I wrote most of this post three days ago, then held on to it because it assumed Joe Biden’s victory and I didn’t want to jinx that outcome by anticipating it. The wait, it turned out, had a positive effect on my mood. Having it all hang in the balance for so long made the victory that much sweeter when it came. And the pleasure, nay joy, of my friends and family made this sourpuss give way a bit. Let’s appreciate what went right for a day or two.
The 2020 election has been a disaster for Democrats (and for liberals and the left more generally) and an uplifting delight for Republicans, especially the wonderfully named Vichy Republicans, the party hacks who have enabled the Trump presidency.
Not an unmitigated disaster, since getting rid of Trump is all to the good. But Biden takes office unable to govern. He will be thwarted at every turn—and the multiple problems afflicting the United States (climate change, crumbling infrastructure, a dysfunctional heath care system, economic inequality, racial injustice, the kleptocracy of our tax code and subsidies to big ag, big pharma, big oil and others) will go unaddressed for another four years. And the vote reveals that more than 70 million of our fellow citizens could witness Trump’s antics, ineptitude, corruption, and cruelty for four years—and ask for more.
The Vichy Republicans, meanwhile, got exactly what they wanted out of Trump: massive tax cuts and a lock-hold on the federal judiciary. And now they get to see him out the door, and replace inflammatory tweeting with their quiet entrenchment of minority rule to benefit the already rich and powerful.
Trump has served their purpose and now they can reap the benefits of having the courts on their side as they go back to doing what they do best: nothing. They will return to the 2010 to 2016 playbook: obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. While insuring legislative gridlock, they will use the courts to enhance corporate power, and voter suppression/gerrymandering; and they will mobilize “religious freedom” to enable discrimination, and to make abortions inaccessible (and perhaps illegal). It’s all about unaccountability. Corporations and politicians and the police are to be beyond the reach of the people—as are, of course, judges appointed for life.
The Republicans have learned that there is no price to be paid for the insider baseball stuff. Game the system in any way you like to undermine democratic processes—and the vast majority of the public does not respond. Winning is everything, the rules of the game nothing. If there ever were “norms,” there are no longer. Most likely, the norms only had some grip in the past because there was a centralized, elite media that actually did have some power in shaping public opinion. Now we have ten million “influencers” and the resulting cacophony has blasted any chance of commonly adopted standards.
Meanwhile, the Democrats must come to grips with how successfully the Republicans have used fear and hatred to mobilize voters. The cry of “socialist” works with significant numbers of non-white voters (refugees from Cuba or China or Vietnam or Central America), while (as is evident here in North Carolina) significant numbers of white voters hate (the only appropriate word) “liberals.” As they have in every election since 1968, a majority of white voters went for the Republican candidate for president.
The Democrats cannot depend on demographics to get them out of this hole. This election demonstrates that non-white voters are not automatic Democratic voters. And younger voters have a nasty habit of becoming more conservative as they get older (and more likely to actually vote).
Against all evidence, the left wing of the party is going to argue that Biden was an uninspiring candidate and someone like Sanders or Warren would have done better. That argument ignores the record turn-out for this election, as well as the resonance of the charge of “socialism” with many voters. There simply are not enough non-voters out there who would have voted for Sanders to have won this election down-ballot for the Democrats. Sanders (or some theoretical candidate of his ilk but younger, more dynamic, and sexier) would not have done better than Biden—and most likely would have done worse. But that won’t stop those who will argue otherwise.
So the Democratic civil war will continue, and the activists might well get their chance to run a more progressive candidate in 2024. Obviously, I don’t think that will go well.
Fintan O’Toole (characteristically brilliant, if uncharacteristically long-winded), in his post-election piece, considers how deep and permanent are the anti-democratic forces that Trump tapped and amplified.
My only consolation—and I will admit to be being baffled by this fact—is how strong the taboo against political violence remains in the U.S. In a country awash in guns, where gun violence is a regular occurrence and you only need to sneeze in the public square to receive hundreds of death threats in your email inbox, no one crosses the line over into directly political violence. Yes, we have the lone shooters who are inspired by the hate-filled rhetoric of Trump and of the right-wing web sites. But organized violence directed at influencing political outcomes is still unknown in this country—despite posturings in that direction. The gun-toters at the polling place in Fairfax County, Virginia back in September, and the militia thugs occupying the Michigan state house in the summer turned out to be one-offs, not harbingers of general attempts at intimidation or of any actual violence. Maybe now, in defeat, that line will get crossed as Trump continues to claim he was robbed. But I don’t think we will see violence, even though we will have the lingering rot deep in the national psyche of at least 30% of Americans believing the election was stolen. We know the power such grievances hold for right-wing politics.
I always planned to stand outside a rural NC polling place on election day—and figured I would do so in the presence of guns. I spent fourteen hours outside of Creedmoor Elementary School on November 3rd, passing out the Democrats’ sample ballot. Creedmoor is about 45 northeast of Chapel Hill. The three of us working for the Democrats were Chapel Hill imports; the eight people manning the Trump tent were all locals and they greeted by name most of the white voters and were polite to the African-American voters (whom they obviously did not know). No guns and we had sporadic, cheerful conversations during the long day with the Trumpistas. No overt hostility. But it was also clear that every white voter was going for Trump.
As Fred Kaplan says in a short essay in Slate and Wallace Shawn argues in a short piece in the New York Review of Books (links provided below; Heather Cox Richardson style): maybe this is just who we Americans are. (My colleague Kumi Silva has said “stop saying this is not what American are.” The vote shows that racism and its cruelties are embedded deep in the American soul.) Our better angels have been put into storage; Americans see that we live in a harsh, unjust, dog-eat-dog world and are determined to get ours, letting the devil see to the hindmost. Trump gave us permission to put all that do-gooder liberal stuff behind us. No American exceptionalism—just the unalloyed freedom to be selfish without shame or guilt.
I don’t want to live in this society. But it seems to be the society I am stuck in.