22 Short Takes On The US Election
Finally, the long night of Donald Trump’s presidency is over. To date, the courts have been given no cause to conclude that the exhaustively lengthy counts of those mountains of mail ballots was anything other than legal. Stacking the US Supreme Court with sympathetic judges is one thing, but the Trump legal team has yet to furnish the justices with sufficient ammunition to rule not only (a) that the late-arriving ballots in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin etc were counted after Election Day in violation of state laws, but that (b) these late-arriving ballots would have been in such numbers as to be decisive in the election outcome.
It seems unlikely that either test can be met. As for Trump’s allegations of a co-ordinated nationwide plot to commit electoral fraud… no evidence has been put forward that fraud has been carried out on anything like the scale needed to swing the results. The SCOTUS blog has published this very balanced article on the legal issues now in play, and the (un)likelihood of the Supreme Court intervening to cancel Biden’s victory.
All of which means that Donald Trump is now, officially, a LOSER. As the mayor of Philadelphia memorably said, it is now time for Trump “to put on his big boy pants” and concede. OK, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Biden’s victory was not a landslide, but he did end up winning decisively. Amusingly, if Biden ends up winning Georgia this would give him 306 Electoral College votes, which is exactly what Trump’s victory tally was in 2016. To many, that would look like karma.
Here are 22 (or so) short takes on the outcome:
1. Biden has won, but will he be able to get anything done? On the upside, he’s been in Congress for decades, and resolving policy conflicts is said to be his schtick. Supposedly, he’s a genuine deal-maker, unlike the shyster who preceded him. But the task will be immense. Like the expanding universe, the (red) rural regions of America and its (blue) urban/suburban population centres are pulling further and faster apart, leaving little room for compromise when it comes down to core beliefs and interests. The Senate is very, very likely to remain in Republican hands. Just like Barack Obama experienced from 2010 onwards, Biden will find it virtually impossible to prevent his best efforts from being stymied by a hostile Senate.
Sure, the two run-off Senate contests in Georgia in January do offer the Democrats a slim chance of gaining control of the Senate, if they win both of them. Turnout will be crucial, though. As political messages go, “Let us be a check on those Democratic radicals” is a stronger mobilising call than “Enable us to avoid gridlock and get things done.” Also, even though those Georgia run-off elections will be taking place deep in the January winter, the conservatives will be turning out in droves. The Democratic masses? Maybe not so much.
2. Sure, saving the world from four more years of Trump is a great achievement. But the other takeaway from Biden’s victory was that his success didn’t translate into victories “down ballot” for the ticket he led. Meaning: Democratic candidates not only lost the Senate contests in Maine, North Carolina, Iowa and South Carolina that were crucial to them flipping the Senate. Shockingly, they also lost seats in the House, where they’d expected to gain four seats. Reportedly, the Democrats are not actually at risk of losing the House, but Democratic House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi is likely to end up presiding over the smallest House majority in 18 years. For why this happened (and may keep on happening) see below.
3. In other words, the election outcome has to be seen as a personal rejection of Trump, but it this did not mean that voters embraced what they saw as being the Democratic Party agenda. Ironically Trump, the arch narcissist, ended up doing great for everyone except himself. He delivered the Republicans the second biggest vote in US history, ensured their continued control of the Senate, steered them to gains in the House, but… he lost the White House and thus earned himself a place on the short list of one-term Presidents. Again, karma.
4. How did Trump manage to do well for the Republican Party, and so badly for himself? In South Florida and elsewhere, the Republicans successfully associated the Democratic Party with a radical socialism that would (allegedly) wreck the economy. One Republican operative explained to CNN how they’d succeeded in portraying Biden as being the compliant tool of his party’s progressive wing:
“In New York state, bail reform was extremely unpopular and meshed well with defund the police, so a public safety angle was the most effective. In some districts, it was "Medicare for All" and the loss of private health insurance. In a number of suburban districts, we talked about pocketbook issues like higher taxes under Biden. And in other districts, we focused on the extremism of the "Green New Deal." And in South Florida especially, it was socialism more broadly. All of those messages fit within the rubric of extremism… The biggest lesson for House Republicans out of the 2020 election was this is a center-right country."
5. Such perceptions matter. By the time Biden is inaugurated on January 20, the economy will be in even worse shape, especially since the Republicans have just been motivated by the election result to tank the economy entirely, by not passing a significant stimulus package. By and large, many voters bought Trump’s message that the economy was doing just great until the China plague arrived and spoiled everything. Voters didn’t blame Trump for the pandemic, or for the economic recession that followed. In their tens of millions, they rewarded him for his desire to re-open the economy, however recklessly. By contrast, those same voters may well blame Biden and his “socialist” policies, for the hardship that is to come.
6. So when the Democrats review their campaign, will the party’s progressive wing be blamed for the way much of Middle America linked the Democrats to the Green New Deal and to the Black Lives Matter street protests? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already come out fighting on this issue, and has blamed the Party machinery for failing to build the grassroots organisations able to deliver the messages, and turn out the vote. To the extent that organising clout existed at all, she argues, this was due to the groundwork laid by the party’s progressive wing:
The real problem, said Ocasio-Cortez, was that the party lacked “core competencies” to run campaigns. “There’s a reason Barack Obama built an entire national campaign apparatus outside of the Democratic National Committee,” she told the Times’ Astead Herndon. “And there’s a reason that when he didn’t activate or continue that, we lost House majorities. Because the party – in and of itself – does not have the core competencies, and no amount of money is going to fix that.”
Her criticism rings a bell. During the primaries, Biden’s “flimsy” organisation on the ground was even portrayed as a virtue, as being some canny nouveau politics sleight of hand. In the end, it cost the Democrats dearly, further down the ticket.
7. Biden proved to be the ideal candidate – maybe the only Democratic politician – able to draw votes from across the political spectrum. He won support from seniors, from the black community, a bloc that – thanks to the intervention of Rep. Jim Clyburn in South Carolina – managed to keep Biden in contention for the Democratic nomination after his early failures in Iowa and Hampshire. This week, black voters pushed him over the top in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
In addition, Biden was probably the only Democrat able to rebuild the northern Midwest “blue wall” among white working class voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Outside of South Florida, Biden could not credibly be painted as a radical socialist. More polarising candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would have been far easier to tag with that label.
8. Biden won the popular vote by a huge four million vote margin. This means that in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, Democratic candidates have won more votes than their opponents. Regardless, Republicans have occupied the White House for 12 of the past 20 years. Moreover, Biden won the popular vote convincingly but has still had to battle his way to a victory where he will remain at grave risk of being impotent to enact his legislative agenda. Once you put all this together, it makes for a pretty compelling picture of just how badly broken the mechanisms of American democracy currently are, and have been for decades. Unfortunately, some of these mechanisms (see below) are now going to get even worse.
9. Here’s why. Since 2010, the Republicans have pursued a deliberate programme of vote suppression via ID rules, limits on early voting, closing of polling places, purging of electoral rolls, and boundary manipulation. The process of unfairly drawing the boundaries of Congressional districts – in political circles, it is called “ ratfucking” – was laid out in detail in this 2016 New Yorker article. The techniques include extensive use of “gerrymandering” which involves… all the ways that partisan state legislatures (via use of online technology) proceed to design contiguous districts that pack their opponents into as few districts as possible, thereby skewing the maps of Congressional districts to the benefit of the ruling party in that state, the vast majority of which tend to be Republican.
In this election, the Democrats not only failed to flip the Senate. They also failed to win statehouse races right across the country. This means that what was already a majority of Republican state legislatures will now have a virtual free hand to write and rewrite the Congressional district boundaries to their benefit. The headlines may say that Texas is steadily going blue, thanks to demographic changes. Yet as the Politico website explains, such changes may be nullified lower down the political food chain:
After the 2019 elections, Republicans were already set to have total control over the crafting of more than twice as many congressional seats as Democrats. And after a weak showing on Tuesday, Democrats did nothing to reverse that disadvantage, giving Republicans a chance to draw favorable maps that will help them elect their preferred state and federal representatives for the next five election cycles.
And here’s what Politico says about the opportunities for gerrymandering that are now opening up for the Republican Party in say, Texas:
Texas Republicans, retaining control of the Senate and the governor's mansion, will have total authority over the drawing of as many as 39 congressional districts in the state. Democrats fear Republicans will pack and crack the rapidly diversifying suburbs to dilute unfriendly voters. Despite targeting 10 districts, Democrats failed to flip a single targeted seat in 2020 on the current map, which was drawn by the GOP roughly a decade ago.
In Florida, vote suppression took many forms. In 2018, 1.5 million former felons had been given back the right to vote, after this measure was resoundingly passed by a two thirds margin in a state-wide referendum. (If they exercised this renewed right, these former felons were expected to vote Democrat.) The Republican dominated state legislature therefore gutted this measure by adding to it an unconstitutional poll tax targeted precisely at those former felons, to prevent them from voting.
10. OK, a personal confession of political nerdery. Over the past five days and nights, the 538 website, CNN, Fox News, Politico, Vox, and (especially) the New York Times’ updates of results became very familiar watering holes. Breakfast, dinner and midnight snacks were spent there, waiting for updates. Best headline on this process, from the Reductress website: “Is That Guy You’re Scared of Trusting Your Ex-Boyfriend, or Nate Silver?”
11. In similar vein, the US election provided some great geography lessons, what with the endless re-hitting of the “Refresh” button to find out what micro-changes may have occurred in say, Maricopa County, Arizona. Who knew before where Gwinnett and Fulton counties were in Georgia, and why they voted blue in such anxiety-alleviating numbers. Ditto for Pima County (main city: Tucson) in Arizona, and Clark County in Nevada, where Las Vegas is situated. Contrary to the image of casino cities being full of high rollers, the service workers in Las Vegas and Reno made them reliable reservoirs of Biden votes.
12. As predicted in Werewolf’s election preview, Erie County in Pennsylvania was once again a bellwether. It flipped to Biden this time, just as it flipped to Trump last time. Chilling thought: if Texas really does achieve swing state status in the 2024 election, the results agony will have to be repeated, this time across the entire 254 counties that comprise the Lone Star state. Yee-hah? Not so much.
13. On the night, Biden’s victory speech was an inspirational break from the grimly divisive vision of “ American carnage” promoted by Trump. You know Trump’s drill: Americans were being told to shelter in place because (allegedly) their major cities were being burned by rampaging radical mobs hellbent on destroying everything that god-fearing folk hold dear… In reality however, and since Biden really is stuck between a rock (the Senate) and a hard place (the Supreme Court) any change he can bring about is likely to be grindingly incremental, and earned only after making some soul-destroying compromises with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. There will be evolutionary changes, as Barack Obama said flatly on the campaign trail, not revolutionary ones. This may be more Biden’s style and temperament, anyway.
14. Unfortunately, the frustrating path of compromise stretching out before Biden will bring the Biden White House into direct conflict with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. McConnell may be the real enemy. But Biden will need – by his actions – to recognise that it was grassroots organisations built by Hispanic communities within Arizona for example – that put him into the White House. Biden has to deliver them results. The communities that organised on his behalf can’t feed their kids on inspirational words and folksy charm alone.
15. Like Obama and like Trump, Biden will make extensive use of Executive Orders to do things that the Senate and the courts will not endorse. For example Biden will, by executive order, rejoin the Paris Climate Change agreement and the World Health Organisation and will end the bans on immigration from Muslim countries. Border policy will be more humane. By using the same kind of executive orders, Biden will almost certainly try to protect Obamacare’s coverage of previous medical conditions, provisions which the Supreme Court will attack during the coming weeks. Biden will also give the so-called “Dreamers” a pathway to naturalisation. Even more than Obama did, Biden will use the presidential pulpit to talk over McConnell’s head, and make the case for his agenda directly to the American public.
16. Across the nation, Americans voted on a variety of state propositions and citizens initiated referenda. For New Zealanders, it was interesting to see several additional states (including New Jersey) vote to join the now extensive list of US states that have legalised the recreational use of marijuana. In this election, Oregon extended that approach to include the legalisation of possession of recreational amounts of some harder drugs, including cocaine, psilocybin, methamphetamine and heroin.
17. Even more significantly, Californians voted (by a 58% to 41% margin) in favour of “Proposition 22” that means workers in the gig economy ( eg Uber and Lyft drivers) are to continue to be classified as independent contractors and not as employees, and will therefore not be eligible for typical workplace benefits. For obvious reasons, the ride companies poured huge amounts of money into this fight, and are now planning to take it nationwide.
18. On the campaign trail, there were hints that Biden himself will spend his initial time before and after his inauguration on January 20 on rebuilding America’s ties with its traditional allies. (Trump had set out to destroy America’s links to multilateral bodies from the WTO to the WHO to NATO to UNESCO.) Kamala Harris may well front much of the domestic agenda. However, the only coherent set of policies to emerge during the Democratic primaries came from Elizabeth Warren, and it will be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out between Warren and Harris. Gary Gensler has been named as Biden’s go between with the financial markets, and he is known to be a close ally of Warren.
19. How on earth will a Biden transition team manage its relationship with the uniquely hostile current inhabitant of the White House? So far, Trump has been doing a good imitation of an angry badger trapped in his burrow. The normal courtesies of co-operation seem unlikely to be extended. No doubt, Trump will use the traditional end-of term presidential pardons to exonerate all his corrupt business cronies, former lawyers etc of blame for their misdeeds. The New York Times has named some of those currently being mooted to join Biden’s fledgling team, and those people are likely to become very familiar during the coming months.
20. In what areas might Biden and McConnell be likely to find areas of potential agreement and compromise? Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s dark angel, has already suggested on Fox News that a further round of corporate tax cuts would be very much welcomed by the Republican negotiators. Sigh. US foreign policy in the Middle East – pro Saudi, pro Israel, anti-Iran – is likely to continue much as before. Palestinians are likely to continue to be thrown under a bus by the Biden administration, in the name of supporting those “peace” deals between Israel and the region’s Arab tyrannies.
Tough talk will be directed at North Korea and Russia, and at China’s actions in the South China Sea. Biden can be relied on to denounce happy China’s oppression of the Uighurs, and of activists in Hong Kong. Dictators of the world, take heed: you’ve just lost your best friend. But in future, President Joe Biden will be coming for you only with some entirely symbolic expressions of American self-regard. Biden is also likely to sign the US up to trade pacts that Trump had shunned, like the CPTPP.
21. Alas, room may also be found for bi-partisan agreement between Biden and McConnell on the scrapping of section 230 of the US Telecommunications Act. This is the safe harbour provision that protects Internet platforms from legal liability for what they publish, and it is the safeguard on which free speech rights on the Internet are based. The Republicans hate section 230 because social media discourse is dominated by smarty pants leftists, and Republicans want the courts to impose more “balanced” (ie, more conservative) content quotas online. Meanwhile, the likes of Nancy Pelosi are already on record against section 230, because of the objectionable content on Facebook, YouTube etc.
So… instead of the substantive anti-trust actions to break up the social media giants that has been advocated by Elizabeth Warren, we may well end up with the Biden administration and the Senate Republicans agreeing to curtail the free speech rights of us, the users, instead. All in the name of decency and social harmony, of course.
22. Since all the votes haven’t yet been counted yet, any observations on voting patterns – among blacks, along gender lines, among Hispanics in and beyond Florida, in the suburban commuter belts around the major cities etc etc all need to be conditional at this point. But in his victory speech, Biden did give a shout out to Native Americans as being part of the unified nation he will lead. In at least two states, the Native American vote was very significant. In North Carolina’s Robeson County, the Lumbee Indian vote went heavily for Trump on the basis of a promise of federal recognition for tribal rights. As the Fox News headline memorably put it: “Trump Investment in North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe Pays Off.”
In Arizona by contrast, the Native American vote for Biden was substantial. Biden leads by only 19,000 votes statewide at this point, but – as the 538 website has pointed out - in the three counties that overlap the lands of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe in the north east of the state, Biden edged out Trump by more than 22,000 votes. In Arizona, Native Americans have been a crucial part of Biden’s victorious coalition.
23. Finally this is as good an overall wrap as any I’ve seen. It comes from Nathaniel Rakich on the 538 website:
“Every presidential election is historic, but this one perhaps especially so. The first female vice president. The end of one of the most tumultuous administrations in American history. But despite today’s events, the future is not rosy for Democrats. Biden will have real trouble enacting any kind of legislative agenda if Democrats don’t win two runoff elections for Senate in Georgia in January. And Republicans did well in state-level elections that control redistricting, enabling them to draw favorable House and state legislature maps for the next decade
24. Calling out around the world/are you ready for a brand new beat? Here, from real life Philadelphia PA, is footage of actual citizens of West Philly really and truly dancing in the streets. (And don’t forget the Motor City.) Here’s Martha Reeves and the Vandellas with Detroit’s timeless protest anthem: