A new centrism is rising in Washington

WASHINGTON — It may be the most discussed fact about American politics today: The country is deeply polarized. The Republican Party has moved to the right by many measures, and the Democratic Party has moved to the left. Each party sees the other as an existential threat. One consequence of this polarization, politicians and pundits often say, is gridlock in Washington.

But in a country that is supposed to have a gridlocked federal government, the past four years are hard to explain. These years have been arguably the most productive period of Washington bipartisanship in decades.


During the COVID pandemic, Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together to pass emergency responses. Under President Joe Biden, bipartisan majorities have passed major laws on infrastructure and semiconductor chips as well as laws on veterans’ health, gun violence, the Postal Service, the aviation system, same-sex marriage, anti-Asian hate crimes and the electoral process. On trade, the Biden administration has kept some of the Trump administration’s signature policies and even expanded them.

The trend has continued over the past month, first with the passage of a bipartisan bill to aid Ukraine and other allies and to force a sale of TikTok by its Chinese owner. After the bill’s passage, far-right House Republicans tried to oust Speaker Mike Johnson because he did not block it — and House Democrats voted to save his job. There is no precedent for House members of one party to rescue a speaker from the other. Last week, the House advanced another bipartisan bill, on disaster relief, using a rare procedural technique to get around party-line votes.

This flurry of bipartisanship may be surprising, but it is not an accident. It has depended on the emergence of a new form of American centrism.

The very notion of centrism is anathema to many progressives and conservatives, conjuring a mushy moderation. But the new centrism is not always so moderate. Forcing the sale of a popular social app is not exactly timid, nor is confronting China and Russia. The bills to rebuild U.S. infrastructure and strengthen the domestic semiconductor industry are ambitious economic policies.

A defining quality of the new centrism is how much it differs from the centrism that guided Washington in the roughly quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, starting in the 1990s. That centrism — alternately called the Washington Consensus or neoliberalism — was based on the idea that market economics had triumphed. By lowering trade barriers and ending the era of big government, the United States would create prosperity for its own people and shape the world in its image, spreading democracy to China, Russia and elsewhere.

That hasn’t worked out. In the U.S., incomes and wealth have grown slowly, except for the affluent, while life expectancy is lower today than in any other high-income country. Although China, along with other once-poor countries, has become richer, it is less free — and increasingly assertive.

The new centrism is a response to these developments. It is a recognition that neoliberalism failed to deliver. The notion that the old approach would bring prosperity, as Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, has said, “was a promise made but not kept.” In its place has risen a new worldview. Call it neopopulism.

Both Democrats and Republicans have grown skeptical of free trade; on Tuesday, Biden announced increased tariffs on several Chinese-made goods, in response to Beijing’s subsidies. Democrats and a slice of Republicans have also come to support industrial policy, in which the government tries to address the market’s shortcomings. The infrastructure and semiconductor laws are examples. These policies feel more consistent with the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower or Franklin Roosevelt than those of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.

The term neopopulism is apt partly because polls show these new policies to be more popular than the planks of the Washington Consensus ever were. Decades ago, politicians of both parties pushed for liberalizing global trade despite public skepticism. In retrospect, many politicians and even some economists believe that Americans were right to be skeptical.

“There is a sense on both the left and right, and among many independents, that the economy hasn’t been working in many places,” said progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., whose district includes Silicon Valley. Daniel DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said that more Republicans “have woken up to the fact that neoliberal policies didn’t work out so well for a large coalition of working people.”

There are certainly limits to the new centrism. The Republican Party has a large isolationist wing, and some progressives question whether American power is a good thing. The Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, largely supports laissez-faire economics. And there is no prospect of bipartisan federal legislation on divisive social issues like abortion.

Then there is Donald Trump. He is in many ways part of the new consensus, but he is also hostile to basic democratic traditions, including an independent judiciary and the peaceful transfer of power. If he becomes president again, his promised agenda is sufficiently extreme that it may chill bipartisan cooperation.

Still, the forces that have created neopopulism are unlikely to disappear. They reflect enduring economic and international trends as well as public opinion.

“I don’t mean to suggest everything is fine, because it clearly isn’t,” said Collins, a longtime advocate for bipartisanship. “But I do think the pendulum is starting to swing back.”

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The apotheosis of the partisan era arguably took place in 2009, shortly after Barack Obama’s election as president. Obama had risen to prominence as a champion of compromise and hoped to pass bipartisan bills on health care and clean energy. But Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, believed that allowing Obama to sign such bills would strengthen him, and McConnell persuaded other Republicans to oppose Obama on almost every big policy. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t,” McConnell said at the time.

McConnell and his allies also had principled objections to the Democratic agenda. They were laissez-faire Republicans who tended to oppose government intervention in the economy, which meant that they and Obama often struggled to find common ground on policy.

The ascent of Trump changed this dynamic. He won the Republican nomination in 2016 while discarding key parts of Reaganism. It can be difficult to think of Trump as a centrist because of his outlandish comments and far-right views on some subjects. Yet he did move his party toward the middle on several big economic issues. Unlike the Reaganites, Trump criticized free trade and praised government programs like Medicare. He once described himself as “a popularist.”

To the shock of other Republicans, his rejection of free market economics did not hurt him politically. It helped him win the nomination, and in the general election, he won working-class voters who had previously backed Obama. Trump’s victory made both parties recognize that the Washington Consensus was less popular than they had thought. “Donald Trump has widened the aperture for policy discussions in the United States,” Neera Tanden, then the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and now Biden’s domestic policy adviser, said in 2018.

Trump himself remains inconsistent on many policy questions. Even as he talked like a populist president, he installed pro-deregulation Cabinet secretaries, and his signature domestic legislation was a nearly $2 trillion tax cut skewed toward the wealthy. If reelected, he has promised to extend it. He recently reversed his support for a forced sale of TikTok shortly after speaking with a Republican campaign donor whose firm owns a stake in TikTok’s parent company.

Nonetheless, Trump’s heresy on trade and government intervention has made it easier for other Republicans to moderate their own positions. Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, notes that Trump’s Republican Party demands loyalty on some topics, such as his false claims of election fraud. But the party is less homogenous on other issues than it used to be.

“That is the very weird paradox of this,” said Schlozman. “There is more wiggle room to do ordinary policies like chips and infrastructure even as the party has moved right on the core democracy, will-we-count-the-votes-type questions.”

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The final development that has made possible neopopulist bipartisanship is Biden’s presidency.

He has long styled himself as more blue collar than many other Democratic politicians. He has also made it a priority to stay close to the ideological center of his party, and he became the party’s leader in 2020, when many policy experts had soured on neoliberalism. And Biden has maintained an almost theological belief in bipartisanship, stemming from a Senate career that began in 1973 — another era. When he entered the White House vowing to pass bipartisan legislation, many political analysts scoffed. The country, they said, was too polarized.

But Biden persisted, often working in the background. A bill’s chance of passage was higher, he believed, if he could avoid becoming the face of the bill. “He has been patient and helpful in either stepping back when he needs to or stepping in when he needs to,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Whatever Biden’s weaknesses as president, his record of signing bipartisan legislation exceeds that of any recent predecessor. On infrastructure, for example, 19 of the Senate’s 50 Republicans voted for the bill, including McConnell.

In part, this fusing of right and left is a sign that politicians are reacting rationally to voters’ views. Many political elites — including campaign donors, think-tank experts and national journalists — have long misread public opinion. The center of it does not revolve around the socially liberal, fiscally conservative views that many elites hold. It tends to be the opposite.

Americans lean left on economic policy. Polls show that they support restrictions on trade, higher taxes on the wealthy and a strong safety net. Most Americans are not socialists, but they do favor policies to hold down the cost of living and create good-paying jobs. These views help explain why ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid have passed even in red states. They also explain why some parts of Biden’s agenda that Republicans uniformly opposed, such as a law reducing medical costs, are extremely popular. “This is where the center of gravity in the country is,” said Steve Ricchetti, a top White House official.

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