November 22, 2018

Anger and Gridlock: Working With a Divided America

In a deeply divided America, there was only one thing that unified the nation’s voters when they went to sleep the night of Nov. 6 after a long, bitter and ugly midterm election campaign.

Everybody was angry.

Despite reclaiming a majority in the House of Representatives and putting Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) on a glide path back to the Speaker’s chair, Democrats were unhappy that Republicans maintained — and may have increased — their majority in the Senate. Among other things, that means two more years of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees and the possibility of one or two additional Supreme Court appointments.

Republicans, even though they saved their Senate majority, are just as mad after losing control of the House and realizing that Pelosi and her colleagues will derail the overwhelming majority of conservative legislative and policy priorities until 2021. Two years of House investigations into almost every corner of the Trump administration will keep that anger at a fever pitch until the next election.

The predictable result of a hyper-polarized electorate is a gridlocked government. With Washington split between a Democratic House, a Senate controlled by a largely conventional GOP majority, and a White House occupied by the most untraditional of Republicans, the odds of significant progress on any of the country’s most pressing policy challenges are infinitesimal. That will in turn fuel even more voter frustration, more partisan finger-pointing and previously unimaginable levels of vitriol and nastiness.

But while voter unhappiness is pervasive throughout the electorate, the highest levels of fury and can be found at the ideological bases of the two major parties. After watching the most conservative and uncompromising voices assume control of the Republican Party throughout the age of former President Barack Obama, it appears that the lesson the Democrats have learned over the past decade is that they need their own Tea Party. And the only thing less appealing than one party being held captive by its most hard-nosed absolutists is when it happens to both of them.

The vast majority of American Jews, of course, line up on the blue side of the political dividing line, so a new House majority will offer them some solace and a considerable amount of motivation to continue the resistance for another two years. Smaller segments of the Jewish community are Trump supporters, and will now worry that their priorities on issues relating to the economy and Israel will face a more difficult path forward in a divided Washington.

But on a political landscape where the most extreme elements of both major parties have increased their influence, it raises the question as to whether American Jews should be focused more on the partisan balance between Democrats and Republicans  — or on the ideological makeup inside of those two parties. 

It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the growing vehemence of the anti-Israel voices that populate the populist wing of the Democratic Party. It has become just as hard to discount the most virulent voices of intolerance among alt-right Republicans. The majority of both parties’ loyalists would stand with Israel and protect the rights and safety of American Jews. But the red-blue chasm that separates Democrats and Republicans has fueled such scorched-earth animosity on both sides that partisans on the left and the right are far too willing to tolerate the inexcusable excesses of those who just happen to share their party registration.

The question is whether Jewish voters — just as polarized as the rest of the electorate — are willing to call out the extremists in their own party ranks. It’s important for Republican Jews to criticize those who advocate for economic boycotts against Israel. It’s just as necessary for Jewish Democrats to castigate the voices of race-based nationalism and prejudice. But it’s not that hard. The challenge is to move beyond the selective outrage that inspires our anger only against those in the other party rather than against those on both the right and the left who would endanger our community and our homeland.

The fact that Democrats took the House and Republicans held the Senate was not especially surprising. But it now appears that both parties will maintain larger majorities in their respective parties than had been expected, and larger majorities mean less incentive for compromise and collaboration. Party leaders on both sides will be reluctant to confront the extremists in their own ranks, and those who tolerate either the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement or blood-and-soil proclamations, will continue to grow their ranks — unless the Jewish community decides that some things are more important than party registration.

Here in California, the results were even less surprising, as the heavily Democratic state elected Gavin Newsom as governor and re-elected Dianne Feinstein to the Senate by overwhelming margins. Late on election night, it was still unclear whether Democrats would hold two-thirds supermajorities in the state legislature. Otherwise, the most compelling contests in the state were between blue and deep-blue candidates. But California voters are angry too, and their fury toward Trump will continue to fuel state politics and governance.

Next week, I will go on a deeper dive into all the results and what they portend. But for now, the one safe prediction is that the anger will continue to grow.


Dan Schnur is a professor at the USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and the former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles region.