Interim reflections on the 2020 election [American politics #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 5, 2020

As I write this late in the morning on Thursday, November 5, the outcome of Tuesday’s election is still in doubt. Biden does seem likely to win the initial round based on the vote. We’ll have to see about what happens with the Trump-resisting-that-outcome round. Right now, it’s hard to see what grounds there could be to overturn the outcome—but we have little reason to have a lot of confidence in the fairness of the final decision-makers. The Senate looks likely to be 50-48 for the Republicans with two Republican-leaning seats in Georgia set for a run-off.

So, wow! This is not what I expected. It actually seems fairly disastrous. Here are a few interim thoughts.

The effectiveness of the Republican strategy

Clearly, the Republican efforts to repress the vote played a huge role—given that the vote was close. Florida, Texas, and Georgia would all likely have gone for Biden if the voting process had been like, say, Oregon’s where the state actually wants everyone to vote. Even if somehow enough of the remaining undecided states tip to Biden it is far from certain that all of the Republicans’ legal shenanigans won’t overturn such an outcome.

The key here, though, is that the vote had to be close for the Republican strategy to hope to succeed. If the election had gone as the polls seemed to indicate, I suspect Biden’s margin of victory would have been large enough that the Republican tactics could not have turned things around. That leads to a big question—how could this election have been that close?

The hope I allowed myself to cultivate was that a Democrat in the White House and Democratic control of the Senate would have at least one potentially huge effect (pessimistic as I am about the corporate Dems in general). That is, that Congress would quickly pass and (following the Senate eliminating the filibuster) the President sign House Bill #1 from 2019 that would enact significant reforms in the US election processes and make it much more likely that Republican voter suppression would be curtailed and that we could hope for more honest elections. The idea was that Trump’s venal incompetence in face of COVID-19 would open the door for a genuine move toward democracy.

However, the Democrats failed to take advantage of the situation. The day after this election, the US topped 100,000 new COVID-19 infections for the first time. The Republican Party, led by its president, has utterly failed in its responsibility to the country in relation to this pandemic—and yet surpassed all expectations in electoral success. This is the biggest shocker of the election, I think. When satirist Andy Borowitz tweets: “If Trump cared as much about stopping COVID as he does about stopping voting, we’d still be able to spend Thanksgiving with our families,” I think of that truth as a condemnation of the Democrats. How could they allow Trump and his Party to get away with this?

The inability of the Democrats to achieve the kind of decisive victory that seemed inevitable likely means that the very best we can hope for now is some sort of stasis in the federal government that might slow the momentum toward disaster—and that in time some kind of viable alternative to our current death spiral might arise. Right now, that feels like an extraordinarily weak hope.

Biden’s terrible candidacy

It does seem possible that Biden might manage to squeak out a narrow victory. For the past six months, I sensed that his approach of emphasizing harmony within the Democratic Party, reaching out to the anti-Trump Republicans on the Right, and remaining out of sight as much as possible might work much better than I would have thought last winter. This approach gained Biden the nomination and for the past six months looked like a winning approach in face of the paralysis of the pandemic. I thought in March that Biden’s approach would be a disaster in a campaign against Trump, but it appeared that he actually would luck out with the unexpected pandemic making his weaknesses as a campaigner less evident. And quite possibly in the end he had just enough for a personal victory—but at the cost of failing to turn the Senate blue, of losing ground in the House, and of failing to have the expected impact on the state level.

It turns out that Biden almost exactly repeated the Clinton disaster, with the vital difference of being attentive enough to the key Rust Belt states to squeak by in Michigan and Wisconsin—and benefitting from the recent activism that has moved Arizona from red to (at least) purple. Biden is not as mean-spirited as Clinton, but like Clinton he mostly ignored the Sanders wing of the Party and for much of the campaign seemed fairly oblivious to the Latina/o vote (with disastrous results in a surprisingly winnable Texas).

Instead, Biden’s campaign emphasized the wooing of Republicans. However, in spite of the splash of the Lincoln Project and its sharp anti-Trump ads and a superficially impressive list of “Republican leaders” who endorsed Biden, the turn to the Right did not deliver much. Republicans as a whole remained amazingly loyal to Trump. In fact, 93% of Republicans voted for Trump, up 3% from 2016.

A central part of the problem—and we see this in the exceedingly weak performance of extraordinarily well-funded Democratic Senate candidates—is that the Democratic donor class (and its minions such as Chuck Schumer who seemingly hand-picked the losing Senate candidates) has interests that are opposed to the interests of the rank-and-file of the Party and those outside the Party who could conceivably be persuaded to vote blue. As pundit Caitlin Johnstone writes: “What went wrong with the Democrats this year is that they court wealthy donors who in exchange demand policies which hurt ordinary Americans.” One way to see this problem is to note that in the fifty years since 1970 middle class Americans have seen their slice of national income drop from 62% to 43% while the number of billionaires has increased tenfold since 1990 (many of whom, of course, now bankroll the Democratic Party).

Now, for example, I don’t think Biden had to go all in and explicitly embrace Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All approach. But he could have emphasized much more his commitment to making sure everyone’s health care would be provided—instead of reiterating that he would veto Medicare for All if it passed (and this in a moment when millions of those who have health coverage fear losing it due to losing their jobs with their employer-funded insurance). He did this in face of an electorate that reportedly told exit polls at a 72% rate that they supported Medicare for All (that’s right, including ca. 45% of those who voted for Trump!).

Will understanding follow?

As I sit here, still feeling stunned, I think about how to approach gaining understanding about what has just happened. I don’t expect to get much help from the corporate media. One of the stories certainly is how Trump could have gotten so many votes (more on that below). However, an equally important question is what in the hell is wrong with the Democratic Party. Given that the Dems pretty much repeated their execrable performance of 2016, uniting behind probably the worst of their possible candidates, a man fully in hock to the corporatocracy, it’s hard to imagine much that will be insightful coming from among the Party’s loyalists.

At least there won’t likely be anyone blaming the Green Party this time around—partly due to 15 states that had the Greens on the ballot in 2016 denying them a ballot spot this year. I saw virtually no evidence of the Green campaign in my reading and listening about the election.

I am sure that in time we will get a lot of data about voting patterns. Certainly, the pandemic impacted how the election played out. It seemed, though, that most of the impact would work in favor of the Democrats—the much greater possibility of early and mail-in voting would seemingly expand the numbers who actually vote, and this has generally been recognized as good for the Democrats. Plus, the devastation left by the pandemic and the extreme stinginess and ineptitude of the Republican leaders in the Trump administration and in Congress would also seemingly favor Democratic candidates. But why didn’t this matter more?

My sense is that the direction to go to gain understanding is to look at the longer term and structural dynamics in our society—the interweaving of corporate domination, warism, and white supremacy. Those who write for the corporate media do not tend to look too deeply into such structural issues that might reflect poorly on the owners of the media, hence their analyses will not likely be very helpful.

Trump’s supporters

From my pretty uninformed perspective, it seems like the voting was relatively honest for an American election. There may have been various local incidents of intimidation, overly long lines, and ballots not being counted. In general, though, Trump’s surprisingly strong showing seems mostly to have reflected actual voting patterns. The reality we must face is that close to 48% of American voters freely cast their ballots for this man.

It was shocking back in 2016 that Trump got as many votes as he did. But it’s really much more shocking to me that four years later in the midst of a pandemic that has hit the US harder than any other large country in the world (due largely to Trump’s failures), he got even more votes (both total votes and a higher percentage of the overall vote). Trump did not deliver on the promises he made to working people. He was utterly insensitive and inept in responding to the crushing impact of COVID-19. He strove mightily to take away health care for many millions, with likely success in the near future. So, what the hell?

This is a big issue that needs to be understood. In the end, though, I don’t think we can avoid the reality that many people in this country are deeply destructive in their values and practices. Again, I think we will need to work at understanding the structural dynamics that brought us to this terrifying place.

As I have been reading about the Civil War era in the US and the on-going legacy of white supremacy, I have been struck with the never diminishing presence in this country of what I am thinking of as a massive kind of toxic sludge—that shaped the acceptance of slavery and the following generations of near-slavery conditions that have never truly been alleviated. It is deeply troubling to learn how mean and cruel and unempathetic so many Americans have been for so long. In light of that history (that is not only not dead, it’s not past), it becomes less surprising to see so many Americans supporting someone such as Donald Trump.

So, is democracy dead?

I believe, more than ever, that the only way we will be able to secure a human future is to secure a humane future. And I also believe, more than ever, that the path to a humane future will have to pass through a vital and effective democracy. The worse things get, the narrower this path becomes—and the more essential genuine democracy becomes. It’s as if, we have made it this far as a species with only pale imitations of genuine democracy, but as the cliff approaches we can no longer afford pale imitations. It will be the real thing or nothing.

The above paragraph is an agenda for future analyses. That won’t happen for me right now, though. We need to define our terms (what is “genuine democracy”? “humane future”?). However, right at this moment we can at least commit ourselves to creating space to be human however we can. The continued deterioration of our political and ecological worlds must be resisted in every little way we can. We have enough love, enough resilience, enough healing potential to do something to move the needle toward life. Hopefully, the discouragements of this week will prove to be encouragements to press ahead however we can.

[More posts on American politics]

4 thoughts on “Interim reflections on the 2020 election [American politics #7]

  1. As crude and crazy as he might appear, Trump is brilliant. He knows how to appeal to people’s fears and worst emotions to get their support probably better than any other living politician. While continually issuing dog whistles encouraging the most venal of white supremacists, he also managed to attract a larger proportion of the minority vote than any Republican in generations. Who else could pull that off? His reduction of the Democratic margin among minority voters seems to be responsible for much of his success this year. It seems clearly the reason why he won Florida and Texas, without which we would already know Biden was the next President.

  2. You teach at a Mennonite University and you are mystified and shocked that Trump came as close as he did?

    Here’s a hint:

    Holmes County OH: Trump 83.1%, Biden 15.5%
    Mifflin County PA: Trump 77.6%, Biden 21.4%
    Juniata County PA: Trump 80.0%, Biden 18.7%
    Elkhart County IN: Trump 63.2%, Biden 34.7%
    Mcpherson County KS: Trump 68.8%, Biden 28.6%
    Marion County KS: Trump 73.3%, Biden 24.5%
    Lancaster County PA: Trump 57.3, Biden 41.2%

    And we can’t forget

    Rockingham County VA: Trump 74.6% Biden 24.1%

    Can you name a single rural Mennonite Community anywhere in the US that didn’t go 100% all-in for Trump?

    Rather than complaining about Democrats, maybe a self-awareness of the faith you are associated with is in order.

  3. Thanks for the stats, Kent. Pretty overwhelming if one believes Mennonites should not support Trump. I’m not surprised though. I would have predicted something like that.

    One of my main questions is why so many Americans would vote for Trump. To say the vast majority of rural Mennonites did so does not answer the question though. Why did so many Mennonites do this? That’s something I will be thinking about and trying to figure out.

    If I could know how all the Mennonites I have ever known personally over the past 40+ years voted, I would bet the large majority of them voted for Biden. That just shows how atypical the Mennonites I have known are. If I had grown up in the counties you cite, I probably would never have become a Mennonite.

  4. We live in a country in which 57% of the white population, after all that has happened in the past four years, still think Trump was the best choice to lead this nation for the next four. It was people of color and especially Black women in Milwaukie, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta who pulled this nation back from the brink. If they like Biden and Harris more than Bernie or Warren or any other choice then I am more than happy to defer to them. This is their moment.

    We live in a country in which nearly half the population would rather pull others down than lift themselves up. Racism and bigotry are powerful drugs. For example, my own extended family here in Oregon have been leaving the local MCUSA churches and finding more conservative alternatives because it isn’t sufficiently bigoted for their tastes.

    Biden and Harris had one job and that was to reach 271. They did that with room to spare. Nothing else really matters at this point. The presidency holds immense power and regardless of what happens with Congress, every single day of the next 4 years will be better (from a liberal perspective) than had Trump won re-election. Every single one. Six out of Obama’s eight years in office were with Republican or divided congresses. And by contrast to the past four, they were not bad years.

    Winning the presidency as a Democrat is an Herculean task in this country. In the past half century only three others have accomplished it. Carter (only because of Watergate) Clinton (with an assist from Ross Perot) and Obama, who was a singular generational political talent and had the wreckage of the Bush administration to run against.

    Humphrey failed, McGovern failed, Carter failed his second try, Mondale failed, Dukakis failed, Gore failed, Kerry failed, and Hillary failed. They each had their various excuses. But none of that matters, they all failed where Biden succeeded.

    There will be no permanent Democratic majority. Every election will be a continual battle. And the biggest force in opposition will be continue to be White Christianity in all its toxic forms. Which once again went for the GOP and Trump by 4-1 margins including most probably every form of Mennonites and Anabaptists who aren’t college educated and urban. Which is most of them. And the notion that Biden failed to do better with them because he wasn’t as progressive as Sanders and didn’t promise more socialized medicine is laughable on its face.

    I have an enormous clan of mostly Mennonite extended family on both sides numbering over 100. With all the usual and familiar Menno last names. Spread across WA, OR, MI, IN, PA, and VA. Mostly attending Mennonite or Mennonite-adjacent non-denominational churches when the local MCUSA churches aren’t adequately anti-gay and conservative. And my best estimate is that probably 75% were pro-Trump. The only ones I know for certain weren’t are a few highly educated cousins who live in places like Seattle, Philly, and Vermont. These are farmers, contractors, truck drivers, etc. who largely pay taxes by the quarter rather than by payroll deduction, which tends to focus the mind laser-like on taxes more than anything else. My facebook feed is filled with hunting pictures, kids in cammo and blaze orange (worn together unironically) posed with their guns in front of the deer and ducks that they shot. And lots of trite rural God and Country memes. The idea that a little more Medicare for All will win them away from the GOP is just absurd. It’s tribal not economic or rational. And they are part of the rural white Christian tribe. And the other tribe is full of ANTIFA, BLM terrorists burning cities, abortion on demand, LGBT cults brainwashing your kids, and lots of scary brown people who make them uncomfortable. Nothing else really matters.

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