In this era of extreme partisanship, it is easy to get caught up in scorekeeping (which team scored how many runs in which innings) while losing sight of the bigger picture (the division standings, the playoff outlook, and even the number of championships).
Clearly, this country is narrowly and bitterly divided. Americans are increasingly voting in a parliamentary fashion, picking the same party up and down the ballot, with individual candidates and their personal brands meaning and mattering less. Most are locked in with their team, with only a narrow but pivotal slice of voters in the middle.
Yet Democrats sense a key structural advantage that they hope has them set up for season after season of success: Their party is growing in precisely the sectors of the country that are prospering and best positioned for the future; by contrast, they see the Republican Party strongholds as scared of the future and shrinking in population, economic growth, and influence.
Days after the November election, a Brookings study showed that the 2,586 counties that Donald Trump carried represented only 29 percent of gross domestic product, while the 527 counties that Joe Biden won made up the other 71 percent.
The Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan think tank funded by Silicon Valley, found recently that those same Biden counties were home to 83 percent of the new firms started between 2010 and 2018, the longest period of sustained peacetime economic growth in U.S. history, and 73 percent of the employment growth during that period. Its report also found that “from 2010 to 2019, the number of people in counties won by Biden grew by an average of 3.1 percent over the period, while the counties won by President Trump averaged an increase of just 0.6 percent."
“The 2020 election made clear that the American electorate is starkly divided between economically vibrant and stagnant places,” the authors write.
This dynamic of high growth in Democratic areas may give them the political wiggle room to pursue their program of big spending and increased taxation to pay for it.
There is an old joke that the United States has a two-party system—one is a tax-and-spend party (Democrats), the other a borrow-and-spend party (Republicans). President Biden and congressional Democrats don’t seem to be running away from their moniker, but they are intent to turn the tax issue on its head by arguing that the wealthy and big business have not been paying their fair share. They seem intent on defining the fight in a way that puts Republicans in the position of defending tax shelters for big business and the wealthy. The nearest and dearest values for Democrats are a social-safety net, fairness and equity, a level playing field for all, and social justice. This year, their challenge is to turn taxes into a fairness and equity issue.
The GOP, on the other hand, has long billed itself as the party of small government, but a more accurate description would be that it is first and foremost a lower-taxes party. It has long supported substantial levels of spending on defense, while favoring more-restrained governmental involvement and spending on most domestic issues.
The Republican Party is in a period of change that’s more than a facelift or even a rebranding. This is a repositioning, a change in focus and orientation. The GOP was long seen as the party of the upper-middle-class “country club” set. Income and level of educational attainment were once strong predictors of Republican voting, but its new focus is on whites with less than a college degree.
Democrats are not changing direction; instead they are doubling down on what they see as the appropriate size and scope of government. They see the coronavirus pandemic, along with changing demographics and generations, as creating a new paradigm—that Americans will not only tolerate but insist on a much larger role for government in the future, far bolder than anything Bill Clinton or even Barack Obama would have dared propose.
One Obama adviser said that they tried mightily to keep the price tags of spending programs down to numbers beginning with Bs (for billions) rather than Ts (for trillions). Biden is going full tilt. Whether or not it constitutes the kind of overreach that is often deadly in midterm elections for new presidents is not yet clear.
But playing offense on taxes is definitely new, and Democrats are betting their whole season on this new lineup and approach.
This article was originally published in the National Journal on April 20, 2021.
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