As the results came in on election night, it initially appeared that Biden had lost the Presidential elections and that the Democratic Party had suffered a disastrous loss. With the votes now mostly counted however, it is clear that the final performance of both Biden and the Party while not the “blowout” anticipated, were also far short of disastrous. Biden rebuilt the “Blue Wall” and managed to eke out a victory in two formerly solid Red States, Georgia and Arizona, while running competitively in Texas and North Carolina. Similarly, it is still possible, albeit unlikely, that the Democrats could gain control of the Senate following the run off elections in Georgia. But if the elections were not quite a disaster, the overall performance of the Democrats does call for some sober analysis. There were no Biden “coattails”. Democrats lost multiple House and Senate races they had been forecast to win. Ohio, Iowa and Florida appear to have turned solidly Red. Depending on the race, Republican candidates, including Trump, overperformed pre-election poll averages by 3-9%. In this post, I analyze these results and suggest some possible implications for politics going forward. In doing so, I will focus primarily on what might reasonably be expected from a Biden administration. In a subsequent post, I will address the issue from the broader perspective of its implications for political strategies that aim at structural change. My assertions in this post should be viewed as tentative points for further discussion-and not necessarily as secure, settle opinion.
In formulating my analysis, I have relied on multiple mass media sources. By far, the most detailed dive into voter behavior in mass media that I have encountered thus far was done by the Financial Times. My references to polling data are drawn primarily from Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight.
By comparison to pre-election polling averages and forecasts, Republican candidates, including Trump, outperformed pre-election polling averages from 3 to as much as 8-9 percent. How can we explain the polling error? The following explanations for this error, put forward by various media outlets, all have a degree of validity:
- Republican voters in general and especially Trump voters are less likely to answer polls, thus biasing samples;
- Trump’s popularity in general has been consistently underestimated;
- Trump’s use of mass rallies, in spite of the pandemic, mobilized significant support in the last few days of the campaign;
- Polling estimates are static estimates at a point in time while political opinion is dynamic and fluid, which renders polling forecasts unreliable;
Yet these points themselves require some explanation.
The Presidential Race
Understanding Trump’s Over Performance
As Glenn Greenwald and others noted noted before the elections, most Democrats, including both members of the centrist and progressive wing, as well as some moderate to Conservative Republicans, view Trump as uniquely evil, a Russian stooge, just plain stupid, possibly mentally incompetent, corrupt, racist and a demagogue. Though the first are dubious, the latter three have considerable merit. But these perceptions of Trump by Democrats makes it hard for them to understand why Trump breaks 40% in any election or wins any state outside of the Deep South save by recourse to viewing any and all Trump voters as deplorables. In doing so, they have failed to understand the Trump phenomenon.
To his supporters, Trump successfully presents himself as underdog, fighter and contrarian victim of powerful elites who speaks for those who feel economically or culturally marginalized. This sense of marginalization, and of Trump as victim of powerful elites, is in my estimation magnified by the mostly unsubstantiated and exaggerated drumbeat of allegations of Trump as Russia stooge. Nor does it help when Trump’s opponents, in combination with media outlets, actively suppress stories about Hunter Biden’s ties to Ukrainian oligarchs, which while also exaggerated contained a disturbing kernel of truth. The repression of these stories, in combination with Facebook’s self appointed status of arbiter of official truth, did not prevent these stories from circulating. While Democrats rightly, in my view, attack Trump’s decision to cynically exploit minor clerical errors in the voting process and unsupported theories of massive voter fraud in an attempt to alter the election outcome, they underestimate the extent to which Democrats and Democratic supporters themselves have sought to blame Trump’s 2016 victory on Russian Facebook trolls, allegations of Russian hacking, hopes that he would be declared incompetent by his own cabinet and replaced, and a failed impeachment attempt over events in the Ukraine.
Trump’s rhetorical style, though off putting to many, appeals to a wide range of voters even as he pursues policies that at times stand in stark contrast to his rhetoric. He simultaneously appeals to cultural conservatives, traditional tax cutting Republicans, white middle class and upper middle class female as well as white male voters, to white working class voters, some black working class male voters, and quite oddly, to a section of LGBTQ voters. To what extent the summer’s demonstrations motivated Trump voters is not clear, save to say that Trump’s fear mongering did not win him votes in the suburbs. Trump’s rallies and speeches, though incomprehensible when examined as any kind of coherent truth claim are not intended as analysis of political and social problems. They are acts of performance which contain sufficient references to actual grievances and sources of discontent for his supporters, that the can convince them he is on their side. He has come as far as he as: on the basis of charisma. He represents the intrusion of the irrational into America’s body politic. As Slavoj Zizek has noted, Trump is the first post modern President.
Yet there are also objective factors that must be considered to explain Trump’ performance. Chief among these is the appeal of Trump to many on economic issues. Unemployment, prior to the COVID crisis, was a little below 4%, while inflation remained relatively tame. It’s true that a deeper dive into the data on the economy’s performance reveals substantive structural cracks in the foundations of the economy, but that is not what motivates voters or what voters perceive. Nor did many voters blame Trump for the rise in Unemployment due to the COVID crisis or hold him responsible for the COVID crisis. Though it is not possible to know for certain, it is probable that absent the COVID crisis, Trump would have won the Presidential race. This fact, no doubt, adds fuel to the consistent, but baseless claims by some that the lethality of COVID has been deliberately exaggerated by the media in an effort to discredit Trump. This assertion however, ignores the fact that had Trump handled the COVID crisis competently rather than deciding to turn it into a highly charged, partisan, culture war issue, he would have gained significant public support, and potentially won a landslide. As matters stand, Democrats and Republicans interpret the impact of COVID 19 in a substantively different fashion.
The appeal of Biden
If Democratic voters find Trump’s appeal to be nearly incomprehensible, Republican voters similarly find it difficult to understand how a mediocre and lackluster establishment politician such as Joe Biden, with an equally unappealing running mate such as Kamala Harris, could beat a popular (among Republican voters) charismatic figure such as Trump. To be sure, both Biden and Harris have some strong negatives. Biden’s conduct on issues related to sexual assault are at best, hypocritical, as are the actions of multiple, prominent female Democratic politicians. Secondly, he has had a long history, as has Kamala Harris, of embracing, not reluctantly or hesitantly, but enthusiastically, policies of mass incarceration. Thirdly, even if he is not as corrupt as Trump, the issues surrounding Hunter Biden’s association with Ukrainian oligarchs and Biden’s efforts to micro manage Ukrainian prosecutors is troublesome. On foreign policy, he has made it clear he will continue the current and past policies of regime change. Trump supporters look at Biden’s negatives, double standards, allegations of corruption and puzzle how such a candidate could have scored the victories he did and come to the conclusion that the only explanation is widespread fraud. But the allegation that Trump lost to the worst candidate ever is an exaggeration: he lost to the second worst candidate ever.
Trump’s supporters miss several substantive points. Firstly they have underestimated the appeal of boring after the erratic nature of the Trump Presidency. Similarly, they have missed the desire of many for a return to the “normalcy” of the Bush and Obama years and the appeal of Biden to centrist and establishment figures who see in Trump the mismanagement of Empire. Simply put, Biden’s cautious centrism appeals to many. But all that noted, Republican voters have failed to grasp the deep, profound loathing for Trump among multiple Democratic constituencies and voters. To be sure, Democratic voters disagree with and dislike Trump’s policies. But much of the intense loathing is reaction to Donald Trump as a person. Even when the view of Trump as Russia stooge is removed from the equation, which it should be, there is much that is disturbing. To begin with his personal style is defined by braggadocio and lack of basic social graces. He bullies disabled people and women, he trolls of marginalized social groups, he shouts out to right wing extremists and proponents of baseless theories of COVID denialism. His incompetent and callous disregard for human life displayed throughout the course of the pandemic, and his bizarre infatuation with authoritarians of all ideological stripes add to the perception that he is himself, if not necessarily a fascist in the technical sense of the term, at least a right wing authoritarian. As person who was “to the manor born” Trump exudes both a sense of privilege and victimization while his longstanding business practices appear both visibly corrupt and exemplify his general bullying behavior. In sum, much of the vote for Biden, was in my estimation, reflexively anti-Trump.
Given the above, Democrats expected widespread repudiation of Trump and Trumpism from African American, Latino, LGBTQ and even white female voters. With the exception of white females, Democrats performed better than Trump among these groups. But they did not receive the level of anticipated support from these groups. In determining where Biden’s support was and wasn’t however, it’s important to actually look at the data. Outside of Georgia, Biden did not win on the basis of the urban African American vote. To the contrary, he consistently underperformed Clinton in that regard. His appeal to Latinos was at best mixed: It was strong in Arizona, weak in Florida, and spotty in Texas. Where Biden overperformed was with his respect to suburban voters and college educated voters. Whether this was a vote for Biden, or a vote against Trump, is not entirely clear.
Who Lost Congress?
This ambiguity is reflected in the debate over who lost Congress, which has brought the tension between the establishment, centrist wing of the Party and the left activist base into clear focus. Some centrists have sought to pin the blame for losses in House and Senate races on the activist, Progressive base of the Democratic Party and the use of the “S” word. The evidence for this hypothesis is at best weak. But so too is the evidence for the hypothesis that Democrats did poorly for being insufficiently progressive. There are good reasons to believe that the ability of the Republicans to associate Biden and the Democrats with the Socialist label, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro cost the Democrats substantial support amongst Cuban Americans in Florida. But it is not possible to generalize about nationwide results from this one case. There is no clear pattern of Progressive candidates doing better than centrists, or centrists outperforming Progressives. If there is a predictor of Democratic losses in Congressional races, it is being a Democrat in a purple or Red District, where Republicans may have successfully stoked backlash to the summer’s demonstrations and calls for single payer health insurance reform. Thus, it is possible that association with the Progressive, activist base in combination with Trump’s popularity in Red and Purple Districts was a strong factor in some individual races. But Progressives did well in deep Blue districts. And were it not or the successful turnout campaigns by activist groups, Biden would not have won in Arizona and Georgia. Nor could he have won without Progressive votes.
Are there any clear lessons to be learned and applied from this election beyond the painstakingly obvious one that to win elections political parties need to get their voters to the polls? I think there are, though the lessons depend on the goals. If the goal is simply to “win elections” then it will always be tempting to pick the lowest common denominator. In the same vein, both winners and losers may look to their performance amongst different constituency groups, try to determine what is “owed” to each and what might be done to enhance performance where there is slippage amongst previously solid supporters or how one might improve where appeal has historically been low. To the extent that the goal is to win an election, these are practical and relevant problems. But at the same time, the underlying goal might not be to just win an election, but to actually pursue a set of policies.? There is little sense in a Party that seeks victory, only to enact a lesser version of their opponent’s platform upon gaining power or simply turn government into a spoils system. This is a view of Democracy that is far from the vision of champions of Democracy such as Habermas and Dewey.
If the goal is for the Democratic Party to win, then the Democrats will do best if they run and govern as Democrats who claim the legacy of the New Deal. The first step for a Biden administration is to get the Pandemic under control and the economy back on track. Until and unless that is done, nearly every other goal is moot and unachievable. In the medium term the Democratic Party, and a Biden administration, will do well as a Party to embrace parts of the Party’s Progressive wing’s agenda by promoting policies such as infrastructure spending, defending Social Security and Medicare, strengthening and expanding Medicare and Medicaid, strengthening rights to unionize, embracing social equality as well as police and criminal justice reform. Such a strategy falls far short of the kind of structural change envisioned by the Progressive wing. Yet if even this much were to be enacted over the course of two terms, it would represent a tangible gain for many. There is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by the Democratic Party embracing the Socialist label, unless it means it, which it does not. This raises a longer term dilemma for those groups that wish to pull the Party further to the left, a point which requires more detailed exploration than is feasible in this post. But the goal of the various heirs of the party of Debs and Thomas, such as Social Democrats USA and Democratic Socialists of America to turn the Democratic Party into a vehicle for pursuing socialism, should be regarded as a fantasy.
The more difficult problem for a Biden administration will be foreign policy. Having embraced a strategy of running against Putin, the Democrats will be hard pressed to do anything else than be more efficient and competent at running the Empire than Donald Trump. More to the point, Biden has won by pandering to the Security State and hence has its full support. Consequently, he will be captive to it. This may require him to embrace wars and policies that are expensive, unpopular, destructive and which will ultimately undermine the foundations of Empire, even as they are designed to maintain it. It will leave him vulnerable to demagogic appeals from candidates like Trump who have little patience for the carefully balanced multilateralism necessary to maintain U.S. hegemony but who in practice seek to maintain and expand Empire. My own sense is that Trump’s unpopularity with the country’s security establishment is due to his bravado and recklessness. For the Democrats to break with Empire would require that they simultaneously challenge a security establishment that has co-opted the Democratic Party, arrogated to itself the right to attempt to overturn elections, and leave themselves vulnerable to accusations of “appeasement.”