Republicans, Democrats grapple with identity crises as election year looms

Supporters of former President Donald Trump rally outside Trump Tower in New York City after a grand jury indicted him on April 3. File Photo by John Nacion/UPI
1 of 6 | Supporters of former President Donald Trump rally outside Trump Tower in New York City after a grand jury indicted him on April 3. File Photo by John Nacion/UPI | License Photo

CLIVE, Iowa, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- In less than a year, American voters will again validate their political identity -- going along with the policies put forward by the eventual GOP nominee, or those of President Joe Biden.

In this era of political crisis, the parties are testing what it means to be a Republican or Democrat. That friction, and the uncertainty it brings, is nothing new. But the current iteration may have broader consequences than ever before, six political scientists told UPI in recent interviews.


"You couldn't help but see it. It would be pretty hard to miss," Stanley Renshon, a political psychology professor at Lehman College and Graduate Center in New York, told UPI of the divisions within both parties.

Polls from the Pew Research Center say most Americans view both parties unfavorably and many support breaking from the two-party system.


The divergence in the Republican Party is on full display in the U.S. House of Representatives, where a small faction voted with Democrats to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaving the leadership post vacant for an unprecedented 21 days.

Infighting has made it difficult to pass legislation, including bills to fund the federal government, even with a Republican majority.

Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University, told UPI the division has led to a paralysis in Congress on issues that matter to people.

"When you think about Congress' accomplishments, having a university president fired, removing George Santos, those are not 'solving America's problems' kinds of activities," he said.

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned after testifying last week in a House Education Committee hearing on anti-Semitism on college campuses.

"To the extent that Congress is paralyzed because it is caught up in posturing and politics -- people are not seeing improvements in their economic situation," Krosnick said. "They're not seeing a clear pathway."

Public dissatisfaction with the progress, or lack thereof, may put the seats of those lawmakers on the line sooner than later, he said.

"As a result, there is every reason for those folks to be unhappy with what is happening. Typically when that happens, voters want a change," he said. "That could change the control of Congress, or the White House could be at risk of flipping."


Party identities

Republicans and Democrats historically have distinct ideological differences, but the basis of how their identities are formed is also very different, Professors David Hopkins of Boston College and Matt Grossman of Michigan State University said.

They co-authored the 2016 book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, detailing how Republicans and Democrats think about politics in fundamentally different ways.

The authors told UPI that the Republican Party is an ideologically driven movement that centers on being conservative. This includes fiscal conservatism, as well social.

Democrats, meanwhile, are a coalition of different groups, including social groups, racial minorities and women's rights groups.

On occasion, the smaller groups that make up the Democratic coalition come into conflict with each other, such as labor unions and environmentalists, Hopkins said. At some point, accommodations are usually made between conflicting interest groups to maintain the coalition.

"In the last 20 years or so, there hasn't been as much internal disagreement," Hopkins said. "But there's nothing inevitable about that. If an issue comes along where they do see their interests are not aligned, we should expect some conflict to re-emerge."

Grossman said the groups that make up the Democratic coalition change over time.


"The coalition is much different than it used to be," Grossman said. "It's open to taking positions on social and cultural issues that it would have steered clear of in the past."

Donald Trump effect

Former President Donald Trump may be credited -- or blamed -- for the shift in the Republican Party, but Renshon said the wheels were in motion prior to his rise as a political figure.

"We have these periods where parties seem to be on stable plateaus. There are all sorts of underlying churnings you don't get a chance to see much of in a very public way," he said. "Then one thing or another thing happens, where it breaks out and the volcano erupts. [Trump] is sort of a residual effect of what's going on."

Renshon said a growing sector of the public felt it was not being heard by the traditional Republican lawmaker or candidate -- the churning. Trump, the erupting volcano, captured some of their support as he promised to fight "the establishment," ushering in the current tug-of-war over what the party stands for.

What has since followed is a Republican politician that mirrors Trump's views and his style of messaging. Candidates in the style of Trump have emerged at nearly every level of government.


"He's a unique individual in American politics in that he commands a very strong following in a way that is not necessarily connected to party identification," Richard Hall, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, told UPI.

Republicans who have tried to push back against Trump have instead been pushed aside, said Jonathan Hanson, a lecturer at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

"Part of it is not just about policy," Hanson told UPI. "Really, it's the party's support of our political system. Democracy itself versus a much more radical form of governance. It goes beyond restraining government and reducing taxes to radically changing government."

Hanson's home state has watched this shift play out with the Michigan Republican Party. The state party elected defeated secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo as its chair earlier this year. She has since made several controversial decisions, including removing her critics from committees.

Karamo has also denied the results of the 2020 election, furthering Trump's claims that voter fraud cost him the election. The Trump-endorsed candidate refused to concede in her race, as well, even though she lost by about 13% of the vote.


"In general, there has been a lot of infighting and fracturing of the Republican Party at the state level and the county level," Hanson said. "There have been reports out of county meetings of very nasty fights between different factions of the Republican Party. This has gotten to the point that there's been some physical altercations sometimes at these meetings."

On Monday, the Oakland County, Mich., Republican Party joined other party officials in calling for Karamo's removal, citing concerns that she may cost the party its ability to flip a critical Senate seat in 2024.

"Our state party has been left in shambles with regard to fundraising and effective staff work," Vance Patrick, chairman of the county party, said in a statement. "There is a new controversy every week, distracting from the important business of organizing the party to win elections."

On the national stage, candidates are competing with Trump to represent the party in the 2024 presidential election. The four most competitive, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy -- at one time or another -- have been aligned with the former president.


"The identity of the party in large part has become centered around Trump," Hopkins said. "It's hard to think of another example, in at least modern history in this country, of a party taking on the identity of a single individual. Even when he's no longer president, he retains that position."

'Disenchantment' with Joe Biden

Hopkins said Democrats have largely been unified for the past 20 years, though that could change if an issue arose that stoked division.

The Vietnam War was one such issue. It was only after the war ended that Democrats were able to resolve their differences.

The war between Israel and Hamas has ignited a level of discontent among the more progressive wing of the party and groups that traditionally vote for Democrats.

In Michigan, which has one of the largest Middle Eastern and North African populations in the United States, Hanson said he expects the Biden administration's support for Israel to cost the president votes in 2024.

Joe Biden won Michigan in 2020 by 154,188 votes in 2020. There are 310,087 MENA people in the state. More than 100,000 live in Wayne County, where Biden received more than 68% of the vote. Detroit is located in Wayne County.


"We hear comments from Arab American voters who are not happy with the U.S. support for Israel in this conflict," Hanson said. "In general, there is a lot of sympathy, not with the terrorist attack, but with the plight of Palestinians in occupied territories and that there are things that are wrong about this."

On Nov. 8, the U.S. House censured Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat and the only Palestinian-American in Congress, for "promoting false narratives regarding the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel." Twenty-two Democrats voted with all but four Republicans to censure her.

Tlaib's censure was sparked in part by a statement she made the day after the attack, which was criticized as painting the attack as a justified resistance to an apartheid state.

"The path to that future must include lifting the blockade, ending the occupation and dismantling the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance," Tlaib's statement said. "We cannot ignore the humanity in each other. As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue."

A Gallup poll in March, seven months prior to the attack, said that for the first time Democrats sympathize more with Palestinians than Israelis. A Pew Research poll released Friday said adults under age 50 are more likely to disapprove of Biden's response to the war. Adults under age 30 are even more likely to disapprove. Half of Democrats between 18 and 29 years old disapprove.


"There's definitely a broad disenchantment with Biden and that was true even before the eruption of this conflict," Grossman said.

Disapproval of Biden's response to the war may be an issue when it is time to go to the polls, but Hopkins is not so sure. The challenge, he said, will be for Democrats to win back the voters who have strayed when Biden hits the campaign trail in full force.

"We know from the past that a lot of people who feel that way at this stage, by the time we get to Election Day, they'll be back on board," Hopkins said. "They may not be enthusiastic about it, but they will cast an unenthusiastic vote. They could be convinced by the campaign that the alternative is worse."

Party polarization

As the parties become more polarized, so does the public. Perhaps more than ever people are finding their preferred political party or even preferred candidate are tied up with their own view of themselves, Renshon said.

When criticism arises against that party or candidate, whether it is in an exchange on social media or in face-to-face interactions, the criticism becomes more personal.

"The group they identify with is very important to them in a way that it was not in the past," Renshon said. "It was important in the past but now it's a matter, not only of political definition, but of self definition. And that self definition crosses over into identity."


The change in how people value their political identification has had an impact on political discourse, he said.

"It's a powerful force these days because it's moved from ideology to identity. That's a dramatic move with powerful consequences," he said. "It's absolutely emotional. To put it in a phrase, it's personal."

Those consequences include what Renshon referred to as digging in, lashing out or being wholly unavailable for moderation.

"We're not going to agree to disagree," he said. "We already agree, we don't agree."

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