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Opinion | Is America Ungovernable Now?

I asked Arceneaux if Biden’s goal of bipartisanship is pie in the sky:

I fear so. There are so many other forces, beyond the power of the president, that influence polarization. If Republicans in Congress, governorships, and statehouses along with conservative media were to play hardball, I anticipate that polarization will remain at the heightened levels that we now see it.

There are those who are cautiously optimistic, who note the newly visible power of Black voters, striking gains in Biden’s high-level appointments of African-Americans and his commitment to reverse Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Some of these scholars believe that the Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 may also open a window of opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.

Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, noted that

as ugly as the last four years have been and, as much as they hurt many people, elites were largely willing to tolerate it — it delivered policies they enjoyed and economic returns to the wealthiest Americans. It even delivered clicks on Twitter and Facebook. The norms that Trump violated were mostly abstract and didn’t seem to be any immediate threat to their way of life.

The events of Jan. 6, Enos wrote by email, transformed all that:

With the visceral reality of the attack on the Capitol, this seems to have changed — some Republican elites immediately abandoned Trump and even elites in business and elsewhere, who previously may have disliked Trump but were still not motivated to take action against him, were shocked into taking action to limit the damage.

Enos concluded:

Trump’s brand has been greatly diminished. But even in his diminished state, Trump is unlikely to simply go away — and voters most committed to the party, those most willing to vote, are going to continue to listen to him. Republicans have put themselves — and the country — in a terrible position.

Leonie Huddy, a professor of political scientist at Stony Brook University, expanded on this point:

One likely outcome of the violent Capitol riots is that an increased number of Republicans are forced to confront the influence of white supremacy within the party. Many Republicans have looked the other way throughout the Trump presidency. But that will be difficult going forward, creating an obvious fault line within the party. Republican leadership will be crucial in determining whether the party continues to embrace, or at least tolerate white supremacy, or moves forcefully to marginalize its influence.

Expanding further, Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard, wrote in an email:

The invasion of the Capitol gives Biden an opportunity to reach out to Republicans who expressed their unease with Trump after Jan. 6, including Mitch McConnell. I expect Biden to be very effective legislating. Biden knows how to get things done, based on his experience in the White House as vice president and on the Hill as a senator.

Biden, in Ansolabehere’s view, does have one significant weakness:

His Achilles’ heel is communication. He has a great personal style, but that can fall flat and he is prone to snafus. He has a history of being baited in public and a bit too quick, resulting in misstatements. It’s unclear if he has adapted fully to the social media age. Communications might be a struggle, especially compared to the always entertaining Donald J. Trump.

If Biden remains committed to a restoration of bipartisanship in Congress, his administration, in Ansolabehere’s view, will face an ongoing struggle as it attempts to balance the demands of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party while recruiting at least a few Republicans. “I would not be surprised to see a big infrastructure bill with a lot of money for roads, airports and energy,” Ansolabehere said. “That is the kind of measure that would get everybody on board.”

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at Brookings, described Biden’s task as monumental: “How does President Biden govern in the face of these culturally oriented divisions?” She proposed that he adopt the following strategy:

He would be wise to frame his legislative agenda in the language of red, or at least purple, America. He can be progressive in his actions if he is tempered in his language. He has to convince a large segment of the population that he does not intend to defund the police, socialize medicine, open the borders to unlimited immigration, expand the welfare state, strangle small businesses in regulations, or give new preferences to some groups at the expense of others. He should talk about his faith, his family, his pragmatism and his commitment to working hard to be president of all America.

There are others who believe that Biden has already come close to doing the exact opposite of what Sawhill proposes. David Frum, a speechwriter for George W. Bush, a leading never-Trumper and a staff writer for The Atlantic, tweeted on Jan. 17:

The Biden immigration plans could wreck his whole administration from the start. They will invite a border surge that will force Biden to choose between mass detentions or ever-accelerating unauthorized migration.

One question I posed to the scholars and analysts I contacted was: How governable is a country in which a substantial proportion of the voters believe an election was stolen?

In response, David Bell, a professor of history at Princeton, pointed out that:

The country has barely been governable since the Clinton/Gingrich years, with frequent moments of utter paralysis. Still, it depends on the context. In a moment of genuine national crisis, people come together. George W. Bush enjoyed broad support after 9/11 and achieved major, if debatable, goals during his tenure — notably going to war with Iraq. Biden, in this new moment of crisis, may be able to build substantial support from the center-right, enough to marginalize that proportion of voters who believe the election was stolen. In the long term, however, if these voters continue to reflexively oppose absolutely everything proposed by a non-Trump president, it will make running the country exceedingly difficult.

Musa al-Gharbi, a fellow in Columbia’s department of sociology, has focused on the contested issue of retaining African-American and Hispanic loyalty to the Democratic Party. In an email, he wrote:

The real problem Democrats have is their attrition with minorities. Some of this may be attributable to Trump — whose rhetoric and policies actually do appeal to many African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. However, Democrat losses with these voters have been ongoing since 2010. So this is probably more of a story of alienation from the Democratic Party than resonance with the G.O.P.

The accompanying chart, put together by the demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings, illustrates the problem. In partisan trends from 2016 to 2020, there has been a 3-point Democratic gain among white people, a six-point drop among Black Americans, a five-point drop among Hispanic-Americans and an 11-point drop among Asian-Americans from 2016 to 2020.

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