America’s political season is now in full swing. Thirteen states have already held primary elections, and every new controversy is weighed for its possible impact on November’s midterms. Media coverage has focused mainly on sagging confidence in President Joe Biden, the impact of Donald Trump’s endorsement on statewide races, and the battle for control of Congress over the next two years.
But there’s a bigger picture here. We’ve entered a historic moment of transition in American politics in which both parties are headed for crucial turning points. The Democrats are now led by a 79-year-old incumbent president who has a composite approval rating south of 41% and no heir apparent. Vice President Kamala Harris’s approval number is even lower than Biden’s.
The Republican Party is led by the twice-impeached, 75-year-old former President Trump, who left office in defeat with an approval rating of 34%. But there’s not yet a viable understudy here either. There are many plausible candidates for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination, but none is polling anywhere close to Trump in head-to-head matchups. And even if Trump’s brand of politics outlives the man himself, we can’t yet predict how combative political rhetoric might translate into policy.
In short, we enter this election year with no clear idea of where either party is headed.
What is clear is that the United States remains a politically polarized nation. GZERO Media’s Ian Bremmer has called the United States “the most politically divided and dysfunctional country in the G7,” and that’s not a hard case to make. A Pew Research poll taken just before the 2020 presidential election found that about 90% of both Republicans and Democrats said that a victory for the other party would inflict “lasting harm” on the country.
Polarization is a serious problem in many countries, but a January 2022 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that measured political divides in countries across time and around the world offered a sobering conclusion: The United States is “the only wealthy Western democracy with persistent levels of pernicious polarization.”
Perhaps that’s thanks to the “filter bubble” — the trend toward people getting news almost exclusively from sources that confirm their biases, in part with help from social media algorithms. Whatever the cause, recent breaking news on emotive and divisive issues like immigration, abortion, and gun control will exacerbate the bitterness of America’s political animosities.
Here lies the larger significance of this year’s midterm elections, particularly as they set the table for the 2024 presidential vote.
In a world where one side sees a near-existential threat in any victory for the other side, the old adage becomes more important: nothing succeeds like success. Partisan voters want candidates they believe will defeat the other party.
For 2024 and beyond, this year’s midterms will offer voters two sets of important clues. First, in the most electorally competitive states — those most likely to choose the next president — will it be candidates who are committed ideologues or moderate pragmatists who carry the day?
Second, in those same states, will elections be decided by heavy turnout among partisan voters on one side, or will the day belong to independent voters who find one candidate and party too extreme? Not everyone is an immovable partisan, thankfully, and not every partisan takes the trouble to vote.
In short, this year’s midterms will tell us more than what independent voters think of the Biden presidency or about the strength of Trump’s grip on the Republican Party. They will help us predict how the next generation of leaders in each party will interpret America’s longer-term political direction.