We live in an age of negative partisanship, when political candidates and parties frequently mobilize voters by highlighting the awfulness of the other candidate or party rather than articulating a positive vision.
The approach is popular these days because the consensus that long galvanized many established parties and electoral coalitions has begun to break down over the past decade without the emergence of a new, unifying vision. In its absence, parties and politicians direct their attention outward, toward the threat posed by opponents, which can serve to motivate support and turnout at the polls. I don't love Party X, but at least they're not Party Y. That's negative partisanship in action, and it can be incredibly effective as an electoral strategy.
But how long can it remain so? We have reason to suspect its efficacy may soon begin to wane. That's because democratic politics is supposed to reflect popular consensus in favor of a positive vision for the future — and not Party Y isn't a positive vision for the future. Demonizing the opposition may work for one or two election cycles. But beyond that, voters are likely to lose their patience and begin demanding something to vote for rather than merely against, whatever the alternative dares to propose.
Consider the situation in France.
In the first round of voting in the presidential election this past Sunday, the incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron finished first with 27.8 percent of the vote. Second place went to far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who won 23.2 percent. Finishing third, with 22 percent, just 1.2 points behind Le Pen, was the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Of the nine additional candidates in the race, none came close to receiving double-digit support.
Less than two weeks from now, on April 24, voters will return to the polls for the second round of voting in which Macron and Le Pen will go head-to-head. Will Macron attempt to prevail by shifting to the left to appeal to Mélenchon's voters, along with those who supported smaller left-leaning parties? Almost certainly not. Instead, he will likely follow the same strategy that worked for him five years ago, when he also faced Le Pen in the second round: He will continue to champion centrist policies while going negative, attempting to consolidate around himself the anti-Le Pen vote from across the spectrum.
This "anyone but the fascist" coalition will ideally include lots of Mélenchon voters, as well as the 4.6 percent who voted for the Green Party candidate Yannick Jadot, the 2.3 percent who supported the Communist Fabien Roussel, and the 1.8 percent who cast ballots for Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris. But Macron also hopes it will include the 4.8 percent of the electorate who voted for Valérie Pécresse of the center-right Republican Party.
That's an ideologically incoherent platform united solely by its rejection of the far right. Will that be enough for Macron to win? Probably. But will he prevail by the lopsided margin (66 to 33 percent) he achieved five years ago? Probably not. That's not just because an even more extreme candidate of the far right (Éric Zemmour) has encouraged his voters to support Le Pen and will likely be joined by the 3.1 percent who supported the socially conservative and ruralist Jean Lassalle and the 2.1 percent who favored the Gaullist and Eurosceptic candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan.
Potentially more significant is a poll showing Mélenchon voters to be much less inclined to vote for Macron in the second round than they were in 2017 — and much more likely to vote for Le Pen in a protest against the establishment. If that happens, and if it's repeated across other parties, Macron could end up struggling to maintain his lead.
This isn't just an expression of the peculiarities of France's mixed presidential-parliamentary system and two-round runoff model. Indeed, something like this dynamic has been playing out in American politics since the 2020 election. Democrats underperformed in that contest at every level except the presidential race, where Joe Biden prevailed over Trump by 7 million votes. That decisive victory was largely a function of Trump's unusually high level of disapproval combined with the Biden campaign's success at making the election about kicking the incumbent out of the White House.
A vote for Biden was treated primarily as a vote against Trump.
That got Biden elected president, but it also made him quite vulnerable to a collapse in support, since lots of people who voted for him weren't expressing approval of any particular set of policies or vision of the future beyond not Trump — and that core goal was already accomplished on Day One of the Biden presidency, giving the Democrat nowhere to go but down. And that's precisely where he's gone, into the low 40s in his approval rating, with no sign at all of a rebound.
The upcoming midterm elections look dismal for Democrats. That's not very unusual for the party holding the White House. But what about in 2024? If Trump runs for president again, Biden will be set up for a replay of his negative message from 2020. Will it work a second time? So far, the polls aren't very encouraging.
But even more distressing is the prospect of Trump deciding against a run, allowing a less instantaneously toxic alternative — like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — to grab the Republican nomination. Biden could attempt a campaign organized around a not DeSantis message, but that would be incredibly risky because it could leave him sounding reactive and devoid of a positive vision for the future of the country. Vote for me and my party because we're not Republicans can work as long as the Republican message and candidate is sufficiently repulsive or scary. But when that ceases to be the case — or after four years of a presidency that lacked much of a positive message — it could very well end up sounding vacuous and adrift, tempting voters to give the other side a shot.
I certainly recognize the challenge. Biden leads a party internally divided. Any move toward the progressive left risks alienating and antagonizing moderates, and the same holds for the reverse. That can make the prospect of holding everyone together against a common threat maximally appealing. But it's a short-term solution the efficacy of which is likely to decline over time.
Kicking the can down the road is always appealing to people content with the status quo. But if the status quo isn't stable, the potential reward of bolder moves begins to take on added appeal. Does that mean Democrats should try making a new case for progressive policies? Or a fresh defense of fiscal restraint? Or some as-yet untried, unorthodox blend of conservative and liberal ideas?
That's for the party's leadership to decide. All I know is that they really need to try something if they don't want to end up doubling down on negative partisanship at the moment when it ceases to work its electoral magic.