each political party could become that dominant national force today. But each also has fundamental flaws.
The Republican Party actually would have the easier path to become America’s national party because of its widespread control at the state level. Pennsylvania is a good example of that state control. The General Assembly remains reliably Republican even when Pennsylvania votes Democratic for president and governor.
But Republicans will not attain national status until the party cures two pathologies: a romance with racism and its war on science.
The willingness of the Republican Party to indulge racism has been a consistent theme, from Nixon’s Southern strategy to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens,” to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad, to Trump’s “very fine people” at Charlottesville. Gone are the days when more Republican than Democratic votes passed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.
Republicans are buoyed by reports that the party did better than expected with non-white voters in 2020. But that progress will not continue without a reckoning with this racist pattern. The Republican are going to have to banish racists from their party in the same way that American unions kicked out Communists in the 1950s.
The second problem—Republican skepticism toward scientific fact—is the main reason Trump mishandled the virus and lost the presidency.
Now that President-elect Joe Biden has broken the taboo on raising the issue of climate change, and still won Pennsylvania, Republicans will have to confront the issue. No party will achieve national dominance if it denies the reality of human- induced climate change. Republicans can reject the Green New Deal, but the party will have to come up with its own response to the crisis.
Climate change denial is fantasy. If that continues, young people will simply not vote Republican.
For the Democrats, my party, the path to national status is more complicated because there are constituencies involved that the party cannot afford to lose.
First, the Democrats must renounce their flirtation with socialism.
This does not mean general moderation. “Defund the police,” for example, was a rhetorical disaster for Democrats only because of the tactical error of labelling. The underlying policy of reorienting policing and confronting racist police policies has real national appeal.
The same is true of specific programs, such as Obamacare and Social Security. They are also popular.
But there is no national appeal in an alternative to a basically capitalist economy. In foreign affairs, this interest in socialism in the past led to Democrats apologizing for dictatorships in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. Today, it taints the party with Venezuela’s failed socialist economy.
Domestically, it aligns the Democrats with ever higher levels of government bureaucracy and regulation, even when this retards economic growth. And economic growth, as the Trump Presidency demonstrated, is the only policy that reliably raises wages and promotes economic equality.
Americans will not consistently vote for bigger government and less growth.
The other problem for Democrats is that they are identified as anti-religion and this is still a pretty religious country.
In polling Pennsylvania 2020 voters, 35 percent replied that they attend religious services monthly and this group voted for Trump 63 percent to 36 percent, more than offsetting Biden’s comparable strength with the third of the electorate who never attend religious services. In Florida, religion was an important factor in boosting Trump’s share of the Latino vote, thus contributing to a poor performance by Democrats in that state.
But Democrats cannot simply embrace religious communities. The party cannot compromise on core support for pro-choice and anti-discrimination policies without alienating its own base among women and the LGBTQ community.
So outreach in the area of religion must involve careful compromise. For example, abortion rights are popular nationally, but federal tax money for abortion is not.
Similarly, there is strong national support for anti-discrimination laws, but also for religious exemptions from those laws. It may be necessary to just live with the occasional dissenting florist or baker.
After all, what is more protective of the right to choose and of the rights of sexual minorities in the long run: Republican control of state legislatures with a strident Democratic minority or a more religion-friendly Democratic Party that controls state legislatures? The answer is obvious.
We are not going to continue with our current, closely divided, national politics forever. Political parties are pragmatic and politicians seek power. The path to national dominance lies open to both Republicans and Democrats. The first party to move will likely win the prize.
Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here