Over the past few decades, experts have called for fluctuations in US politics and politics to be attributed to the polarization of the partisans. From Bill Clinton's impeachment to the global war on terrorism and from Obamacare to "building the wall", virtually every major political issue is intended to divide American society into two irreconcilable partisan camps.
To the extent that polarization implies a hollowing out of the middle ground, its alleged prevalence in US politics is inconsistent with the fact that an adamant moderate centrist – Joe Biden – won the 2020 presidential election. To be fair, Biden's victory was certainly based on anti-Trump sentiment. However, this begs the question of how Biden stood up to the more left-wing candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders in the first place. The crystallization of a centrist camp around him during the primary process showed that progressives do not form a majority even within the Democratic Party. Shouldn't polarization mean a run to the extreme?
In order to understand Biden's victory, and to ponder some of its possible consequences, it is necessary to dismantle the two main political parties in the United States. This makes it clear that the mere partisan polarization is an inadequate description of the political reality in the USA. This is because, in addition to the bitter conflict between the two parties, there is also an increasingly pronounced conflict in each. And this largely overlooked internal conflict will play a crucial role in determining future policy outcomes.
Recognizing this bipartisan rivalry makes it possible to analyze contemporary US politics in terms of a four-way struggle that is more reminiscent of continental European multiparty systems than the increasingly outdated two-party system dynamics familiar to US political commentators. This transformation doesn't necessarily mean the death of US democracy, but it does mean that we need to start thinking about it differently.
Extending this analogy to European multi-party systems can help Americans better understand the deadlock in their own. Persistence in the myth of the US state of emergency obscures important lessons that can be learned from the Old World.
How exactly is the US political spectrum mapped to that on the other side of the Atlantic? To begin with, the progressive parliamentary group of the Democratic Party is expressly orientating itself towards the continental European tradition of social democracy. Proposals such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal may be viewed as "radical" or "far left" in the US, but seem fairly familiar from a European perspective. Most continental European countries take their publicly funded universal health systems for granted, and many northern European countries have already introduced major new environmental regimes under social democratic leadership. Sanders might not be that far off suggesting that the US move to Sweden or Denmark.
On the way to the center, the more moderate faction of the Democratic Party has a surprising number of things in common with the European tradition of Christian democracy: from their self-portrayal as centrists who tread a moderate middle path between the extreme left and the extreme right to their goal, Restoring social harmony through political compromise – aptly summed up in Biden's campaign promise to "restore the soul of America".
In this regard, it is noteworthy that Biden will only be the second Catholic President of the United States. Although his religion does not determine his political beliefs, he has claimed that it is an important source of inspiration for him. Biden lays rhetorical emphasis on terms such as human dignity, social courtesy and the resolutely multilateralist conception of international affairs. The situation is similar with the current German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the Christian Democratic Union.
On the other side of the US political center there is a remnant of traditional Republicans, most of whom went into hiding during the Trump era but may now reappear along with the political ambitions of figures like Mitt Romney, John Kasich and Larry Hogan. This ideological trend is more socially conservative and market-friendly than centrist democrats, who often use former President Ronald Reagan as inspiration. It can be compared to the right-wing liberalism that the liberal parties of Europe or the British Conservatives under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have traditionally advocated.
Finally, on the far right of the contemporary US political spectrum, there is a form of authoritarian populism that until recently was viewed as quite alien to the country's political culture: Trumpism. Some commentators have debated whether it could be called a form of proto- or neo-fascism.
US President Donald Trump undoubtedly shows his strong, racist nationalism and strategic disregard for democratic processes. But he has so far stopped glorifying violence openly and is still appealing to democratic issues – like his false claims that he won the 2020 election – to claim legitimacy. A real fascist would not even try to pretend that his rule was cemented by democratic means. In this sense, Trump can be more appropriately compared to European leaders like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Viktor Orban in Hungary, who are authoritarian populists.
Given that the US political landscape has been so Europeanized, it makes sense to examine classical European political science to find out which partisan dynamics are most likely to shape the United States in the near future. The concept of polarized pluralism, originally developed by Columbia University political scientist Giovanni Sartori to explain the stalemate in Italian party politics in the 1960s and 1970s, seems particularly telling in this regard.
Sartori's key intuition was that ideological fragmentation and polarization could happen at the same time. He predicted two major consequences of this one-two punch. First, political discourse becomes “centrifugal” as parties at the extremes have an incentive to differentiate themselves from others by outbidding each other with increasingly radical positions. Second, government action becomes “centripetal” as the only possible government majorities are those who unite the various sections of the center in bipartisan coalitions that settle for what little they can agree on.
In Italy, bitter attacks on the legitimacy of the democratic order were carried out by two parties in the 1960s and 1970s: the communists on the far left and the neo-fascists on the far right. Between them lay a multitude of fragmented parties and party factions revolving around the centrist Christian Democrats, with the socialists on their left and the liberals on their right. However, this framework made a change of leadership practically impossible. All factions in the center have had to stick together in a series of unstable coalitions to keep the left and right out of power.
Sound familiar? Half a century ago Italy bears an uncanny resemblance to what is already taking shape in the United States today: a remnant and internally fragmented centrist government doomed to draw a status quo line to hold together its bipartisan appeal, besieged both sides by radical opposition. This kind of polarized pluralism only needs to be further consolidated if the Republican Party retains control of the Senate after Georgia’s January runoff elections and mandates an intra-party coalition to do something.
Biden's cabinet nominations – and the reactions they've sparked – give us a preview of what's to come. Both Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin are prominent figures in the centrist establishment in Washington, and their appointments are not intended to alienate the moderate wing of the Republican Party. However, both have already been severely condemned by Trumpists and progressives to signal a return to the “swamp”.
What should be emphasized here is that, for Sartori, the kind of residual centrism that arises from polarized pluralism was cause for concern rather than reassurance. While its status quo bias may appeal to business interests in the short term, polarized pluralism tends to undermine the legitimacy of the overall political framework in the long term as it creates and thwarted increasingly radical social demands.
The lesson contemporary Americans can learn from the history of continental European party politics is that in situations of polarized pluralism – even if the center is in place – the institutional framework of the country as a whole can be increasingly strained. The fact that Trump has so far refused to accept his loss of the election, as well as the subsequent delegitimation of the democratic process among large parts of the republican base, should not be taken lightly. There is also no easy solution to polarized pluralism as it reflects real social divisions that correspond to increasingly entrenched ideological blocks.
A comparison with Europe over the last century could lead to speculation that the United States is faced with a radical choice between a complete breakdown of the political system – as happened in Italy and Germany in the interwar years – and a radical overhaul of the underlying socio-economic order comparable to the welfare revolution of the post-war period. However, the most likely scenario remains rather of the stagnation and collapse that occurred in Europe after all the sound and anger of the mid-century. Currently, the United States is likely to be ruled by some form of residual centrism, primarily defined by opposition to the far left and the far right. You're constantly kicking the can, creating stability while the social discontent lingers beneath the brew surface. At some point it will boil over.