The real issue in the frantic final flailing over the fiscal cliff isn’t whether Washington can balance its books. It’s whether blue America and red America are capable of, or even interested in, mediating their differences. The evidence is growing more discouraging.
Across almost every front, the process of pulling apart that has reshaped the political landscape over the past generation appears to be accelerating.
At the national level, President Obama and Mitt Romney mobilized almost mirror-image coalitions. Over 40 percent of Obama’s votes came from minorities; nearly 90 percent of Romney’s votes came from whites. Obama won three-fifths of voters under 30; Romney won more than three-fifths of white seniors.
Compared with Democrats, Republicans since the 1980s have been a more ideologically homogenous party that is more resistant to compromise—as last week’s rejection of House Speaker John Boehner’s fiscal “Plan B” demonstrated. (Electoral incentives help explain that imbalance: Because self-identified conservatives outnumber liberals among voters, Democrats in most places need to carry more moderates to win than Republicans do, and that creates greater pressure on Democrats to compromise.) But after an election in which Obama won despite historic deficits among the blue-collar and older whites that once anchored the conservative end of his party’s coalition, ideological cohesion is rising among Democrats too.
Consider the profile of Obama and Romney voters that Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz traces in an upcoming paper. In the Election Day exit poll, three-fourths of Obama voters said that government should be doing more to solve problems, while over four-fifths of Romney voters said that it is already doing too much. More than four-fifths of Obama voters wanted to maintain or expand his health care law, while nearly nine-in-10 Romney voters backed its repeal. Three times as many Obama voters as Romney voters supported legalizing gay marriage.
This same pulling apart is evident in the states. Eighteen states—what I’ve called the “blue wall”—have voted Democratic in at least the past six presidential elections. After November’s ballot victories in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, seven of them have now authorized gay marriage and six others have approved civil unions or broad domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples. Depending on how legislative or court fights unfold, it’s conceivable that California and New Jersey, two blue-wall states, could approve same-sex-marriage ballot initiatives by 2016. Meanwhile, virtually every Republican-leaning state has barred gay marriage.
Similarly, 14 governors have agreed to join the expansion of Medicaid that represents one pillar of the Obama plan to cover the uninsured; Nevada’s Brian Sandoval is the only Republican among them. Almost all Republican governors also let the deadline pass earlier this month without establishing the online exchanges that comprise the other big coverage expansion. Even after Obama’s victory eliminated the possibility that his health reform bill would be repealed, Republican governors are continuing what amounts to a sit-down strike against it.
This centrifugal tendency is now embedded in Congress’s DNA. As split-ticket voting has declined, fewer legislators in each party are elected, in effect, behind enemy lines (by voters who usually prefer the other party for the White House).
Michael Franc, vice president for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, correctly observes that because of that dynamic, during a confrontation like the fiscal cliff, most legislators are more likely to face demands to stand firm than complaints about inflexibility. “When everybody goes back home, I don’t think they are feeling the heat from their constituents” for failing to reach agreement, Franc says. “If anything, they are hearing the opposite. So ... there’s no rational political incentive to back down.”
The problem is that while resolve, even intransigence, may make sense for any individual politician in this polarized era, it’s no way to run a closely divided country. While long-term demographic forces are slowly benefiting Democrats, the past dozen years have repeatedly demonstrated that the nation remains narrowly split, with Democrats holding a structural advantage at the presidential level and Republicans maintaining an offsetting edge (because Democratic constituencies are heavily concentrated around big cities) in the House of Representatives.
In that environment, it’s likely that neither party will often enjoy the unified government control and big congressional margins that Obama possessed in 2009. Almost certainly, Obama and House Republicans will need to live with each other at least through 2016. Yet while each side has shown some flexibility in the budget negotiations, both have displayed a greater inclination to fight than switch. In particular, there’s no indication that Obama’s victory has, as he had hoped, broken the “fever” for confrontation and ideological purity among House Republicans.
The two sides might yet craft a stopgap agreement that avoids the fiscal cliff. But even that wouldn’t mute the message from their struggles over it. Each party now almost perfectly embodies a competing vision of America. And those two Americas appear steadily more dubious that they can bridge their differences—and maybe even less interested in trying. In these sputtering negotiations, the biggest threat isn’t to America’s credit rating but rather to its fraying sense of common purpose.