Election Reflection:  A Narrow Escape

New York Times front page on November 8, 2020

New York Times front page, November 8, 2020

What a relief!

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected President and Vice President. Although the last few votes are still being counted in a couple of states, and there will still be some legal challenges, it’s clear they have won both the popular vote and the electoral college.

Their speeches Saturday night were eloquent and hopeful.

It’s a huge relief that we won’t have to endure another four years of Donald Trump.  But somehow, I don’t feel like celebrating. This doesn’t feel like a victory. It feels like a narrow escape.

It should have been a landslide

Over 70 million people voted for Donald Trump. That’s about 8 million more votes than he got in 2016.  Despite his execrable behavior over the last four years, despite his Administration’s appalling human rights violations on our southern border, his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, and his blatant disdain for democracy and the Constitution, still 8 million more people voted for him.

As Tom Friedman points out in his November 4 column in the New York Times, there was no moral victory. America did not say “enough is enough!”  There was no resounding repudiation of Trump’s divisiveness, racism, “alternative facts”, or autocratic ambitions.

There was no blue wave. Democrats actually lost about ten seats in the House. Clearly Democrats have not yet figured out how to respond to the economic concerns of white, male, working-class voters.

Republicans retain control of the Senate, at least until Georgia holds run-off elections in January. Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham both won re-election.  McConnell will probably be re-elected as Senate majority leader. A GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to be any more cooperative with a Biden Administration than it was with Obama’s. Expect more obstruction. A total blockade on judicial appointments wouldn’t surprise me.

Democrats have not flipped control of any state legislatures. This means Republicans will control the redistricting of most Congressional seats based on the 2020 census. There will be little change in the extreme partisan gerrymandering in many of these states. (Democrats, I should note, are guilty of gerrymandering too.)

In the end, Republicans paid no price for enabling Donald Trump. They therefore have little incentive and no apparent inclination to reform themselves.

Reasons for hope

I don’t want to be a complete downer, however. There are some bright spots.

We will have a President who respects facts and science and truth. That hopefully means he will appoint competent, qualified people to his Cabinet and to senior posts in his Administration.  It should lead to a medically sound national approach to the coronavirus pandemic. It should give rise to an environmental policy that recognizes climate change is real, caused by humans and needing an urgent response.

The Administration will tilt in a more progressive direction. Although Democrats received no mandate for a leftward leap and the progressive wing is bound to be disappointed, at least the orientation will more progressive and more compassionate.  We should expect attempts to shore up the Affordable Care Act in response to the pandemic. We should see efforts to address racial injustice and police reform. There’s even an opportunity for the Biden Administration to address some of the economic concerns of working-class Trump supporters who feel they’ve been left behind by globalization and technological change.

I’m less hopeful about any meaningful changes on immigration legislation. But the Biden Administration should be expected to roll back much of Trump’s harsh, blatantly racist treatment of immigrants and refugees.

The Trump Administration’s cruel and senseless persecution of transgender people will end.

The Equal Rights Amendment could be enacted as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing equal rights regardless of sex.

More optimistically, the 2020 election reflects on-going demographic trends in the US.  According to demographer William H. Frey, author of Diversity Explosion, in 2011 more non-white babies were born in the US than white babies for the first time. The US Census Bureau reports that as of this year, 2020, less than half the children under 18 are non-Hispanic whites. And by the mid-2040’s, Frey projects America will no longer have a single racial majority. We will be a “majority-minority” country. These demographic trends are “baked in.”  Even Trump’s immigration policies will do little to shift them. That’s because natural growth of minority populations is now larger than growth from immigration.

The political impact of these changes is already visible in the 2020 results. There has been a narrowing of Republican majorities in some southern states with large Black and Latinx populations.  Most important of course are Biden’s wins in Arizona and, most likely, Georgia. In Texas, Trump beat Hilary Clinton in 2016 by 9%, but he beat Biden in 2020 by just 5.8%. In South Carolina, Trump beat Clinton by 14.2%. His victory over Biden in 2020 shrank to 11.7%.  On the other hand, in Florida Trump increased his margin and, apparently, his support among Black and Latinx voters.

Democrats cannot take the support of minority voters for granted. And Republicans cannot long remain viable as the party of white males. Both parties therefore have a strong incentive to court non-white voters. This should lead to a gradual reduction in the differences between the parties on issues like immigration, policing and racial justice. But I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. It’ll take decades to play out.

So much damage has been done to institutions like the State Department, the Department of Justice, the CDC and the EPA.  Our reputation and our influence abroad have been trashed. The damage will take years to repair. But at least we escaped the complete subversion of our democratic institutions. Trump’s autocratic ambitions were well-documented by writers like Masha Gessen of The New Yorker, and The Atlantic’s David Frum.  Fortunately, America has taken a last-minute off-ramp from autocracy. But our system of government is sorely in need of reform. In particular, the power of the Presidency needs to be scaled back. No one person should have the power to threaten our democracy or wreak havoc on our institutions and our lives like Trump has.

All US Vice Presidents and Kamala Harris

All US Vice Presidents and Kamala Harris

I think the most significant and the most hopeful outcome of this election is that America has elected its first woman and first person of color as Vice President. Kamala Harris’ election sends a hugely important signal to everyone, here and abroad, especially to women and people of color, because I do think it shows America at its best, as a place of possibility.

It’s this idea of possibility that gives me the greatest hope. We’ve had a narrow escape from Trump. With the election of Biden and Harris, the country has changed course. Incrementally, but still meaningfully. We’ve rejected a doctrine of anger and hate and instead chosen hope and decency. We’re no longer spiraling inward, downward and backward. Progress may be slow, uneven and frustrating, but we have an opportunity to move forward. Let’s seize it.

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