After a two-year long shortage of semiconductor chips, which are integral to almost every facet of our economy, congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle recently united to pass the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The almost $280 billion bill includes significant new funding for cutting edge research and new incentives to build semiconductor manufacturing plants in the U.S. Lawmakers hope the bill will strengthen our supply chain and prevent the kind of shortages that hit consumers with higher prices.
But they also hope it will counter a rising threat from China and reduce the fallout of a possible future invasion of Taiwan. It is this threat, perhaps more than any other, that explains how Congress managed to come to the center to pass this landmark bill in a hyper-polarized election year.
China and Taiwan have been feuding since the two separated in 1949, but Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense, Chiu Kuo-cheng, recently said that military tensions with China are the worst they have been in over 40 years. China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, has increasingly used its military near the island to project strength. In 2021, nearly 1,000 Chinese military jets and warships illegally entered Taiwan’s territory; 2022 might be even worse as over 800 ships and jets had done so by the end of June. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 further heightened hostility, with China sending 27 aircraft into the territory upon her arrival and carrying out a slew of military drills, including missile tests, in the days following.
Conflict in the Taiwan Strait would threaten American economic security. Although the U.S. is the clear leader in semiconductor design (U.S. companies design 85% of the world’s electronic design automation tools, which are necessary for designing advanced semiconductors), none of the most advanced semiconductors are actually manufactured in America. China and Taiwan are the two largest producers of semiconductors, with China accounting for 24% and Taiwan accounting for 21% of the world’s supply. The U.S. has already taken steps to limit China’s dominance and advancement in the sector, recently pressuring the Dutch government to ban the Netherlands-based, Advanced Semiconductor Materials Lithography, which produces a critical component needed for producing semiconductors, from selling its equipment to China.
Although conflict with Taiwan does not appear imminent, U.S. military planners believe China could be planning to invade by the end of this decade. If the unlikely conflict were to commence, the U.S. would be in trouble. Semiconductors make up only 0.3% of U.S. GDP, but they are required to produce 12% of all U.S. economic output. A 2021 Goldman Sachs analysis found that 169 industries have been affected by the chip shortage of the last two years—including the automobile industry, which produced nearly 4 million fewer cars across the U.S., Europe, and Japan than they did in 2020.
America’s reliance on foreign semiconductors also poses a threat to national security. The Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) produces most of the semiconductors used in America’s F-35 fighter jets, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems, and a wide array of military-grade devices. The extent to which the U.S. relies on Taiwanese chips is unknown to the public for security purposes, but the government is apparently worried enough that it is now partnering with TSMC to build a $12 billion factory in Arizona to localize manufacturing. The project is nearing completion, and subsidies from the CHIPS act are expected to help construction remain on schedule.
The CHIPS Act ultimately passed with the support of nearly all House and Senate Democrats and 24 House and 16 Senate Republicans. A coalition of far left and right members tried to kill the bill. Senator Bernie Sanders argued chip companies do not need the money because they are “making tens of billions of dollars in profits and paying their CEOs exorbitant compensation packages,” and Senator Ted Cruz said the Act “invites cronyism and corruption.”
But ultimately, the bill passed because enough Democrats and Republicans found their way to the center to counter the threat from China. And by doing so, they are reflecting where the center of public opinion lies as a growing share of Americans see China as one of the preeminent security threats America faces today.
In the wake of controversial Supreme Court decisions and a spate of recent polls showing Americans are more pessimistic about the future and less trustful of all our major institutions, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Americans are drifting apart. But there are also some hopeful signs that the political center could be ripe for a resurgence in America. Here are just a few:
- Congress has gotten a lot more done than you might think. In the wake of the horrific mass shootings in Uvalde, Buffalo, and elsewhere, many Americans likely expected Washington to once again do nothing. But the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act—which included gun safety, mental health, and school safety provisions—became law one month after the Uvalde shooting, passing with the support of 14 House and 15 Senate Republicans along with unanimous Democratic support. It was the most significant federal gun safety legislation since the passage of the 1994 Assault Weapons ban. The 2021-2022 Congress has also seen the bipartisan passage of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, the largest federal infrastructure investment in over sixty years. Other bills such as the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act, the Postal Service Reform Act, and the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, all passed with the support of at least 100 House Republicans and over 200 Democrats. While Congress has notably deadlocked on some of the toughest issues, almost 95% of the bills passed in 2022 have received bipartisan support. This suggests, even in this era of polarization, members of Congress recognize the public’s desire to see leaders come to the center to make deals.
- The share of independents has been growing. Prior to 2011, the share of political Independents had never reached 40%. However, since then, the share of independents has stayed above at least 40%, except during presidential election years 2016 and 2020. This figure reached a high of 50% at the start of Biden’s presidency in January 2021. According to a Gallup poll conducted in June 2022, 43% of voters consider themselves Independents, while 27% identify as Republicans and another 27% as Democrats.
- Americans have had it with the extremes. According to Pew Research Center, voters did not rank political polarization as a top concern prior to the past two presidential elections. Yet, in 2022, they listed it as a top-three concern. In a June 2022 Ipsos poll, 62% of respondents said we need to actively reduce polarization in the country, compared to 9% who thought that we should just “let things be.”
Consequently, more and more Americans want their leaders to move to the center. According to a May 2022 Harvard-Harris poll, 67% of Americans would prefer that President Biden move to the center on key issues. When surveyed in the fall of 2020, just before the election, overwhelming majorities of both Biden (86%) and Trump (89%) supporters told Pew Research Center they believed their preferred candidate should address the needs of all Americans, “even if that meant disappointing some of his supporters.” This past month, 60% of voters said that if there were to be a rematch between Trump and Biden in the 2024 election, they would consider voting for an independent centrist candidate.
Despite these green shoots of progress, the center hasn’t yet coalesced into a coherent political force. The loudest, angriest, and most ideological voices may be smaller in number, but they’re much better organized and have much more agreement on what they do or don’t want from Washington.
Still, it’s clear that if one of the parties—or even a new party—can develop an agenda that resonates with the vast political center, they’ll find an eager audience for it.