A world where Democrats can actually pass whatever bills Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema support, on the other hand, is also a world where the Republicans are forced to actually do policy to counter them, instead of obstructing while gesturing vaguely at think-tank white papers — the party’s health care strategy for a decade, and one that has gained basically nothing for conservative health policy ideas.
Likewise, a world in which the Democrats midwife new states into existence is not a world where Republicans suddenly can’t compete for the Senate anymore. It’s a world where Republicans would be forced to push somewhat more against our current rural-urban polarization, which could help make the G.O.P. a more diverse coalition, equipped to govern rather than just resist the liberal tide.
Also, it’s worth noting that new states don’t always play the role that partisans expect. (For instance, Republicans ushered in a bunch of Western states in the 19th century, only to see several of them vote for William Jennings Bryan soon after.) The District of Columbia might be a permanently Democratic state, but Puerto Rico’s destiny would be less certain.
And forcing more uncertainty on American politics would itself be a useful thing. It’s the grinding predictability of current partisan alignments, the microtargeted base-turnout strategies and the durability of coalitions even in the midst of a once-in-a century pandemic that simultaneously makes the stakes of every election feel existential and yet ensures that little in the way of dramatic policy change actually occurs.
The best thing about Donald Trump’s 2016 victory was the way it briefly seemed to smash these certainties, to prove that political consultants didn’t know half of what they thought, to demonstrate that swing voters could still be discovered and carefully calculated Electoral College maps unmade. If Trump had built on this in his presidency, if he had done outreach and defied Republican orthodoxies and tried to be a majority-building president, then he would have proved many of his skeptics wrong.
Instead, Trump has given us norm-breaking to no purpose save self-protection and self-enrichment, rhetorical excess that puts a ceiling on his support and a series of empty cultural battles that just lock people into their pre-existing teams.
Just because the president’s norm-breaking has been so often pointless or destructive, though, doesn’t mean that all political escalation is destined to polarize the country further. It just tells us that to the extent that America needs a reconfigured political system, a realigned politics, a transformed relationship between the branches of government, Trump has been the wrong re-founder for the task.