The Future of American Politics

The following are five predictions about the future of U.S. politics. Some are short-term, others long-term; some are possible, others probable.

One-term presidents. In a time of extreme political polarization and razor-thin electoral victories, we may have to get used to the White House changing hands every four years rather than eight. In 2016, Trump won Michigan by 13,000 votes, Wisconsin by 27,000, Pennsylvania by 68,000, Arizona by 91,000. Biden won those same states in 2020 by 154,000, 21,000, 82,000, and 10,000, respectively. Other states were close as well, such as Biden’s +13,000 in Georgia or Clinton’s +2,700 in New Hampshire. Competitive races are nothing new in election history, and 13 presidents (including Trump) have failed to reach a second term directly after their first, but Trump’s defeat was the first incumbent loss in nearly 30 years. The bitter divisions and conspiratorial hysteria of modern times may make swing state races closer than ever, resulting in fewer two-term presidents — at least consecutive ones — in the near-term.

Mail privacy under rightwing attack. When abortion was illegal in the United States, there were many abortions. If Roe falls and states outlaw the procedure, or if the Supreme Court continues to allow restrictions that essentially do the same, we will again see many illegal terminations — only they will be far safer and easier this time, with abortion pills via mail. Even if your state bans the purchase, sale, or use of the pill, mail forwarding services or help from out-of-town friends (shipping the pills to a pro-choice state and then having them mailed to you) will easily get the pills to your home. Is mail privacy a future rightwing target? The U.S. has a history of banning the mailing of contraceptives, information on abortion, pornography, lottery tickets, and more, enforced through surveillance, requiring the Supreme Court to declare our mail cannot be opened without a warrant. It is possible the Right will attempt to categorize abortion pills as items illegal to ship and even push for the return of warrantless searches.

Further demagoguery, authoritarianism, and lunacy. Trump’s success is already inspiring others, some worse than he is, to run for elected office. His party looks the other way or enthusiastically embraces his deceitful attempts to overturn fair elections because it is most interested in power, reason and democracy be damned. Same for Trump’s demagoguery, his other lies and authoritarian tendencies, his extreme policies, his awful personal behavior — his base loves it all and it’s all terribly useful to the GOP. While Trump’s loss at the polls in 2020 may cause some to second-guess the wisdom of supporting such a lunatic, at least those not among the 40% of citizens who still believe the election was stolen, at present it seems the conservative base and the Republican Party are largely ready for Round 2. What the people want and the party tolerates they will get; what’s favored and encouraged will be perpetuated and created anew. It’s now difficult to imagine a normal human being, a classic Republican, a decent person like Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, Jon Huntsman, John Kasich, or even Marco Rubio beating an extremist fool at the primary polls. The madness will likely continue for some time, both with Trump and others who come later, with only temporary respites of normalcy between monsters. Meanwhile, weaknesses in the political and legal system Trump exploited will no doubt remain unfixed for an exceptionally long time.

Republicans fight for their lives / A downward spiral against democracy. In a perverse sort of way, Republican cheating may be a good sign. Gerrymandering, voter suppression in all its forms, support for overturning a fair election, desperation to hold on to the Electoral College, and ignoring ballot initiatives passed by voters are the acts and sentiments of the fearful, those who no longer believe they can win honestly. And given the demographic changes already occurring in the U.S. that will transform the nation in the next 50-60 years (see next section), they’re increasingly correct. Republicans have an ever-growing incentive to cheat. Unfortunately, this means the Democrats do as well. Democrats may be better at putting democracy and fairness ahead of power interests, but this wall already has severe cracks, and one wonders how long it will hold. For example, the GOP refused to allow Obama to place a justice on the Supreme Court, and many Democrats dreamed of doing the same to Trump, plus expanding the Court during the Biden era. Democrats of course also gerrymander U.S. House and state legislature districts to their own advantage (the Princeton Gerrymandering Project is a good resource), even if Republican gerrymandering is worsefour times worse — therefore reaping bigger advantages. It’s sometimes challenging to parse out which Democratic moves are reactions to Republican tactics and which they would do anyway to protect their seats, but it’s obvious that any step away from impartiality and true democracy encourages the other party to do the same, creating a downward anti-democratic spiral, a race to the bottom.

(One argument might be addressed before moving on. Democrats generally make it easier for people to vote and support the elimination of the Electoral College, though again liberals are not angels and there are exceptions to both these statements. Aren’t those dirty tactics that serve their interests? As I wrote in The Enduring Stupidity of the Electoral College, which shows that this old anti-democratic system is unfair to each individual voter, “True, the popular vote may serve Democratic interests. Fairness serves Democratic interests. But, unlike unfairness, which Republicans seek to preserve, fairness is what’s right. Giving the candidate with the most votes the presidency is what’s right.” Same for not making it difficult for people who usually vote the “wrong” way to cast their ballots! You do what is right and fair, regardless of who it helps.)

Democratic dominance. In the long-term, Democrats will become the dominant party through demographics alone. Voters under 30 favored the Democratic presidential candidate by large margins in 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020 — voters under 40 also went blue by a comfortable margin. Given that individual political views mostly remain stable over time (the idea that most or even many young people will grow more conservative as they age is unsupported by research), in 50 or 60 years this will be a rather different country. Today we still have voters (and politicians) in their 80s and 90s who were segregationists during Jim Crow. In five or six decades, those over 40 today (who lean Republican) will be gone, leaving a bloc of older voters who have leaned blue their entire lives, plus a new generation of younger and middle-aged voters likely more liberal than any of us today. This is on top of an increasingly diverse country, with people of color likely the majority in the 2040s — with the white population already declining by total numbers and as a share of the overall population, Republican strength will weaken further (the majority of whites have long voted Republican; the majority of people of color vote blue). A final point: the percentage of Americans who identify as liberal is steadily increasing, as opposed to those who identify as conservative, and Democrats have already won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Republican life rafts such as the Electoral College (whose swing states will experience these same changes) and other anti-democratic practices will grow hopelessly ineffective under the crushing weight of demographic metamorphosis. Assuming our democracy survives, the GOP will be forced to moderate to have a chance at competing.

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