If there was one big message from President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, it was bipartisanship and unity. This theme wasn’t surprising given that inaugurations are often about coming together and Biden’s 2020 campaign emphasized unity over division.
Still, the underlying political disagreements that have led to nastiness will almost certainly remain. There are deep divisions between us that cannot magically be solved.
Americans are more divided by ideology than ever before in recent memory. According to Gallup, 51% of Democrats now consider themselves liberal. That 51% ties the highest percentage of Democrats saying they were liberal since Gallup started regularly measuring ideology by party in 1994. In that year, a mere 25% of Democrats called themselves liberal. Even when Biden ran for the presidency in 2008, a little less than 40% of Democrats were liberal.
Likewise, the 75% of Republicans who call themselves conservative is the highest since 1994. It was just 58% of Republicans who were conservative in 1994 and 70% in 2008.
Biden White House
But it’s not just about individuals having different ideologies that make it hard for unity. Our interactions tend to be limited with those who disagree with us.
Take a look at a Pew Research Center survey from last year. A mere 22% of Donald Trump and Biden supporters said a lot or some of their close friends backed the other candidate. (It was down to 3% when isolating just the “a lot”.)
Now, obviously it’s possible for folks to believe in different things and still find common ground.
But it’s more difficult when Republicans don’t believe Biden’s even a legitimate president. Only 19% of Republicans say he won enough votes to be legitimately elected, according to our last CNN/SSRS poll. That’s much lower than the 58% of Democrats who said Trump was the legitimate winner in a comparable question from the ABC News/Washington Post after the 2016 election.
LIkewise, most Republicans don’t prize compromise with the Biden administration. When given a choice by Monmouth University pollsters between working together with Biden or keeping him in check, 67% of Republicans nationwide want to keep him in check.
For reference, 50% of Democrats in a 2017 CNN/ORC poll wanted congressional Democrats to resist Trump’s policies rather than attempt to compromise.
In other words, today’s Republicans are more resistant to their party compromising than Democrats were of their party at the beginning of the Trump presidency.
Members of Congress, like their own constituents, don’t seem like they’re in the mood for unity.
During the Trump administration, the average House Republican voted with him 92% of the time on legislation that came to the floor (and not every piece of legislation does). The average Democrat voted with him just 15% of the time. That 77-point gap between how often House Democrats and Republicans sided with the President is huge.
To put that 77-point difference between how often Democrats and Republicans voted with the sitting president in some historical context, the difference was about 30 points in 1994 and 55 and 45 points in 2007 and 2008 respectively. We can, in other words, say that just like voters, members of Congress are also further apart than they used to be.
Likewise, in the Senate, the place has increasingly come to a standstill because senators are using the threat of a filibuster to stall or stop legislation. You can see this by looking at the number of cloture motions filed to end a debate. It was 328 in the last Congress (2019-2020). In 2007-2008, it was 139. In 1993-1994, it was 80.
It’s plausible things will be different under Biden. Maybe the events of the last few weeks will make more people come to the table than would have before. Perhaps, Biden and the Democrats can pick off a few Republicans on some votes.
If nothing else, we could see a change in the tone from the two sides. Maybe.
But even after the insurrection on the US Capitol, about two-thirds of the House Republican caucus voted to sustain the objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes – challenging Biden’s legitimate victory. That’s no small vote. It was an illustration of just how far down the rabbit hole a lot of Republicans had gone.
Indeed, the electoral incentives to come together in Congress are minimal.
There are basically no members who represent states or congressional districts that vote opposite how they do on the presidential level.
Almost every single Senate Republican, except for Susan Collins of Maine, represents a state that Trump won in either 2016 or 2020. Every single Senate Democrat, except for three, represents a state Biden won in 2020.
Likewise, only about 10 congressional Republicans are in districts Biden won in 2020. While we’re still waiting for some final precinct figures, it looks like even fewer than 10 congressional Democrats are in districts Trump won in 2020.
There’s going to be very little electoral pressure for members of either party to compromise. If anything, the pressure will be to avoid upsetting the base of their party.
Once we get past any Biden honeymoon, the smart bet is for things to get nasty again.