Similarly, the central story of the Biden administration is whether the Democratic Party can overcome its internal conflicts to deliver effective policies. Remarkably, Speaker Nancy Pelosi scheduled floor votes on the infrastructure bill, only to pull it because she could not deliver enough Democratic votes — extraordinary evidence of how difficult it is for a speaker to unite her caucus amid the forces of fragmentation. It took a disastrous election night for progressives to bury their concerns and support the bill — and several now regret having done so.
The recent collapse of Build Back Better, at least for now, led to a remarkable public bloodletting between different elements within the party.
Large structural forces have driven the fragmentation of politics throughout the West. On the economic front, the forces include globalization’s contribution to the stagnation of middle- and working-class incomes, rising inequality and outrage over the 2008 financial crisis. On the cultural side: conflicts over immigration, nationalism and other issues.
Since the New Deal in the United States and World War II in Europe, the parties of the left had represented less affluent, less educated voters. Now those voters are becoming the base of parties on the right, with more affluent, more educated voters shifting to parties on the left. Major parties are struggling to figure out how to patch together winning coalitions in the midst of this shattering transformation.
The communications revolution is also a major force generating the disabling fragmentation of politics. Across Europe, it has given rise to loosely organized, leaderless protest movements that disrupt politics and give birth to other parties — but make effective government harder to achieve.
In the United States, the new communications era has enabled the rise of free-agent politicians. A Congress with more free agents is more difficult to govern. Even in their first years in office, individual members of Congress (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ted Cruz) no longer need to work their way up through the party or serve on major committees to attract national visibility and influence.
Through cable television and social media, they can find and construct their own national constituencies. Through internet fund-raising (particularly small donations), politicians (particularly from the extremes) can become effective fund-raising machines on their own. In this era, party leaders lack the leverage they once had to force party members to accept the party line. That is why speakers of the House resign or reschedule votes on which they cannot deliver.