Partisan polarisation may help Biden’s electoral campaign

The partisan divide is helping Joe Biden in terms of building coalitions and bringing in new voters.

Biden AP Photo
United States Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden smiles while speaking during a round table on economic reopening with community members on June 11 in Philadelphia [AP Photo/Matt Slocum]

As soon as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate, those on the American left and right began to take sides. 

Their respective arguments used the standard, divisive rhetoric that has come to characterise much of the political debate in the United States over the last few years. For instance, some on the right slammed the California Senator for being “ultra-left“, while Democrat-leaning writers celebrated Harris for being the first African-American and Asian-American candidate to form part of a major party ticket. 

What is illustrative in these comments is not their substance, but how they reveal the deep degree of partisan polarisation that currently exists in the US political system.

At first glance, the partisan divide may seem counterproductive to resolving some of the country’s most pressing political problems.  

The reality may be different, however, as polarisation could help electoral campaigns forge coalitions. In fact, we are already seeing these dynamics play out in Biden’s campaign.

A quick view of the political landscape shows that few issues escape the US’s bitter partisan divide.

The position that one takes when it comes to long-standing debates concerning abortion or gun rights, for instance, is usually a clear indicator of party loyalty. Even now, as the coronavirus spreads throughout the country, Democrats and Republicans are split on whether or not to wear face masks in public. Meanwhile, important legislative matters, such as how to reform the police, or whether it is necessary to provide relief to the millions who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic shuttering businesses, have stalled as the two major political parties in the US cannot find common ground.

For many around the world, the idea that two parties dominate the US political system most likely seems bizarre.

With many countries in Latin America and Europe featuring many different political parties that field candidates in elections, why do just two parties govern in the US?  

The answer is the country’s electoral system.  

Specifically, it is the US’s “first past the post” – or “winner gets all” – system of electing candidates.

The way that this kind of system operates is simple. Basically, in any electoral district – whether a county, state, or even at the national level – the candidate who receives the most votes wins the election. Those who come in second, or third, go home with nothing.  

Other kinds of electoral systems with proportional representation rules allocate seats differently.   

In countries with this kind of system, parties that place second or third in elections still receive representation in government, but just not as many seats as the party that earns the most votes. This provides an incentive for small parties to run candidates in elections, even though they may not win outright. This is also why countries such as the United Kingdom, with an electoral system similar to the one in the US, features just a few electorally viable political parties, while in Germany there are many.  

The fact that there are two principal parties in the US has been true for decades. What has changed is the degree of polarisation, which has grown over the years. Research documents this increase, finding the potential causes behind it in many places – from the increased use of social media, to the rising level of economic inequality.  

While the fact of American polarisation may lead some to think it would turn voters off, the partisan divide is actually helping Biden’s campaign in terms of building coalitions and bringing in new voters. 

The reason is simple: with two parties to chose from, voters must either decide to support Biden or current President Donald Trump. Not only are there just two choices, but the divisions are so deep that the options are as clear as day for voters.

What adds to the political landscape is the high level of disapproval that Trump has received for his (mis)handling of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Still, turning anti-Trump sentiment into votes for Biden is not automatic.  

Part of the reason is that Biden securing the nomination as the Democrat Party’s standard-bearer did not excite the progressive wing of the party. Moreover, it appears that the former vice president’s success can be chalked up more to Trump’s dismal handling of the pandemic than to any kind of innovative campaign strategy.

Forming coalitions is where Biden has been trying to make up for this excitement gap. Concretely, we are seeing this unfold in how some who were previously aligned with the campaign of the democratic socialist from Vermont – Senator Bernie Sanders – have helped form a unity coalition with the Biden campaign.  

Meanwhile, some who have been campaigning against racial injustice of late have called out Biden for not moving enough on the issue of police reform. Such concerns led Cardi B, the rapper, to sit down with Biden to talk about issues and get the word out to young people on the need to vote.

Biden’s campaign needs to continue such conversations to reach out to voters, especially young people.  But in more than words, his campaign could also engage the more liberal sections of the American left in the form of concrete policy proposals, perhaps even addressing Biden’s own flawed past with respect to criminal justice and mass incarceration.  

Whether or not such actions would bear electoral fruit is unknown. It is risky, but that is the reality of politics, especially now as the coronavirus pandemic has created such uncertainty in the US system.  

It is also the nature of the political landscape that partisan polarisation has created, where people may not agree on every issue, but need to find enough common cause to unite behind one of the campaigns of the dominant parties. What everyone needs to recognise is that getting people to vote in this context is a two-way street. As much as people of all stripes on the left are being asked to come together behind Biden, the candidate also needs to give them something concrete to follow. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.