Heterogeneity --> Homogeneity

This might sound like a boring headline, but it's also the best explanation for what has happened to American politics over the past 20 years - and why Joe Biden is governing as a progressive.

What’s Happening?

  • Archaeologists have uncovered a 3,000-year-old city in Egypt.

  • The Biden administration has reversed the Trump administration’s cruel policy of denying aid to the Palestinians.

  • Laura Bassett interviewed the man who has been posting pictures of her feet to WikiFeet. It’s actually pretty interesting.

  • The Biden White House is leakproof.

  • I’ll have more to say on this soon, but this op-ed by Joe Manchin suggests that he is either astonishingly. dumb or embarrassingly naive. I hope this is all a bit of a ruse, but I’m getting increasingly concerned that it’s not.

  • Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer warned Congress against politicizing or eroding public confidence in the Supreme Court. In related news, Breyer is new around here.

  • Ninety-nine years is a pretty good run.

  • Happy American Traitors Surrender Day!

Thanks to all of you who subscribed this month to Truth and Consequences! Your subscriptions keep this newsletter going and I am humbled by your support. Thanks to your help I’ll be making a significant contribution to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, as I’d pledged to give 10 percent of all new subscriptions in the month of March to that organization. I’m doing so in the memory of my best friend growing up, Quin Wells. who should have turned 50 this month. If you haven’t yet subscribed, the rate for now remains $5 a month or $50 a year - the latter is a mere $4.16 a month or the cost of an overpriced cup of coffee. Also, please consider forwarding Truth and Consequences with a friend or sharing on social media. Word of mouth is a huge help in building support for a newsletter like this!

E Pluribus Unum

Yesterday in the New York Times, Ezra Klein has a column that tries to explain why Joe Biden is governing as a progressive. Klein offers four explanations:

  • The collapse of the Republican Party as a negotiating partner.

  • A new generation of crises created a new generation of staffers.

  • Biden has less trust in economists, and so does everyone else.

  • Biden is a politician in the truest sense of the word.

These are all, to a varying degree, correct. Still, Klein’s analysis misses the elephant in the room: Biden is governing as a liberal because the party he leads, and in particular, its congressional wing, has become more homogenous - and in turn more liberal. Just as Republicans have shed their moderate wing and, as a result, become more conservative, Democrats are experiencing a similar shift, albeit to the left. The gradual disappearance of the two parties’ centrist wings is the single best explanation for Biden’s own progressive shift - and where we are today in American politics.

Two Wings

Not long ago, each political party had two distinctive ideological wings. For Republicans, there was a moderate establishment wing and a conservative, activist segment. The moderates generally represented northeastern and some midwestern states, while the conservatives were prominent in the South, Sunbelt, and Far West.

After years of moderate dominance, the conservative wing began in the mid-to-late 60s to take control, most prominently in 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater wrestled away the presidential nomination from the moderate New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller. From that point on, the conservatives were in the ascendancy and the moderates in decline, as the party's power base shifted to the Deep South and Sunbelt.

Yet, even as Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the GOP’s congressional wing remained relatively moderate. That changed in the 1990s with the conservative takeover of the congressional caucus, a shift that would be complete after 2008, and the wipeout of centrist Republicans by so-called Tea Party conservatives.

For Democrats, the divide in the party was even sharper. The party’s two distinct wings ran mostly along regional lines. The party’s Southern wing was a relic of the Civil War, but it’s one that remained in place well into the 1990s and even 2000s. Indeed, it’s amazing to consider that in 1993, 14 out of 22 Southern senators from the Deep South were Democrats. In 1992, the party nominated Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton for president out of the belief that only a Southern Democrat could win back Southern voters and put a Democrat back in the White House. It turned out to be a correct view! Clinton won Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Today, of course, there are only two Democratic senators from the Deep South, and Joe Biden won just one Southern state (if you don’t count Virginia). That erosion in Democratic prospects has been recreated across the political map. As recently as 2009, three of the four senators from the two Dakotas were Democrats. It will be a very long time before that happens again.

A similar phenomenon is evident on the Republican side. In 1993, there were 7 Republican senators in the Northeast. Today, there are two - and one of them, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, is retiring. Oregon had two Republican senators; Washington had one. Now both states are solidly blue.

As I continually point out, in 2009, there were 13 Democratic senators in states that John McCain won the year before. Today, there are 3 Democratic senators in states won by Donald Trump in 2020. Conversely, there were 10 Republican senators in states won by Obama in 2008. Now there are three Republican senators in states won by Biden.

Both moderate wings' decline has shifted the two parties from being heterogeneous and diverse ideological caucuses to being overwhelmingly homogenous and ideologically siloed. Conservative Democrats, like those that used to win elections in the Deep South, have migrated to the GOP. Liberal Republicans have moved leftward. Moderates who used to win elections in states that voted for the other party in presidential elections have, for the most part, disappeared. The parties have experienced a transformative ideological and political sorting.

While once Democrats in red states had to worry about not appearing too liberal, now those concerns have largely disappeared - and largely because red-state Democrats are an endangered species. In general, Democrats have more to worry about from liberal primary challenges than Republican general election opponents. That’s even more true on the Republican side, as political decision-making is almost completely dictated by the threat of a conservative primary challenge.

This shift in the center of gravity in the party is reflected in Biden’s nearly three-month-old presidency. When he served in the US Senate, Biden was a fence straddler - and not between Democrats and Republicans, but rather within his own party. Based on his voting record, he usually stood somewhere in the middle between the party’s two wings. He’s doing the same thing now - but today, he is not navigating between liberal and moderates but rather between progressives and center-left Democrats. In other words, the party has shifted and Biden is shifting along with it.

That’s a far better explanation for his policy radicalism than anything else Klein flags.

Bipartisanship is Dead

Indeed, the ideological sorting of the two parties is perhaps the most under-appreciated transformation in modern American politics. Decades ago, congressional leaders could craft bipartisan coalitions because there were members of both parties who had similar concerns, interests, and even politics. Perhaps most famously, civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s because of a coalition of Northeastern Republicans and non-Southern Democrats. In fact, more Senate Democrats opposed the Civil Rights Act than Senate Republicans. You could reasonably argue that for much of the post-war period Northeastern Democrats had more in common, ideologically, with Northeastern Republicans than they did Southern Democrats.

In an era before partisan polarization, earmarks, horse-trading, and parochial considerations could be used to convince members to support contentious legislation. Members of Congress and senators would not necessarily have been afraid to cross party lines so long as they could accrue some political benefit, be it a pet project funded or money diverted to one’s district or state. If you were a Democratic senator from a Republican state, the most effective way to keep your job would be to bring home the proverbial bacon and deliver for your constituents. We don’t live in that political world anymore. Now the only currency that matters is whether there is a “D” or “R” next to your name.

That old world also led to policy outcomes that were less ideological and more pragmatic. To satisfy members of both parties, legislation could not veer too far right or too far left. Today, with little actual bipartisanship in Congress - and fewer blue senators in red states and red House members in blue districts - neither party has much incentive to trim their sails. Satisfying their constituents comes first, which has further made bipartisanship virtually impossible.

Weak President, Strong Congress

A president’s success, at least when it comes to domestic policy, will always be predicated on the willingness of Congress to allow him or her to be successful. Barack Obama could have proposed a $3 trillion infrastructure plan and higher taxes on corporate America in 2009 - and he would have been laughed out of the room not just by Republicans, but also his own party. A dozen years ago, Democrats would have had zero appetite for a bill that large. That kind of legislating simply wasn’t possible. In today’s Democratic party - and in the face of intractable GOP obstructionism - it is.

President Biden has not discovered the special sauce for getting things done in Washington. He may listen more to his political advisors than to economists and hire plenty of liberal staffers - but none of that matters all that much. In an era of intense political polarization he has an ideologically and politically unified Democratic caucus willing to do his legislative bidding.

That’s the reason he’s governing as a progressive. Period.

Musical Interlude

There aren’t that many great songs about fences, except perhaps this one, Bob Dylan’s “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence.”

Seeing as its April and all, here’s Simon and Garfunkel performing a beautiful version of “April, Come She Will.”

I’m not a huge fan of Rufus Wainwright, but his song, “April Fool’s Day” is great.