What 2022 affirmed more than anything, and what 2023 is likely to demonstrate as well, is that the United States is a fifty-fifty country. Neither party has a sure monopoly on political power. Yet, both have increasingly ambitious agendas for reshaping America’s economy, culture, and civic life. It remains to seen who will win. It will take a few election cycles to determine if the country settles in as a center-right or a center-left nation.
There are commentators, both at home and abroad, who think the U.S. is facing something more extreme than just a rebalancing. They suggest the snipping between conservatives and progressives is a confrontation that will only get angrier, more extreme, and perhaps even more violent, and climatic, culminating in one side crushing the other or the whole republic just splitting under the strain.
Neither outcome is likely.
First, extreme rhetoric is not uncommon in American politics. This is especially true when political parties sharpen their differences, scrapping to dominate shifts in the electorate. The invectives they throw, however, are political tropes, not battle cries.
While the current of state of vitriol between right and left seems shocking to many, it pales in comparison to the civil discord in recent times.
In the 1960s, for instance, the United States was rocked by the multiple disruptions of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam anti-war protests, the sexual revolution, and the drug and counterculture movement, all hammering the nations at the same time.
The disharmony of the 1970s, including the economic strains of “stagflation,” the energy crisis, the environmental movement, and the eruption of grassroots activism across the country that culminated with the election of Ronald Reagan, were also more discordant than what we are seeing in contemporary America.
In short, America today, in historical terms, is not near peak political turmoil.
Indeed, the domestic scene in 2022, was far less confrontational than it was in 2020/2021 when the U.S. was rocked by domestic violence sparked by Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA protests, as well the January 6, 2021confrontation at the U.S. Capitol over the presidential election.
Second, the American political system is remarkably resilient, with multiple relief valves to allow for political agitation that sustains rather than undermines political stability. At the federal level, the U.S. has a system of “checks and balances,” that divides political power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The U.S. also has a federalist system that allows for the significant autonomy of states to adopt differing policies and initiatives on a range of issues. Finally, the U.S. has an extremely diverse civil society that remains an open space for political competition.
In 2022, we saw examples of all these “relief valves” at play including controversial decisions from a conservative leaning U.S. Supreme Court; a shift in control of the Congress after the mid-term elections, the dramatically different response of states to everything from the COVID pandemic to education and immigration policy; and feisty exchanges in civil society such as the debate over political censorship by “big tech.”
Rather than representing a linear path of political confrontation, what occurred last year, and will likely repeat in 2023, is just more of the same, disruptions caused by political jostling as Americans struggle to find their new political center.
The principal reason why the political parties seem so at odds while U.S. policies whipsaw to and fro as the presidency switches back and forth between Republicans and Democrats reflects the changing character of the parties in Washington, D.C.
Decades ago, the American mantra held that “politics ended at the water’s edge.” This reflected a conscious effort during the Cold War to forge bipartisan consensus on key issues. This was possible because both political parties were geographical and ideologically diverse. Both parties had liberal and conservative wings. Both parties also had their share of “hawks” and “doves” on foreign policy. Thus, a president representing either party could forge a bipartisan consensus by drawing support across the political aisle on controversial issues like support for the Vietnam War and Civil Rights legislation.
In the 1990s, the character of the national politics began to change. Diversity in party politics is vanishing.
Today, both parties are more ideologically uniform. The power of the White House only excels in this political environment when the president’s party controls both houses of Congress. Presidents are more aggressive in using that power to advance the agenda of “their side.” In turn, this makes for more radical shifts on both domestic and foreign policy when administrations flip from control of one party to the other. Under President Trump, for example, robust energy policy was a priority, and the climate agenda was downplayed. Under President Biden, from day one in office, the opposite was true.
Today, politics doesn’t end at the water’s edge. Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy.
Still, the bottom line is that America is not headed for its next Civil War. Nor is it in peril of political stalemate paralyzing the U.S. at home or abroad.
Instead, what 2022 showed, and what 2023 will reaffirm, is the sharpening political divide between left and right and the alternative paths they represent that the U.S. may follow in the future.
Political competition in the U.S. is overwhelmingly focused on domestic issues—and that is not likely to change anytime soon. There are several issues at top of mind.
Abortion. For decades, the 2022 ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, which decriminalized abortion nationwide, hamstrung the public debate over life issues. When the court overturned the ruling, reestablishing the authority of states to legislate what is permissible, this matter reemerged as one of the defining matters dividing the right and left.
The national response in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling demonstrated that there was no national consensus that abortion was a “right.”
Both political parties have been quick to embrace opposite sides of the issue as key to their platform. That won’t change in 2023. The opportunities for national legislation to resolve the issue will be zero. Rather, several states will act decisively, likely approving diametrically different policies. Further, abortion will likely be a dividing line in the next national elections.
The Republican candidate will without question be publicly “pro-life.” The Democratic candidate will be avowedly “pro-choice.”
Education. Educating American children was another defining issue between left and right that rose to prominence in 2022. Education will likely remain at the top of the agenda in 2023. The defining line is the contrasting role of “parental rights” championed by conservatives and the authority of teacher unions embraced by progressives. Next year, this struggle will continue at the state level, reflected in issues like school choice. This will set up another battle of ideas in the 2024 presidential election.
Family and Marriage. After years of drifting towards more diverse attitudes toward family and marriage, there is a national resurgence in arguing over the future of the family. This debate cuts less cleanly between right and left. Recently, for instance, bi-partisan national legislation affirming in law a liberal definition of marriage passed with support of moderate Republicans. Yet, the intensity of opposition from conservatives reflects that the fight for protections of the traditional family is far from over.
Immigration and Border Security. Few issues have become more politically polarized than control of the border and enforcement of immigration laws. The Democratic Party has embraced open borders as its political platform. In contrast, while the Republican Party debates the legacy of President Trump, on this issue the broad consensus embraces the former president’s approach of strict border and immigration enforcement including deporting illegal aliens and denying them rights and services.
Fiscal Policy and the Economy. Conservatives are far less accepting of inflation, deficit spending, higher prices, and the slow pace of economic recovery. In contrast, progressives are more tolerant of the administration’s Keynesian approach to economics and increasingly comfortable with government intervention into the private sector.
Energy. Opposition to national climate policies that favored a rapid transition toward reliance on green energy, rebounded in 2022. The emerging divide is less over debating the need to mitigate climate change and address environmental concerns and more over a rejecting “Green New Deal” policies. Climate poilicy is increasingly a dividing line between conservatives and liberals. With the American right more interested in affordable, reliable, and abundant energy and increased fossil fuel production and use. In contrast, liberals increasingly treat support for the transformation to green technology as a political loyalty test.
Culture. The American left and right have adopted political platforms with diametrically opposite goals. Progressives reject traditional American society as tainted and racist and in need of radical reform. The left is committed to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs in both government and civil society intended to drive both political and cultural transformation. In addition, the left stresses Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) action as a tool to reshape corporate behavior. In contrast, the Right embraces an “anti-woke” agenda that seeks to frame these initiatives as illegitimate political agendas. Disputes cut across the federal, state, and local level on a range of issues from gender identity to the attempted sexualization of children and reparations for disaffected groups. As in other defining issues, at the state level different states are adopting radically different policies. In Washington, few issues as sharply divide the two parties.
Despite the agitated state of global affairs, national security and foreign policy issues are not driving the wedge between right and left on the scale of domestic issues. While conservatives are less sanguine about foreign policy than liberals, the right’s issue is more with lacking confidence in the leadership of the president than having an ideological contrast with the left.
It is true that there contrasting poles in American views of foreign policy.
On one extreme are isolationists or “restrainers” who generally eschew use of American power for foreign policy except in extreme circumstances. On the other are “neocons” who believe in the aggressive use of American power to secure U.S. interests.
Another disparity is between those believe that national power is the defining force in international affairs and the contrasting view that international and multinational organizations can and should set norms and state behavior and subordinate national sovereignty to transnational institutions. There is, however, little evidence that American politics are a fight over driving U.S. foreign policy to either extreme.
There are, in fact, as many continuities in foreign policy as there are sharp contrasts between American conservatives and liberals. NATO is a case in point. NATO has been supported by every modern American president. Even President Trump, often derided by critics, committed much energy and resources to strengthening NATO. Trump also endorsed Biden’s decision to support membership for Sweden and Norway in NATO.
Indeed, while conservatives and liberals are sharply divided on domestic issues there is more bipartisan consensus on international affairs. Both the left and right see China, Russia, and Iran as major threats to global stability and U.S. interests, albeit they often differ on how to address these dangers, particularly Iran.
The last year also reaffirmed that Americans generally approve of the idea of “peace through strength.” While President Trump had many battles with the left during his presidency his efforts to rebuild the military were supported by both sides of the aisle. In 2022, both Republicans and Democrats supported higher investment in defense, pushing for more budget authority than President Biden requested.
What the debates of 2022 reflect is more disagreements over how leadership is exercised.
Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, for instance, drew criticism from both left and right, even from voices that had contrasting views on what future U.S. policy should have been. This trend will likely continue in 2023. A number of issues will reflect this.
Ukraine. Bipartisan support for military aid will continue through 2022. Most Republicans and Democrats see Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a major danger to the stability and security of Europe. They see supporting the self-defense of Ukraine as key to blunting future threats. That said there will be debate over the way forward in 2023. On the one hand, many will fret that President Biden will join with Brussels, Berlin, and Paris in “putting a gun” to Ukraine’s end, forcing them to negotiate an end to the conflict that could compromise the country’s future security. On the other, many will reject “writing blank checks,” to feed an endless war. Left and right will squabble over finding a path in between.
China. While there are voices on the left and right calling for a pivot to Asia and concomitantly reducing U.S. commitments in Europe and the Middle East, this proposal is not a policy exclusively form the right or the left. Further, there were no sharp moves in that direction in 2022. There likely won’t be any in 2023. In addition, there appears to be continued strong bipartisan support for Taiwan.
Iran. There is increasing recognition on both sides that there is no path forward for the Iran Deal. Both Republicans and Democrats are also united in believing Iran should not be allowed to field nuclear weapons. Republicans would prefer a return to the maximum pressure campaign crafted by President Trump. In contrast, Democrats seem more willing to follow President Biden’s lead.
Israel. Both sides recognize that the U.S.-Israel alliance is foundational to American foreign policy. That said, Israel is no longer a bipartisan issue. Progressives seem far more open to criticize and pressure Israel, particularly regarding the treatment of Palestinians. The left is committed to the two state solution. Conservatives are ambivalent.
Climate and Democracy. This is one exception where there are more observant clear divisions. As with domestic policy, left is irrevocably committed to a green foreign policy. In contrast, the American right elevates energy security over climate change policy. In a similar vein, the progressives view the democracy agenda as disciplining regimes they see as slipping into authoritarian behaviors. In contrast, conservatives see these efforts as a political program for persecuting governments that don’t align with progressive policies.
While the left and right are battling to secure the American center, the competition is also changing the Republican and Democratic parties. This was apparent in 2022 and will likely continue through 2023.
The American conservative movement has evolved significantly since the days of Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was propelled to national office by the “fusion” of social conservatives and evangelicals, fiscal conservatives and libertarians, and national security conservatives and anti-communists.
What united them was a passion for turning the country in a different direction. Yet, with the end of the Cold War the factions of the conservative movement treated politics more like a buffet, taking servings of the policies they liked rather than committing to the movement as a whole. In contrast, contemporary conservativism more broadly embraces a commitment to all the cultural, economic, social, and national security priorities. Activists like the National Conservative movement have served more to stimulate conservatives and challenge orthodoxy rather than splinter conservatives.
Clearly, the conservative movement has made Republicans more of a blue collar party and sharpened policy priorities in way that has led to inroads into traditional Democratic voters including African-Americans, Hispanic and Asian voters.
That said, notably the 2022 midterm elections did not deliver the “red wave” suggested by many polls. What was apparent was that while many voters were unhappy and while conservatives offered different policy solutions, in many cases independent and disaffected Democratic voters did not have enough trust and confidence in Republican candidates to change their allegience. Republicans found in some instances it wasn’t enough to have different policies, they needed more appealing candidates.
Another significant challenge for Republicans were in the structure of campaigns. Republicans did not do enough to attract younger voters, who are now going to the polls in increasingly larger numbers. In some races, Republicans efforts in attracting early voters, who vote before election day lagged the mobilization by Democrats. These are structural challenges to voting. How the party starts to address them in 2023 could impact their future strength in national elections.
On the Left. The primary response from the left on the mid-term elections is stay the course. Expect few shifts in policy. In taking this approach,the party could well face greater challenges in 2024 if conditions in the U.S. don’t improve regarding the economy, immigration, crime, and other bread and butter issues.
The left will likely continue to focus on voter turn out and structural election issues to dominate in the national elections.
Since election laws are set by the states. Election integrity and voter suppression will be significant challenge for Democrats in state legislatures, particularly those controlled by Republicans. Further with continued Republican dominance in states like Texas and Florida, Democrats will have to focus even more on “swing” states, which traditionally oscillate between voting for Republican and Democrat in national elections.
One challenge for the left will be increasing influence of the most radical and progressive elements of the party. This could pull the party even further from centrist policies, making it more difficult to attract independent voters.
Further, Democrats are finding that identity politics is getting more complicated. Traditional voting blocks of race, ethnic, and class voters are less reliable blocks of supporters and increasingly targets of competition between the left and the right.
The year ahead will likely be shaped by positioning for national elections.
After the mid-terms and the failure of the anticipated “red wave”, it is less likely that Donald Trump will be perceived as the inevitable Republican candidate. There will likely be a competitive Republican primary. That said, clearyt Trump’s policies have recentered the republican party.
It is highly unlikely that an anti-Trump candidate or a traditional Republican will secure the nomination.
Rather, the party’s choice will be Trump or some one with Trump-like policies. 2023 will be a year where we see leaders increasingly competing for this space. This competition will sharpen the policy differences between conservatives and progressives.
On the left, what will significantly impact the dynamics of national competition is whether Biden announces if he will seek reelection. If he does not, expect significant jockeying and increasing friction between the party and the more radical forces that would prefer a socialist candidate in all but name. If Biden does elect to run, there may well be a primary challenge.
In the end, 2023 could do much to shape the character of national elections in 2024.
James Jay Carafano, a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges, is the vice president of Heritage Foundation's Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.