Wang Hao: Political Polarization as Seen in the U.S. Midterm Election

 This translation of a commentary by Wang Hao, an Associate Professor in the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, reflects recent Chinese scholarly analysis of American politics. It analyzes the unfavorable status of the U.S. Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm elections and its negative impact on Sino-U.S. relations. It also reflects how Chinese elite believe time and momentum are on China’s side because of the supposed disrepair of the American political system.

An archived version of the original Chinese-language commentary can be read here. This translation is by Vera X., an intern with the Carter Center’s China Focus.

On September 2, Beijing time, US President Joe Biden delivered a speech titled “The soul of the nation” in Philadelphia. Biden’s speech, which comes at a sensitive time in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, reflected the intensifying battle between the Democrat and Republican parties. The Biden administration began with a discussion of political polarization as a result of the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential Election and the January 6, 2021 storming of Capitol Hill. It is not a favorable political environment to operate in. Since then, the Republican Party has erected one legislative obstacle after another in the economic sector, which is the top priority of the Biden administration. It then launched a massive ‘culture war’ against the Democratic Party on social issues such as immigration, gun control, sex education, and abortion rights. Biden began the counter attack after the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, accusing Trump and his supporters for the first time of being ‘the most extreme political organization in American history’. Biden’s latest speech is a further systematization of that accusation.

These facts show that political polarization remains a serious challenge for the U.S. In fact, recently, the Democratic Party elite has spared no effort to mobilize their supporters on domestic and foreign policy issues. From House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which has triggered dramatic shocks in U.S.-China relations, to the search of Trump’s Mar-A-Lago estate, which has intensified partisanship in the U.S. in less than a week, the Democratic Party has been waving the flags of democracy (external) and rule of law (internal) in rallying their supporters and suppressing their rivals. All are designed to boost their chances of victory in the midterm elections. If we combine the above facts with Biden’s latest remarks, we can find that the current U.S. political environment has presented an abnormal situation of transforming the midterm election into a presidential election. We are seeing both domestic and international developments that are usually seen during a presidential election in the form of ‘October Surprises’.

First of all, this trend reflects that, in the context of increasing political polarization, the significance of midterm elections in shaping the political landscape has been amplified. In other words, the midterm election is now being seen as an important variable as the presidential election in determining the political landscape. Therefore, in order to promote their political interests and maintain the existing advantages, the two parties, especially the ruling party, willfully mobilize the voters, especially the independent voters, through their power advantages. On one hand, in order to respond to public opinion dominated by competing with China, the Democratic Party tries to demonstrate its toughness and international leadership through provoking China. On the other, it aims to reduce the electoral morale of the Republican Party via damaging the image and weakening the political influence of Trump, who is the standard bearer and most influential political figure in the opposition. This combination serves the Democrats’ ultimate goal of salvaging their fragile majority in Congress. It can be said that the current Democratic Party’s efforts to mobilize for the midterm elections have even led to the early mobilization of the 2024 presidential election.

Second, this trend is also reflects the Democratic Party’s effort to deflect popular attention from its bad governance record and the possibility of losing the majority in both chambers in Congress. It is a risky political rescue mission that highlights the alienation of American political democracy and the degeneration of its political environment. It is a circular competition about which party is worse. Biden’s decline in the polls since taking office has cast a shadow over the midterm elections for Democrats. In the process, record U.S. inflation and the Biden administration’s inability to deal with it has become a problem. In the face of this pressure, the Democratic Party chose a ‘different path’ to save itself, that is, in the foreign policy arena, it uses the Taiwan issue to provoke China to show how tough it is; and on the home front, it uses the search and political criticism of Trump to suppress rivals. This shows that American politics is accelerating in the direction of alienation from democratic politics, intensification of vicious partisan strife, and deterioration of the political environment. Especially in the context of midterm elections, these means of vilifying political opponents and enhancing the party’s electoral situation has trapped American politics in a vicious circle of ‘who is worse’. That is, political elites cannot win by solving major domestic and foreign problems or offering better internal and external governance and reform programs, [and] can only gain electoral advantage through the clumsy tactics of suppressing and even demonizing opponents. The normalization of this phenomenon suggests that the decadence of American politics has reached a new level in the wake of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Finally, Biden’s speech also shows that Democrats still see Trump as their biggest political threat and electoral challenge. Given Trump’s political resurgence and the fact that most of his candidate endorsements have emerged from primaries as winners, the political challenges and electoral pressures facing Democrats may be no less than they are in the presidential election. This has become an important motivation for approaching the midterm election like a presidential election. Along this new trend, it can be expected that partisanship in American politics will be further intensified as the midterm elections approach. In the 2020 presidential election, the two parties demonized China about the origins of Covid-19 for electoral mobilization, and recently, the Democratic Party politicians used the Taiwan issue as a breakthrough point to serve their midterm electoral interests. It shows that the spillovers of party disputes over China-related issues will have a significant negative impact on China-U.S. relations. We should be fully aware of the challenges posed by the ‘internalization’ and ‘instrumentalization’ of U.S. relations with China, adhere to bottom-line thinking, comprehensively use high-level dialogue and communication mechanisms, crisis management mechanisms, and even necessary deterrence, and avoid irrational actions by the U.S. that will impact the political red line of bilateral relations.