by Edward H. Telfeyan
November 18, 2020
The election was a big win for America, democracy, and the rule of law, and a major loss for the Democrats.
The win for America is the rejection of Donald Trump and all that he represents. In about nine weeks (unless he gives us an unintended gift and leaves early in a state of pique, thereby allowing President Mike Pence to pardon him for any federal crimes he could otherwise be charged with), this disgrace to the presidency, to the Constitution, and to the country will be gone.
Yes, there was dancing in the streets on that Saturday morning when he was finally declared to have been defeated by Joe Biden, but not just on America’s streets. European capitals joined in the ecstatic reaction to the news, with church bells ringing in Paris and fireworks exploding in London. Other countries also were festive at hearing the news. The birthplace of modern democracy had finally come to its senses, or at least a clear majority of those voting had.
I was among those who wept for joy at the news, even if the final decision by CNN and the other networks that quickly followed was fully expected by the fourth day after the election. It had been clear since Wednesday that the surge of mailed-in votes for Biden in Wisconsin, Michigan, and most especially Pennsylvania was going to leave Trump out in the cold.
But to actually have him declared the president-elect, and then to watch his victory speech in Wilmington, Delaware, that night, was almost like a dream come true.
Or at least it was for about 52 percent of the country. The other 48 percent are apparently disappointed, or, more probably, heartbroken, and maybe even absolutely convinced the election was stolen from Trump.
Okay, so, obviously, the country is divided; split asunder would be the better description. And say what you will about how horrible he has been (I’ve been the leader of that club), Trump has a significant following, one that includes a small potential army that would be ready to take the fight to full civil-war mode if Trump just gave the word. And he still just might. That possibility makes January 20 still seem years away.
In considering the current state of the two political parties, here’s what is almost indisputable: one of them is remarkably united and the other is deeply divided. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, the Democrats are the latter of the two.
The divide among Democrats is only now papered over by Trump’s defeat. But Trumpism will remain a united force of resistance and militancy, either with the soon-to-be ex-president as its continued leader or with a reasonable facsimile of him taking his place.
So, assuming that Trump ultimately relinquishes his residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at noon on January 20, it’s a safe bet that he, and more importantly, his legion of followers is not going away. In fact, they will be ably represented in a majority of the state legislatures in the country and, most probably, pending the two run-off elections in Georgia, in the U.S. Senate as well.
The Democratic Party lost a golden opportunity to close the deal with the American electorate in this election. The actual results, possibly only one Senate seat pickup after looking to gain control of the chamber, the loss of at least nine seats (possibly as many as a another nine more) in the House, and the failure to gain control of even one state legislature it hadn’t already controlled, can’t be viewed as anything less than a huge loss for the party.
Not only had almost all the polls indicated a possible “blue wave” akin to the massive win the party had in 2018, but the issues of importance this year (led by the coronavirus and the massive hit to the economy) gave the Dems sure-fire winning stump speeches almost everywhere in the country.
And yet, with the wind clearly at its back, the party did what it so often does in its campaigns: it shot itself in its collective feet. And this year, with so much seemingly at stake, it committed the kind of unforced errors that actually made it the losing party when all the results are considered.
How did it happen? Well, the polls were certainly wrong – again. But the polls didn’t cause the defeat. The defeat was caused by a lot of stupid slogans and even stupider ideas. Here are just a few that were guaranteed, from the moment they were mentioned, to be ammunition for the Republicans and land mines for Democratic candidates:
Defund the Police
The Green New Deal
Defund the Police became the slogan du jour after the George Floyd killing. It was an off-shoot of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM was another idea that was worrisome from the start, but it mostly avoided becoming a negative campaign moniker because it spoke to a universal feeling that too many Black men were dying at the hands of the police.
BLM started strong, but it has lost some of its luster since it reached its zenith in late spring. Defund the Police is one reason; acceptance of lawlessness and violence in anti-racist rallies is another.
At first, the rallies following Floyd’s death were exciting and exhilarating as at least as many young white men and women marched with people of color. But as the summer heated up and more police-caused deaths, most notably Breonna Taylor’s, got increased media attention, the peaceful protests developed a pattern of late-night violence that led to the destruction and arson of many business structures along with widespread looting and lawlessness.
But “Defund” was stupid from the moment it was first mentioned, suggesting, if not promoting, the idea that lawlessness is preferable to aggressive policing. Of course, the phrase was quickly nuanced into something intended to sound “moderate.” The “defunding,” some explained, would be redirected to social work, better police training and other community services.
Sure. Make our communities better by taking some money from police forces and devoting it to other services. Sounds plausible, maybe. Until the Republicans made it sound like an invitation to lawlessness and anarchy. And when the Fox News gang and Limbaugh and the alt right media caught on, cities like Portland, Oregon, were cited as examples of where the Democrats were going to take the country, starting with the suburbs. Liberals like me scoffed at the cheap racist play, but when Trump harped on it, the thought caught fire (pardon the pun).
Defund the Police made many Americans who otherwise weren’t concerned about the late-night rioting in some cities suddenly attuned to the imagined threats to their homes and communities that the protests created. And what could have been a pro-civil rights movement that would mobilize an anti-racist wave against the Republicans instead became an albatross for Republican candidates to hang on their Democratic opponents.
The Green New Deal and Democratic Socialism kind of go hand-in-hand, and both were stupid from the onset. The vast majority of Americans equate socialism with communism and communism with dictatorships. They also think socialism leads to lowered standards of living and economic depression. Whether that view is incorrect doesn’t matter. What matters is that if you have to explain the nuanced meaning of Democratic Socialism as opposed to Marxist socialism in the middle of a campaign, you are holding a losing hand.
And that hand becomes even worse if your Republican opponent is also throwing some exaggerated Green New Deal ideas (like stopping all fracking, forcing everyone to have vegan diets, and requiring all modes of transportation, including air travel, to be pollution-free) at you. In many (really most) parts of the country, those ideas are far more threatening than they are inspiring. Americans still value jobs, and when proposals sound like they will cost jobs, the proponents of those proposals lose votes.
Across the country, in Senate and House races and in state legislative races as well, Republicans made Democrats explain their support for socialism and those GND demands. The economy should have been an asset for the Dems when Covid-19 was causing massive unemployment. Instead, those Dems (many of them running in swing districts) were put on the defensive, and the Republicans were again deemed more trustworthy on the economy.
A basic rule in politics is that if you are going to promote an unpopular idea, you don’t do it in the middle of a major campaign. The Democrats this year showed once again that they flunk PoliSci 101 whenever given the chance.
White Privilege was another dumb idea that caught fire in the left wing of the party at just the wrong time. While Robin DiAngelo was making big bucks selling the idea on book tours for her best-selling “White Fragility,” many white voters who would otherwise have been at least passive, if not supportive, of a new civil rights movement were offended. Hey, I was offended. It’s hard not to feel offended when a privileged white woman is telling every other white man and woman in the country that they are all racists because of their sociological DNA.
That’s essentially DiAngelo’s pitch. All of us of the white persuasion were privileged from birth, no matter what economic strata we were born into or what part of the country we lived in. Suddenly, you had to admit you were a racist to avoid being a racist.
The militancy that DiAngelo’s book created on the left turned off more than a few voters who otherwise probably wouldn’t have cared about a race issue one way or the other. Instead, they now had Republicans sounding reasonable and Democrats sounding hysterical. DiAngelo is still selling her book and giving her lectures (all for a pretty penny, to be sure), but she may have done as much to cause the Dems the electoral defeat they suffered as Donald Trump did.
And then there is the Cancel Culture that has created perhaps the biggest rift in liberal ranks, and you know the Republicans made an issue of it, too. In the Cancel Culture, you are shamed if you dare to express a politically incorrect view.
And being shamed is no fun. I can attest to the experience several times over: once for suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss might have been for reasons other than sexism; once for objecting to the ungrammatical use of the word “they” for non-binary gendered individuals; and, most recently, for asking if the word “racism” could be defined before anyone was declared a racist.
Each time, I felt constrained to apologize, because who likes being a pariah? But shaming is the intellectual equivalent of bullying, and people who are bullied usually don’t like the people who do the bullying. Joe Biden was shamed during the Democratic primaries. He withstood the shaming and secured the nomination largely because of the support of Jim Clyburn and the Black community he represents as a Congressman from South Carolina.
But Biden’s success didn’t filter down to his lower ballot colleagues. The voters wanted to get rid of Trump, but they didn’t like the prospect of being shamed. (Perhaps Cancel Culture fear is one of the reasons the polls were so bad again this year: voters don’t readily admit to contrary views on sensitive issues like sex, race, and gender.)
In any event, the overall picture of the Democratic Party that many voters were left with this year is that their candidates represent an elitist, over-educated, school-smart but street-dumb, view of what is best for the country. I understand this perspective. In fact, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat that I am, it sounds disturbingly accurate.
So, where does that leave us, the country and the Democrats?
For openers, it’s time to recognize how far apart the two sides of America truly are. Yes, Trump was defeated in his bid for re-election. The actual vote totals, however, are far less impressive than the thought that he will be out of the White House on January 20 might suggest. When all the votes are counted, Trump will have lost by between six and seven million votes, which equates to a margin in a total of almost 160 million votes of just about four percentage points. (It will be right around 51 to 47, with the other votes going to … whoever got on the ballot in various states.)
In other words, it wasn’t a blowout. It was more like a clear victory in the popular vote and a relative squeaker in the Electoral College. Biden will end up with 306 EC votes (the same number Trump won against Hillary Clinton in ’16, when he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million). But in the states that put him over the top (Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona), Biden’s total margin was less than 150,000 votes.
And while Trump may be gone, his movement will still be very much alive. It may not represent 47 percent of the country, but it probably isn’t much below 42 percent. Which means that the views that Trump espoused (anti-immigrant, anti-elitism, anti-science, anti-mainstream media) are and will be alive and well amongst a sizeable part of the country.
And not just in red states, either. Trumpism is less a state-specific thing than it is a class thing. The bluest of blue states, like the one (California) where I live, are still loaded with pockets of Trumpism. You just have to get out of the urban centers and the middle- and upper-middle class suburbs, and you’ll find it without having to look very hard. In those sizeable geographic pockets of “Middle America,” being “woke” is anathema, if the word is even understood at all.
Simply stated, the country is probably as divided – as virulently divided – as it has been since the Civil War. And we are at no small risk of slipping into a second one if we are not careful and vigilant.
All of which puts a heavy burden on the president-elect. I don’t know what Biden can do for his party. (I really think the Dems are facing a fracture that could lead to the emergence of a third party in the next ten years, but that’s another column for another day.) But I do hold out a gossamer of hope that he can find a way to defuse the hostility on both sides of the divide. He’ll have to piss off the Bernie-A.O.C. wing of his party, but Biden has to acknowledge the demands on the right.
To be specific, he has to find a way to cool racial tensions. Maybe Clyburn or Harris can help. BLM will have to be content with something less than Defunding the Police and shaming those who aren’t “woke.” Instead, good police practices need to be applauded, and good police officers need to be saluted, and decent Americans who aren’t bigoted need to be appreciated.
And he has to reject identity politics. The many identities that Americans have are a joyful celebration of the country’s diversity, but the demands by each and every one of those identities for special recognition and protection divide far more than they unite. Biden needs to stress the needs of all Americans and promote policies that help all Americans. And if that means tip-toeing around something like “all lives matter,” that’s what he needs to do.
He also has to negotiate the issue of climate change without threatening the jobs that many Americans rely on. He has to push for moderate health care reform instead of Medicare for all. He has to acknowledge that abortion destroys fetuses, and that believing that those fetuses are lives in utero is not unscientific. He has to admit that taxes are burdensome on businesses when they are confiscatory, and that regulations can create recessions when they restrict innovation and severely limit profits. And he has to find a way to fight Covid-19 without destroying the ways-of-life and economic vibrancy that for many Americans are what makes the country great.
In short, Biden has to thread a needle that joins personal freedom with social responsibility, that melds free enterprise with communal prosperity, and that supports individualism while heralding collectivism.
It’s a tall order, one that will test his many years of experience, his good and kind heart, and his love of his country. I wish him well. All patriotic Americans need to wish him well.