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Political observers often ask why it is so difficult for the Democrats to get things done politically. You may have also seen pundits ask why it is so much easier for Republicans to embrace an extreme position. The answer for this behavior ultimately lies in the nature of the coalitions of both parties. The Republican Party is homogeneous, meaning it is primarily composed of individuals with similar backgrounds and interests. The Democratic Party is heterogeneous, as it is made of individuals of various backgrounds and interests. This makes intraparty coordination much harder for Democrats and pushes the party to moderate on the issues. Republicans are able to avoid these challenges, which allows the party to push for more radical actions–both legislatively and challenging rules and norms. 

The Democratic Party is primarily supported by racial minorities and college-educated whites. Within these groups there is a constellation of different interests that often compete for the same resources. What black Democratic voters in the south want may not be what white Democratic voters in the northeast want. This played out dramatically in the 2016 and 2020 primaries, with black voters preferring moderate candidates Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in ways that other demographic groups did not.

The Republican Party is a more rural, religious party composed of whites without college degrees. That makes it easier for party leaders to come to decisions, even if they are norm-breaking. Think of Mitch McConnell’s decision to have the then Republican Senate deny former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a vote near the end of his term. 

Republicans have won the popular vote only once since 1992.

Republicans are also more likely to view politics in existential terms, feeling threatened by demographic and cultural change. Since Republicans often feel they are losing their country, their religion, and their way of life, they are more likely to push their representatives to take extreme stances to “fight back.” The Republican coalition is also shrinking both in real and relative terms, with rural areas being hollowed out by migration to cities, globalization, and a lack of investment in infrastructure. Republicans have won the popular vote only once—in 2004—since 1992. That doesn’t mean that Republicans can’t compete in the Electoral College, but they increasingly find it difficult to win a majority of Americans in Presidential elections. 

Going forward, the Democrats’ coalition presents both opportunities and challenges. It is a growing, younger, and more diverse coalition that allows the party to consistently win majorities in Presidential elections. But it is also condensed in urban areas, “wasting votes” that could be better distributed in rural House districts.

This also makes winning the Senate extremely difficult for Democrats. Republicans have a coalition that is more evenly distributed, which gives them disproportionate power in the Senate and Electoral College. But a shrinking coalition makes politics difficult in the long run, even with structural advantages. We can expect Democrats to continue to attempt to strike a middle ground with their various interests and for Republicans to continue shifting to the right as they feel their way of life is under threat. 

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.