There’s talk of epochal change in the United States. Commentators in the media, historians, supporters, and even some critics have started to compare the potential of Joe Biden’s presidency to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The Republican Party meanwhile faces an existential question of how to move forward without Donald Trump. Is American political life at an inflection point?

Jeet Heer, a columnist for The Nation, and the author of the new newsletter The Time of Monsters, believes it is: While it’s unclear if Trump made permanent changes to the American right’s approach to issues like trade, immigration, and foreign affairs, his presidency was already transformative—and may have accelerated political polarization in ways that drive the culture-war politics Republicans are embracing today. But as Heer sees it, Biden is emblematic of a deeply changed Democratic Party, even if Biden himself is a transitional figure. The key changes to watch, Heer says, are the Democrats’ focus on a new economic agenda and the Republican’s commitment to a cultural one; and the key question is which will be stronger than the other over the next four years and beyond.


Graham Vyse: So, what is happening?

Jeet Heer: There are several transformations happening. One can question whether Trump’s presidency achieved much, but it was transformative in that it took certain pre-existing trends and maybe sped them up. One trend is polarization along educational lines, where Republicans have really picked up support among non-college-educated voters, who aren’t necessarily poor voters. Republicans actually do much better with non-college-educated voters who are small-business people that have a little money. Democrats are really solidifying as the party of the college-educated.

We forget that until fairly recently—for most of a century—if you were a white person with a college education, you voted Republican. That was part of the pathway of upward mobility. That’s changing, and it’s changing the nature of both political parties, feeding an intensified polarization.

A lot of what are called “culture war” politics—factional politics based on identity—are intensified by educational polarization. You have the two parties speaking to different constituencies that process information differently. You see this with COVID. Democrats say, “We trust science. We trust the experts. Dr. Fauci said this.” Republicans say, “We can’t really trust these experts. They say ‘wear a mask’ and then they say ‘don’t wear a mask.’ Where are they getting their information?” There are other values at play, too—that people need to work and need the economy. Trump’s idea during the election was that we couldn’t give such value to COVID that we ignored the economy, and that appealed to a lot of voters. The sophisticated argument is that you have to fix COVID to fix the economy, but the way it gets processed with voters facing a binary choice is, they see Biden as the COVID guy and Trump as the economy guy.

Until fairly recently—for most of a century—if you were a white person with a college education, you voted Republican. That was part of the pathway of upward mobility. That’s changing, and it’s changing the nature of both political parties, feeding an intensified polarization.

A lot of Trump’s appeal was, “I’m a businessman.” One can say it’s all fake. But for people who followed him, [they think], “Yeah, you want to trust the businessman.” On racial issues, Democrats might look at what social scientists are saying, whereas Republicans might ask, “What’s common sense? What are the police saying?” Different authority figures are trusted. A lot of Trump’s strength was getting those Evangelical pastors to go for him, for example.

Vyse: There’s talk of a realignment of the parties. Do you see one?

Heer: Trump was a unique figure, because of career on television and his identity as a businessman celebrity. He was appealing to people who weren’t normal Republicans but also turning off people who used to be normal Republicans. The suburbs are becoming more multicultural, but there are fairly affluent suburbs where Republicans used to do very well and aren’t doing very well anymore. The open question—and I really don’t know which way to go on this—is whether it’s permanent. How much of Trump’s appeal disappears if he’s no longer on the ticket?

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