Last week’s elections brought to a brutal head how politically polarized the United States is. U.S. President Donald Trump’s relatively strong showing dashed the hope held by many of his critics that the election would constitute a repudiation of Trump, and in so doing, open the door to some kind of de-escalation of the country’s profound ideological divide. Instead, as George Packer wrote immediately after the election in an article in the Atlantic entitled “Face the Bitter Truth,” “we are two countries, and neither of them is going to be conquered or disappear anytime soon.”

A Wider Rift

Soberingly, more polarization appears probable, in three overlapping phases. First, as Trump keeps railing against the election, feeding the flames of conspiratorial thinking about imagined electoral fraud, he will further inflame partisan anger. His relentless attacks over the past four years on truth, institutions, and the legitimacy of his opponents have prepared the ground for this final, desperate campaign. With no substantial factual ground to stand on in his objections to the elections, he appears to hope that by bringing America’s partisan cauldron to a peak boil, some kind of crisis can be provoked that will break in his favor. He will undoubtedly cling to this approach long after he leaves office, defining his post-presidential political life as a sustained tirade against the election.

Second, when Joe Biden’s administration comes to power and begins governing, what will likely be a Republican-led Senate (barring a major surprise in the Georgia Senate runoff elections on January 5) will almost certainly dedicate itself to blocking as many of its programs and initiatives as possible. This will start with slowrolling Senate confirmation of Biden nominees, then extend to stymying any major legislation the administration will attempt. And it will take on special fervor when the administration begins to nominate federal judges and seek Senate confirmation for them.

Thomas Carothers
Thomas Carothers is a senior fellow and co-director of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program. He is a leading authority on international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society.
More >

The legislative blockage will very likely extend to most or all of the reform measures that Democrats have been hoping to advance concerning the functioning of the U.S. political system. There will be no progress, for example, on national-level measures relating to representational reform—such as DC statehood or Electoral College reform. Similarly improbable will be any political financing reform, which if enacted might contribute to a reduction of polarizing dynamics. And even the most moderate Supreme Court reforms, such as those concerning term limits for Justices, will be off the table.

This powerful partisan gridlock will prevail even if, which seems likely, a President Biden seeks to govern in an inclusive, nondivisive manner and tries to draw on the strong cross-partisan relationships he has successfully built over decades. A Republican Party that spent the last year painting Democrats, including Biden, as dangerous extremists, and dedicated itself to a scorched earth oppositional stance through the two previous Democratic presidencies, is not likely to change gears now. It will be egged on in this by the ever-more extreme conservative mediasphere, which characterizes the Democratic Party, and by extension any Democratic administration, as a fundamental threat to American democracy.

Third, looking further into the future, when the Republican Party begins the process of choosing a presidential nominee for the 2024 election, the party will likely not conclude that the problem in 2020 was the extreme ideological line that the party took, which basically boiled down to opposing everything Democrats support. Rather, the thinking will probably be that the shortfall in 2020 was with the candidate they had. Somewhat akin to how Democrats calculated after 2016, the idea will likely be that what they need is a somewhat more personally likable candidate to run with basically the same program. The campaign therefore will probably be just as polarizing in terms of the choices offered to the American public with as little common ground between them as there was in 2020.

In short, no respite from polarization is in sight. The serious dangers that polarization presents to our democracy—including growing citizen alienation resulting from political gridlock, institutional degradation resulting from some political actors putting partisan outcomes above democratic norms, and the ever-rising potential for aggravated and even violent conflict between citizens on opposing sides—will probably only grow.

Can the Body Politic Be Cured?

Given this daunting reality, it may be useful for those seeking to address polarization to move away from the idea of depolarization that has attracted attention in recent years and focus instead on managing polarization. It is very unlikely that the useful, but ultimately rather limited body of activities that are carried out in the name of depolarization—such as the many efforts to build bridges across partisan lines among citizens and among lawmakers and other politicians—will substantially change the fact that American political life is profoundly divided between two competing sides that hold strongly divergent positions on most critical issues, intensely distrust and dislike each other, and are nourished by divergent media and information diets. These activities should continue, but the major focus should be on maintaining the guardrails that keep a polarized system from going off track. Research from other cases of polarized democracies around the world highlights that the two most important such guardrails are respect by all powerholders for the rule of law and an election administration system that commands enough respect to keep even the most contentious election within bounds.

With polarization his main governing strategy, Trump relentlessly targeted these two guardrails, inflicting both real and reputational damage to them. As much effort as possible should be put into upholding and strengthening them. On the side of the rule of law, stemming the politicization of judicial appointments is unlikely, but crucial efforts here should be considered across a range of domains relating to strengthening ethics and anticorruption rules for powerholders, fortifying prosecutorial independence, rebuilding inspector general roles, police and prison reform, and much else.

Bolstering America’s extraordinarily fragmented and creaky election administration apparatus should be a top priority. The idea of a federal elections agency deserves serious attention. There might be a small window of opportunity on election administration reform if some Republicans conclude from Trump having grown the Republican electorate by adding many Latino and Black voters that their reflexive support for voter suppression measures needs to be rethought. Though realistically, given the depth of the Republican Party’s voter suppression instinct, the conclusion they reach is likely to be at most a narrowing of their voter suppression efforts—focusing them on key places and groups—rather than abandoning them.

Managing a serious disability is a notably less inspirational task than attempting to cure it. However, certain bodies, including the U.S. body politic, are affected with conditions that are simply not curable through even the most well-intended efforts. They can at most be contained, and possibly over the medium to long term, mildly alleviated. It is crucial to set sights realistically on addressing polarization in order to sustain critical efforts on that front, in what will likely be difficult years ahead.