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Why has Joe Biden encountered so much resistance among Democrats?

The most recent Harris poll places Biden at 44%, far ahead of anyone else in the race. Yet the resistance to Biden among Democrats is remarkable.

Politico reports that Democrats are eager to “take down” Biden over free trade.

The New York Times tells us about Democrats who see Biden as representing “nostalgia for a bygone era.”

USA Today quotes a spokesperson for Democracy in America, a liberal PAC, as saying that, “The modern Democratic Party and America is looking for fighters that want to fight the status quo.” Biden is not who they have in mind.

For someone who was vice president of the United States under a popular (among Democrats) president only three years ago, this should seem a little surprising.

In fact, what we are seeing is the beginning of something among Democrats that already happened among Republicans. It is not good.

For the last thirty years, Republicans have been at war with themselves over claims to ideological purity. Republican primary elections have been dominated by arguments over who is the “real conservative,” or the “true conservative,” or the “authentic conservative.” Republicans invented a term (RINO — “Republican In Name Only”) in the 1990’s to describe Republicans who were not quite conservative enough. By the time of the Tea Party Movement at the beginning of this decade, mainstream Republicans were being pushed out of the party by more extreme voices. Not much later, Republicans elected Donald Trump who has embraced conspiracy theorists and white nationalists. Republicans chased themselves to the edges of the American political conversation, away from the center. Trump is the result.

The Democratic Party now is beginning to experience the same sorts of centrifugal forces that Republicans have experienced for the last three decades, driving members away from the settled center. Some of them, scorned by the Clintons’ and Obama’s too-close relationship to Wall Street, are skeptical about anyone who might accommodate the wealthy for any reason. For others, the #blacklivesmatter and #MeToo movements have heightened awareness of how other structural inequalities have cultivated injustices in American life. There is less patience among Democrats for the status quo than any other time in my living memory. The center is not holding, and Democrats appear poised to chase themselves to the edges in the same way that Republicans have.

No matter how much it may be tempting to agree with the motivations of Democrats who are impatient with the status quo today, these developments are not something to be cheerful about.

In a healthy politics, governing happens at the center where compromises over disagreements can be found. Change comes slowly in that way, but it does come and often it is more durable. In contrast, a politics where voices that need to be talking to one another are moving farther away from one another is not healthy. That situation leaves us no way to solve our problems. It means only an ever deepening, ugly polarization.

There is an explanation for why this is happening. The words “liberal” and “conservative” are not native to American politics. They did not appear in the United States until the mid-twentieth century. Born in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they describe a European argument about the end of the feudal era. That argument doesn’t apply to American politics, which has no feudal history. Instead, our history was dominated by arguments over the roles of national and state governments until seventy years ago. We adopted those labels after World War II because we were in a Cold War, a global struggle over communism that had broadened the European argument about the end of feudalism to implicate the whole world in a nuclear stalemate. The labels were convenient for that moment. They stabilized American politics, fixed our attention on one problem that dominated the globe and every political argument, and held awkward coalitions together in the Republican and Democratic Parties. After the Cold War ended, “liberalism” and “conservatism” lost their usefulness for us. They no longer described anything we were quarreling about and, unmoored from ideas and the problems facing our nation, a struggle over identity began among Republicans first. It has reached Democrats now.

The experience of the Trump presidency may coax some Republicans back to the center, though there is no sign that will happen. If Democrats begin to widen the distance from Republicans now in a race to the edges of their own party, there may be no escaping our polarization and all of its dreadful consequences.

Both parties need to engage in a serious reflection about who they are, what they represent, in light of real and present problems facing the United States. Clinging to those old labels, the thirst for ideological purity, and the deepening polarization that will bring are not a solution.

Steven P. Millies is associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

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