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The Future Really is Faction

In their Fall 2020 essay for National Affairs, The Future is Faction, Steven Teles and Robert Saldin argue that the era of Congressional leadership’s stranglehold over the legislative process is coming to a close. As they write,

We may have grown accustomed to homogeneous parties and a leadership-driven system in recent decades, but this system is increasingly coming under strain. For one thing, though the public has become somewhat polarized over the same period, the degree of polarization in the general population is dwarfed by what has occurred within the parties’ congressional caucuses. This divergence between the mass public and partisan elites has put increasing pressure on Capitol Hill’s status quo, as the Congress the public sees does not reflect the country’s actual distribution of opinion, especially for parts of the public that are cross pressured (e.g., those who are economically liberal and socially conservative).

It’s a thesis I’ve long found plausible, at least over the medium term. But after the events of the last several months, I now think our factional future is virtually inevitable, if it hasn’t already arrived. The proximate reasons for this should be fairly obvious, but are nonetheless worth enumerating. Starting with the Democrats:

  1. The national Democratic coalition has always had more internal ideological diversity than the GOP, as captured in Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s astute observation that “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” Yet without a common enemy in Trump, the festering antagonisms between the DSA-Left and the Democratic Party establishment are all-but destined to blow open.
  2. Thanks to the surprise outcome of the Georgia runoff, this is only the third time Democrats have had unified control of government since the Carter Administration, and you can be sure they won’t let it go to waste. But with such a tenuous majority and a narrow window in which to act, the stakes of what gets prioritize are unusually high. This is a recipe for in-fighting.
  3. Having two new Democratic Senators from a Southern state may itself contribute to factionalization, insofar as the interests of a fiscally-poor and culturally-conservative state like Georgia diverge from those of solidly progressive (and rich) states like New York and California.
  4. Beyond agenda content, there are also intense strategic disagreements over the relative merit of playing “hard ball” versus engaging in good-faith compromise. Sen. Manchin’s emphatic commitment to preserve the filibuster appears to have settled that debate. Nonetheless, members from solidly progressive states and districts will continue to face donor and constituent pressure to deny this basic reality and stake Quixotic positions on ideologically-contentious issues.
  5. With Republicans well positioned to take back the House in 2022, this means moderate Democrats and members from purple districts will need to differentiate themselves, or risk having the DSA-Left’s more salient antics taint the Party’s brand as a whole.

This last point is one Teles likes to emphasize, in particular. As he put it on a recent episode of The Realignment, whether or not Antifa is a threat to the republic, they at least threaten to tarnish the Democratic brand. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a centrist Democrat from Virginia, gave a preview of this dynamic during a private strategy call following the November 2020 election. Furious at Democrat’s underperformance in the House, she unloaded on her progressive colleagues: “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. … We lost good members because of that. … If we are classifying Tuesday as a success … we will get f—ing torn apart in 2022.”

Yet as heated as the infighting has become among Democrats, the left looks like a big happy family compared to the right. Indeed, with both Trump and their senate majority gone, congressional Republicans are poised for all-out factional warfare.

  1. Even before the election, Republicans were increasingly divided over the need for additional relief spending. The impasse was finally broken thanks to a bipartisan negotiation supported by Republican Sens. Romney, Collins, Cassidy and Murkowski in the Senate, and members of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House. Despite representing a minority of the conference, the proven leverage these and other pragmatic Republicans hold in a 50-50 Senate should encourage them to act as a coherent faction going forward.
  2. The Tea Party’s electoral wave helped homogenize the GOP in the 2010s, making it relatively easy for McConnell to whip his caucus into strategic obstructionism. Between the coming impeachment trial and the intra-party jockeying over where the GOP goes next, that degree of party discipline is a thing of the past. Even mainstream conservatives like Rep. Mike Gallagher and Sen. Ben Sasse seem fed-up with leadership, with each calling for reforms to revive the deliberative role of their respective chambers. Meanwhile, many new organizations were founded during the Trump years to help institutionalize heterodox conservative ideas, American Compass included.
  3. Populist firebrands like Sens. Cruz and Hawley have yet to fully recovery from the events of January 6th, and as such Hawley is unlikely to co-sponsor another bill with Bernie Sanders anytime soon. Nonetheless, there are still many policy areas where the populist faction could easily find themselves caucusing with Democrats, from trade and industrial policy, to taking on Wall Street and Big Tech.
  4. While the filibuster imposes severe limits on Democrats’ legislative ambition, Democratic control over what reaches the Senate floor is a powerful tool in its own right. Legislation that would never see the light of day under McConnell will thus be advanced, whether it has 60 votes or not, if only to drive a wedge between these different Republican factions.
  5. Whether or not Trump decides to launch a Patriot Party, the most pro-Trump elements in Congress increasingly look and act like a party-within-a-party, pitting the Freedom Caucus against high-ranking Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney. The degree of crazy seems to vary dramatically between different state parties, suggesting a partial return to the regionalism that gave yesteryear’s GOP a greater degree of internal heterogeneity.

What should one make of these growing intra-party factions? For me, at least, the “Future is Faction” thesis provides a ray of hope — a light at the end of the tunnel, following decades of ever-greater polarization, gridlock, and partisanship. The need to navigate between different factions will reward those who can build coalitions that transcend partisan ID, and punish those who paint with too-broad a brush. This, in turn, will require a mutual recognition that there are no ideological short-cuts, and that no one Congress member or caucus gets to define their party as a whole. On the contrary, Democrats and Republicans alike should feel free to contradict their putative leaders, for they contain multitudes. If that muddies the public’s understanding of what each party stands for, so be it. To be great is to be misunderstood.

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Samuel Hammond

Samuel Hammond is the Director of Poverty and Welfare Policy at the Niskanen Center.

@hamandcheese

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