Hope For All, A Mandate For None: The future is open for those who choose to seize it
Election Day stretched into two days, then three or four, but the dust is clearing and the immediate future begins to come into view. Joe Biden is poised to be the 46th President of the United States. The Democrats will hold the House, but face an upswell of Republican support making it closer than they had planned. The Senate, meanwhile, will be decided by a battle in Georgia next January. The overwhelming mandate Democrats had dreamed of, and with it dreams of adding states, court packing, and more, has faded. Trump himself lost, but the realignment he ushered in looks to be here to stay. A surge of voters on both sides emphasized the stakes felt in the election. The United States, it’s clear, remains as divided as ever.
What, then, are the takeaways? What is the near future of politics in America? I believe that, in this result, each major political group in the country has both something to cheer and some reason for caution.
While most reluctantly shuffled into the Biden coalition, as leftists you remain as eager as ever to reach beyond the Democrats and pursue your own goals. If that was ever in any doubt, a quick glance at Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s twitter feed should settle it. For leftists, without a candidate you were more than tepidly supporting, the good news comes in the form of policy. A Fox News poll has been making the rounds, indicating strong majority support in the country for a government-run health care plan, leaving Roe v. Wade as-is, tightening gun laws, and expanding the role of government.
More than just polls, though, you had a chance to see real progress towards your aims. The resounding image leftists should take away from this election: Florida, even as it went for Trump by a substantial margin, passed a $15 minimum wage amendment. Alongside that, four states (Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota) — two of them deep red — legalized marijuana, while Oregon decriminalized all drugs. In these decisions, leftists can claim vindication for one of your core impressions: a selected subset of your policies are increasingly popular with voters.
That’s the good news for you. The cautionary tale can be seen in a quick glance towards California, one of the bluest states in the country, where voters resoundingly supported Proposition 22 and thus allowing rideshare drivers to remain classed as contractors, shot down your attempt to remove a ban on racial discrimination in the California constitution in Proposition 16, rejected Proposition 25 and its proposed elimination of cash bail, and overwhelmingly opposed rent control in its Proposition 21. In Portland, meanwhile, the mayoral candidate who made waves both for wearing a skirt with images of Mao and Che Guevara and for casting write-in votes for Mao, Stalin, and Lenin in 2016, fell short in her campaign against the mayor leftists have been lovingly calling “Tear Gas Ted”. It’s difficult to sort out all the reasons for the red wave in the House and the closeness in the Senate, but one glance at attack ads around the country tying moderates to a Radical Socialist Agenda, full of images of violent riots and burned-out, looted buildings, along with Trump expanding his lead in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the first Republican to win there in 44 years, suggests one part of the picture. Abolish the Police, shockingly, did not prove to be a winning slogan come election time.
For leftists, then, my own impressions: you’re not wrong that, in isolation, some of their policies can draw widespread support. If you’re serious about those policies, there’s a clear path forward for them. It involves ditching the ideological baggage of labels like ‘socialism’ and flirtations with extremism, and focusing your message on the parts of your economic and social policies that really do resonate with voters. It means recognizing where you are, recognizing the number of your countrypeople — yes, including the working class — who disagree with you, and long, hard, serious work at convincing people and building coalitions.
Liberals, meanwhile, can breathe a long, deep sigh of relief — your first, perhaps, in four years. Dawn has arrived. The sun is peeking over the mountains. Your boogeyman, it appears, has finally been defeated — much later than you’d hoped, yes, but defeated nonetheless. The sheer chaos of the last four years, the stream of scandals that would have sunk any other president, wall-to-wall coverage in the news, Twitter roulette, and everything else you care to name — I hardly need to, you all have seen it enough — it’s fading. In its place stands Joe Biden, with his measured civility, pleas for bipartisanship, and a promise to pick up where Obama left off. You did it. You won. The four-year fever dream is over.
Even as Biden prepares to step into office, though, he finds himself as the first president-elect in recent times to (probably) not have party control of both houses of Congress. The polls, the models, the atmosphere among liberals all pointed towards a landslide victory. In the eyes of liberals, this election should have been an overwhelming repudiation of Trump and Trumpism. That didn’t happen. It didn’t come close to happening. The liberal bubble, all-encompassing as it can seem at times, remains almost exactly as large as it was four years ago. Expectations, at one point sky-high, must come crashing down to earth. Alex Tabarrok put it best, I think:
My takeaway is that a large number of people HATE the cultural left (not the econ left) and are willing to put up with almost anything, including incompetence, chaos, corruption and bad policy, to signal their views loud and clear.
Everything liberals have hated and feared about Trump for the past four years did nothing to sway half the country away from him. That should be sobering — not just a cause to look Borat-style towards an enemy group who wants nothing but evil, but a chance to look inward. You have the most powerful office in the land — and, as conservatives are ever ready to remind, you have the universities, most media institutions, tech companies, all of it. There are two roads ahead, one of ever-escalating all-out attacks against each other, one of a serious attempt to mend what has been broken.
Worry, attacks, all the tension of the past few years — they make sense when you find yourself faced by an enormously powerful person who horrifies you. When you’re unambiguously in power, though? Rather less so. You #Resisted. You don’t have to fear a Trump white house any longer. Now you’re trapped in charge of a country where half of the people despise you, in the middle of a pandemic, with tensions looming with China and elsewhere. Know what power means?
It means now it’s your job to clean up the mess.
Get to it.
So that’s it. Your guy lost. You are here, at “Trump will never win a second term”, and this time he really didn’t. He joins Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as the third president in recent memory not to win a second term.
Know what didn’t lose, though? Your party. You’ve been laying the groundwork for decades for what you accomplished this year in the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. It’s yours now. 6–3. Unambiguous. All those decisions you see as shameless judicial actisivm, as legislating from the bench and forcing unasked-for social change on you? Fears of the left pushing changes you view as unconstitutional and radical through? That’s all in the past now. You got precisely what you planned and built all those years for.
Meanwhile, exit polls indicate your ‘white supremacist’ president may have won the highest non-white vote share of any Republican since 1960. Demographics, it seems, may not quite be destiny after all. Massive swings in some of the most Hispanic-dominated counties in Texas, a full-throated embrace from Cuban-Americans in Florida, and other trends among minority groups helped keep the vote well out of landslide territory. You’ve kept the Senate, it seems, and made real inroads towards retaking the House. Tucker Carlson has the highest-rated program in the history of cable news. So forth. Far from being a sweeping indictment of the new path Trump set the Republican Party on, this election has most likely served to reaffirm and emphasize that path, what some conservatives are framing as a working class nationalist party — multiethnic, multi-religious, but traditional.
Of course, all that has come at a cost. Conservatives, as they were happy to remind others, chose Trump because he was willing to punch back, to fight for them against their enemies. He was delighted to serve as President for half of the country and to emphasize, every day, just how much contempt he had for the other half. You’ve made a brand out of ‘owning the libs’, as your youngest and newest Representative is only too happy to indicate. You had four years to reach out an olive branch — any sort of olive branch at all. You did not.
I know, I know. You had good cause, you were only responding to excesses of the left, so forth. But in building your brand on Donald Trump, you’ve pushed away not just people who deeply oppose conservative policy, but lifelong conservatives or otherwise sympathetic moderates who were repelled by Trump’s amorality, vulgarity, and — look. You’ve heard it all before. The point is, you have a base, and you’re not going anywhere, but you’ve burned a lot of bridges. Democrats won the popular vote for the seventh time in the past eight elections, this time by some five million votes. Donald Trump was a one-term president, and he lost Congress in a mid-term wave. On a personal note, I watched my entire devout Mormon family — immediate and extended — shift from conservative or at least sympathetic towards a deep-felt opposition to everything tied to Trump, finding a more familiar and comfortable home in the other coalition.
I’m not going to belabor the point. Trump is soon to be gone and I am eager to bury the hatchet. I have deep-felt sympathies to traditionalism and I wish you the best in building and maintaining something worth keeping. But for the sake of all of us, please: Next time you pick a leader, choose one who takes seriously a duty of care to the entire country, one who exemplifies the very best of your values.
Let’s be blunt: If you’re not on the list above, you’re not much of a force in American electoral politics right now. Sorry, libertarians, centrists, and others who feel horribly unrepresented by the parties as they stand. You can point to first-past-the-post and other structural issues if you want, and I’ll even cheer you on. But the parties adapted to those structures have a powerful influence on the direction of our policies and culture. The recent rise of leftists to increasing prominence lays out a path for those who hope to do the same. Organize, organize, organize. Make inroads into whichever larger group is most sympathetic to some of your goals, or zero in on specific issues and put in the work for them. People are tired, they’re divided, they’re looking for something. If you feel unrepresented? Well, change that. Hey, Elon Musk is listening.
American election cycles take eons and make a lot of noise, this one more than most. Now, the course is set for another few years. But it’s not set for another decade, another century. Trump showed just how quickly the political course of a party can shift, given the right mood, and this election stood as a clear reminder that no single political coalition has an overwhelming advantage in America as it stands. Joe Biden is President now, but the future is open. If you believe in your coalition’s vision for the future, now is as good a moment as you could ask for. Please, show that you are willing and able to address the needs and the hopes of the divided, tired, but nonetheless great people of the United States of America — all of them, not just the convenient ones.
Until next time.