Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond

Tensions Between and Within the Two Parties

This paper was jointly published with the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group

It is a truism of modern American politics that the United States is a deeply divided nation. By almost all measures, the two parties are further apart from each other, both at the elite level, and in the electorate, than in the past. There are more and more politically lopsided counties, and only a small percentage of states and congressional districts swing from one party to another. Partisan unity scores in Congress are very high.

Yet, while the parties are far apart from each other, there are also tensions within them—tensions that were clearly on display in the 2016 primaries. In both parties, primaries revealed rifts, though Democrats were generally more cohesive than Republicans. As it appeared that Hillary Clinton would win the election, it became fashionable for political observers to write about the coming Republican civil war.

While Trump’s victory quieted some of that talk, there are still deep tensions within the Republican coalition, divisions that are now re-emerging as the exigencies of legislating return. Most notably, the nativist populism on which Donald Trump campaigned is at odds with much of what Republicans have traditionally embodied. It is unclear how Trump can both deliver the policies he promised while holding onto support from the more traditional conservatives who stuck with him.

This paper investigates the nature of the political conflict both between and within the two major political parties. The primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality, while that the traditional conflict over economics, though still important, is less divisive now than it used to be. This has the potential to reshape the party coalitions.

The key findings of this report include: 

  • The primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality, while the traditional conflict over economics, though still important, is less divisive now than it used to be. This has the potential to reshape the party coalitions.
  • By making questions of national identity more salient, Donald Trump succeeded in winning over “populists” (socially conservative, economically liberal voters) who had previously voted for Democrats.
  • Among populists who voted for Obama, Clinton did terribly. She held onto only 6 in 10 of these voters (59 percent). Trump picked up 27 percent of these voters, and the remaining 14 percent didn’t vote for either major party candidate.
  • To the extent that the Democratic Party is divided, these divisions are more about faith in the political system and general disaffection than they are about issue positions.
  • By contrast, Republican voters are more clearly split. For the most part, Trump and Cruz supporters look fairly similar, though Cruz supporters are considerably more conservative on moral issues, and notably less concerned about inequality and the social safety net, and more pro- free trade. Kasich supporters are the true moderates, caught in between the two parties on almost every issue, both economic and social.
  • In both parties, the donor class is both more conservative on economic issues and more liberal on social issues, as compared to the rest of the party
  • Democrats may be pressured to move further left on identity issues, given that both younger voters and the party’s donor class are quite far to the left on identity issues. If so, American politics would become further polarized along questions of culture and identity.

View and download the paper here

Author:

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the program on political reform at New America. He is the author of The Business of America is Lobbying (Oxford University Press, 2015).