Political forecast? Gridlock and polarization, Yale experts predict

Red and blue bulls butting heads
(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

The voters have spoken. But don’t expect a spirit of bipartisan unity to blossom, Yale political scientists said during a forum discussion on the recent national election.

If anything, the results from this month’s vote likely will only perpetuate gridlock and polarization in Washington, D.C., Yale experts said during the online event, which was hosted by the Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) on Nov. 17.

With the Republican Party poised to maintain control of the U.S. Senate — pending two January runoff elections in Georgia — the Democratic Party will be unable to enact its legislative agenda on policing reform, healthcare, climate change, and other issues, said David Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science Emeritus and one of the nation’s foremost experts on the U.S. Congress. 

Biden’s got a tough presidency,” Mayhew said. “It’s going to be an inbox management presidency like Harry Truman’s, not a legislative program presidency. It’s a very tough four years coming up.”

Voters rendered a split verdict on the future of American democracy, delivering a clear rebuke to President Donald Trump while likely denying the Democratic Party full control of Congress, said Jacob Hacker, the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science.  

[Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell once again will be in the position of deciding what is possible for an incoming Democratic administration and will almost certainly say, as he did back under President Obama, that his top priority is to make the Democratic incumbent a one-term president,” said Hacker, whose latest book, “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality,” analyzes the Republican Party’s use of populist appeals to rally voters behind what he describes as policies that favor the rich and powerful.

Hacker argued that the Republican Party has insulated itself from electoral accountability by burrowing into the country’s anti-majoritarian political institutions, such as the Senate. Republican elected officials’ silence as Trump makes baseless claims of widespread voter fraud is deeply troubling, he added. 

The base of the Republican Party is thoroughly Trumpian,” he said. “The structures of organized outrage that have supported him remain in place.”

The Zoom conversation in progress on a laptop
(Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

Trump’s enduring popularity within the Republican Party offers a bleak picture of the state of American democracy, said Isabela Mares, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science. The president’s ability to attract more than 70 million votes during the latest election despite the federal government’s ineffective response to the COVID-19 pandemic was puzzling, she said. His populist messages downplaying the virus and blaming China for its spread proved effective in maintaining his electoral coalition, Mares added. 

This suggests to me that we have not fully appreciated the power and strength of populist appeals,” she said. 

Mares referenced “Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy,” a 2003 book by Princeton scholar Nancy Bermeo, which analyzed democratic erosion in 18 European and Latin American countries during the 1960s and 1970s. The book emphasized the importance of elite behavior in determining whether democracies survived or collapsed; especially crucial was the ability of members of the dominant political parties to sanction their co-partisans for undemocratic or lawless behavior, Mares explained.

The willingness of Republican elected officials to countenance Trump’s violation of democratic norms is evidence of an eroding democracy, she suggested.   

Mayhew was more optimistic about the health of democracy in the U.S. 

I think the election is a considerable victory for moderation and probably for coalition government of the American sort,” he said, noting that voters rejected both Trump and the leftwing of the Democratic Party. “The fever is down.”

The election, Mayhew added, was smoothly conducted despite the challenge of executing it amid the pandemic. And, he said, Trump’s denial of the result will fail.

I think the ‘democracy is dying’ script should be put back in the file cabinet,” he said.

However, some of the tactics used by Trump could stick, said Christina Kinane, an assistant professor of political science and an expert on political appointments. His practice of installing acting directors to executive agencies to avoid the normal vetting process will provide a “playbook” for Biden should a Republican-controlled Senate block his appointees, she said. 

Saad Omer, professor of medicine and director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, provided a public-health perspective on the election’s outcome, arguing that the Biden administration should launch an intensive public-education campaign concerning the COVID-19 vaccines in development. 

And a communications campaign is not run through press conferences or tweets exclusively,” Omer said. “Social media is obviously a part of all of this stuff, but it has to be coherent and it has to be reasonably evidence-based.” 

The panel discussion was moderated by ISPS Director Alan Gerber, the dean of social science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Political Science.

Those with a Yale CAS login can watch the full event online. On Tuesday, Dec. 1, at 7:30 p.m., ISPS will host a virtual discussion with political scientists on voting patterns in the 2020 election.

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324