President Biden wants to put a big, transformative program through Congress. It would revitalize our infrastructure (he originally wanted to spend several trillion dollars on this, but has already scaled his plans back); expand direct payments to less well off Americans through tax credits; exert far more federal control over national election procedures to make it easier to vote and end gerrymandering; and provide more child care to working parents. He would also like to raise taxes somewhat--though hardly dramatically--to pay for all this, and he wants to do much more about climate change. The chances that he can do much of this do not look good.
The House Democratic leadership exercises enough discipline nowadays to get all of this through the House, even though their majority is now quite narrow. The evenly divided Senate, of course, presents a completely different picture. A simple majority requires every Democratic Senator, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. A majority, however, is nowhere near enough to pass legislation unless it is done through the reconciliation process, because of filibusters. Manchin in particular seems unalterably opposed to ending the filibuster, even though his constitutional and historical arguments, as I have pointed out, are specious. As a matter of fact, however, no majorities as narrow as the Democrats' ones are today has ever passed a sweeping legislative program in the whole history of the republic. The Republicans during the Civil War, Wilson in 1913-14, FDR in 1933-36, the Republicans in 1947-8, and LBJ in 1965 all enjoyed very large majorities in both Houses, and most had considerable bipartisan support as well. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans have reverted to total obstructionism, their policy under Barack Obama--and they are much closer to winning back the Congress now than they were in 2009. Obama passed a stimulus measure and one major piece of legislation, the ACA. Biden has also passed a big stimulus through reconciliation, and I expect him to get some infrastructure bill through, but I don't know how much more he can manage. Our conservative Supreme Court also poses a new long-term threat to liberal legislation, just as it did from 1869 or so until 1937. And meanwhile, red states are passing more and more conservative legislation on several fronts--voting rights, gun rights, anti-abortion measures, etc.
Trump, of course, didn't have many legislative successes either--the tax cut was the only big one. Both sides, instead, now tend to use executive powers to implement ideological agendas or please particular constituencies. Trump tried to restrict some transgender rights, Biden is trying to expand them again. Trump restricted immigration as much as he could, Biden is loosening it up again. Trump banned diversity training in the federal government, Biden has restored it. Biden has also created a farm loan relief program targeted explicitly at black farmers, an unprecedented step in our history. It looks to me like a centrist party or candidate might have a very broad appeal, but neither party is going to field anyone more centrist than Biden, who is not turning out to be especially centrist on any hot-button issues at all.
Both of our parties rely heavily on corporate money. Both of them have networks of intellectuals who supply their ideas. Both of them have large constituencies motivated mainly by identity, and both of them have absolutist views on issues like taxes, gun rights, abortion rights, and now, critical race theory, which is rightly becoming a major political issue, since its acceptance or rejection implies entirely different views about where the United States is, how it got there, and where it should go from here. As I have said before, I do not think that our divisions are without precedent. The situation in the post-Civil War era was quite similar, and it halted the drive toward legal racial equality far short of its goal. The example of that era also suggests that any period of partisan division based on identity tends to be a very good period for large corporations. We may not see any really transformative change for a long time.