In case you haven’t noticed, long-established political parties across the democratic world are blowing up, with Britain’s Labour Party just the latest to fracture. Could America’s parties be next?
Could we have our first four-party election in 2020 — with candidates from the Donald Trump far right, the old GOP center right, the Joe Biden center left and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez far left all squaring off, as the deepening divides within our two big parties simply can’t be papered over any longer? It’s not impossible.
Indeed, two phrases recently in the news that touch on core principles of the Democratic and Republican Parties are like fuses that could ignite much larger explosions in the coming year. Those phrases are: “unwilling to work” and “national emergency.”
On Feb. 7, Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional office sent out an explainer of the Green New Deal that she’s proposing. The initiative aims “to mobilize every aspect of American society ... to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and create economic prosperity for all.”
I admire that goal and the huge energy she’s brought to it among young people. But one version of her office’s FAQ stated that the Green New Deal would guarantee, among other benefits, “Economic security to all who are unable or unwilling to work.”
Economic security for people “unwilling to work”? Who’s going to sign up for new taxes to support people unwilling to work or be retrained?
When some commentators called this out, Ocasio-Cortez’s team said the FAQ was an unfinished draft that never should have been released. I don’t buy it. It was also too late. That phrase — economic security even for people “unwilling to work” — was not just noted by conservatives. It rattled some center-left Democrats as well, because it hinted that the party’s base had moved much farther to the left in recent years than they’d realized, and it highlighted the most important fault line in today’s Democratic Party — the line between what I’d call “redivide-the-pie Democrats” and “grow-the-pie Democrats.”
Grow-the-pie Democrats — think Mike Bloomberg — celebrate business, capitalism and startups that generate the tax base to create the resources for more infrastructure, schools, green spaces and safety nets, so more people have more opportunity and tools to capture a bigger slice of the pie.
Grow-the-pie Democrats know that good jobs don’t come from government or grow on trees — they come from risk-takers who start companies. They come from free markets regulated by and cushioned by smart government.
The wisest grow-the-pie Democrats have also learned something from the past few years: The benefits of NAFTA, open trade with China and the rise of the digital economy — while vital for creating economic growth — don’t just automatically trickle down, any more than Republican tax cuts did. They require trade insurance and surge protectors, free community college, portable health care coverage and pensions, and a very intentional strategy to more equitably spread the benefits of growth among bosses, workers and shareholders.
Redivide-the-pie Democrats — think Bernie Sanders — argue that after four decades of stagnant middle-class wages — and bailouts for bankers and billionaires but not workers in 2008 — you can’t grow the pie without redividing it first. Inequality is too great now. There are too many people too far behind.
The decision by Amazon to scuttle its big expansion in New York City marks the first big clash this election season between grow-the-pie Democrats, who insisted that tax breaks for Amazon would pay for themselves, and redivide-the-pie Democrats, who saw Amazon as pitting their community in a race to the bottom with other communities over which could lavish more subsides on a tech behemoth that didn’t need them.
In truth, the episode was a huge failure of imagination by both sides. Virginia got it right, explained Amy Liu, urban affairs expert at the Brookings Institution, in an essay last week in The Times. Yes, it gave Amazon some $500 million in subsidies, but the state offered twice that amount in new investments in local transportation and schools to create a strong pipeline of technically skilled workers — something that will benefit the entire community for years.
As for the GOP, it’s divided between a “limited-government-grow-the-pie” right — but one that wants to just let capitalism rip — and a “hoard-the-pie, pull-up-the-drawbridge” Trump-led far right.
The limited-government-grow-the-pie faction is itself split between the Never Trumpers — who’ve refused to prostitute themselves to Trump’s serial lying, cozying up to Russia and other madness — and those who’ve hitched a ride on Trump’s wagon to get their tax cuts, conservative judges and deregulation.
But Trump’s decision to declare a “national emergency” on the Mexico border has violated the party’s most core principle of limited government. In doing so it’s opened a fissure between the old limited-government-grow-the-pie Republicans and the anti-immigrant hoard-the-pie, pull-up-the-drawbridge Trumpers.
The early signs are that the limited-government types — led by Mitch McConnell — are so morally bankrupt, after having sold their souls to Trump for two years, they’ll even abandon this last core principle and go along with Trump’s usurpation of Congress’ power of appropriation.
Stay tuned. Over the years, our two parties have usually managed to handle deep fractures. This time may be different.
The level of outrage in both bases is sky high: Their ability to express that outrage through weaponized social networks, talk radio and cable television is powerful and pervasive, and the three accelerations we’re going through — in globalization, technology and climate change — are stressing everyone and demanding very different political choices.
So here’s my hunch: The 2020 U.S. election will be unlike any in my lifetime.
Think about it. Ever since World War II until the early 21st century, the major political parties in the West were all built on a set of stable binary choices: capital versus labor; big government/high regulation versus small government/low regulation; open to trade and immigration versus more closed to trade and immigration; embracing of new social norms, like gay rights or abortion, and opposed to them; and green versus growth.
Across the industrial world, parties mostly formed along one set of those binary choices or the other. But that is no longer possible.
What if I am a steelworker in Pittsburgh and in the union, but on weekends I drive for Uber and rent out my kid’s spare bedroom on Airbnb — and shop at Walmart for the cheapest Chinese imports, and what I can’t find there I buy on Amazon through a chatbot that replaced a human? Monday to Friday I’m with labor. Saturday and Sunday I’m with capital.
My point? Many of the old binary choices simply do not line up with the challenges to workers, communities and companies in this age of accelerating globalization, technology and climate change, but national governments are so paralyzed by partisanship that they can’t adapt. And most families are too weak to manage these forces and pass along the American dream to their kids.
Fortunately, though, all is not lost. Creative adaptation is happening in many of America’s counties, cities and towns, where trust is much higher. The most successful are forging what I call “complex adaptive coalitions,” where business, labor, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, educators and local government all network together to create jobs, attract businesses, grow housing, fix potholes and improve schools.
These coalitions are not focused on splitting the differences between the old right-left binary choices. They’ve actually moved to a totally different grid — one that asks every day on every issue: “What works? Find it and share it, so we can get the best out of these accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change and cushion the worst for the most people in our community.”
Oxford economist Eric Beinhocker recently pointed out to me research that says there are only two ways to cure political tribalism: “A common threat or a common project.” We need a common project, and it’s obvious: Build a new foundation for the middle class. Ultimately that requires the local and the national levels to work together. But for now we should be glad that it’s at least happening at the local level.
Don Baer, who served as President Bill Clinton’s communications director, has a bumper sticker for anyone who wants to run for president in 2020 on the grid of rebuilding our country through complex adaptive coalitions — but it will take your whole bumper:
“Make America work again, for those who are willing to work and for those who are willing to work together.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.