What Happened In This Election?
Hatred of Democrats was nearly as intense as hatred of Trump. Dems need to ask themselves why, and find a way forward.
Like many after the election only now drawing to an ignominious close, I’m left with a nagging question: What just happened?
Two narratives have emerged. The first is that 47% of Americans are (at least) White Supremacist adjacent. I find it hard to square this story with what I see around the country, let alone with the fact that meaningful blocks of both Latinos and African Americans voted for Trump. The second is that “far left” Democrats enabled Trump to paint the party Socialist red, anti-blue, and green new deal, and that enough Americans worried about the resulting color model to hold back control of the Senate and weaken Democrat’s grip on the House. This too falls short for me, as it fails to explain the appeal of Trumpism in an electorate that, when all was said and done, decided it had had enough of Trump.
Hungry for an alternate explanation, I’ve marinated since the election in the work of smart contrarians like Andrew Sullivan, Jon Meacham, Thomas Edsall, Coleman Hughes, and Ian Haney López. A third narrative has come into focus:
Trump was nearly as successful at making the election a referendum on Democrats as Democrats were at making it a referendum on Trump.
The record turnout in this election was more a measure of the intense anger on both sides than of the intense patriotism on either, like 150 million Americans each grinding their own axe. What happened in the end was a little more than half of us voted against Trump, and a little less than half of us voted against Democrats. That’s why, win or lose, we all feel so miserable.
How We Got Here
To figure out how we got here, you need to start with a fresh look at not only racism, but the way people respond to being accused of it.
Racism, of a kind, is written into our DNA. Fear of the other has its evolutionary roots in the creation of a Them that brings an Us together, encouraging cooperation in small groups and advancing one civilization at the expense of others in the zero-sum game of pre-industrial human society. We share this powerful impulse, broadly, just as we do our other lizard-brain motivations. Left unchecked — or worse, exploited by those who would use it to divide us in advancing their own interests — racism is a stubborn stain on America, an original sin we may never fully overcome.
That sin is universal, though, and not the exclusive provenance of trucker-hatted good ‘ol boys who take odd joy in expressing it. Like a weed in the garden of our most private selves, our innate racism can and must be beaten back, and if never quite eliminated then certainly tamed as a destructive force.
The good news is our collective progress in overcoming this is just as real and as prevalent as our individual racist tendencies. Even if racism remains hidden in our nature, real affection for cultural diversity permeates the world most of us are nurtured in today. It’s part of what makes us Americans, and that is cause for hope.
For most Americans, oppression on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation is not the primary frame of American life in 2020. Again — with all the humility my White male heterosexual privilege demands — it is simply impossible to make the case that things are not dramatically better for homosexuals now than they were before gay marriage became a sanctioned right in 2013; that they are not geometrically better for women than they were before half the population was given the right to vote in 1919; and that they are not exponentially better for Blacks than they were before 1865 when human beings were dragged here in chains, enslaved, raped, tortured, and murdered without consequence because the color of their skin.
To acknowledge this progress in not pollyanna. To ignore it, in fact — as Democrats too often do — is to alienate those who see it with their own eyes, all around them. Yes, challenges remain. There is work to do to fight right-wing terrorists, to correct for the racial biases of law enforcement, and to lower the barriers to opportunity that structural racism presents.
In 2020 America both parties are bent by the gravity of racism, with one determined to exploit it regardless of the consequences, and the other intent on condemning it regardless of its universality.
Democrats are right to champion these things, but foolish to do so in a way that prevents them from accumulating the power to do something about it. Republicans, on the other hand, are willing to do whatever it takes to accumulate power. Donald Trump, who first looked like an uninvited guest at the GOP lawn party, in fact turned out to be the ultimate expression of their cynicism.
I met Trump briefly, and it’s true that he’s charming and funny in person. He really understands media, and knows instinctively how to entertain the large number of people who’ve embraced the mythology he created around himself.
As a politician, Trump says in public what a lot of people think in private, and he does so without fear or apology. “He’s one of us,” says the hard working blue collar MAGA crowd of a coddled, narcissistic quasi-billionaire, and that is his appeal, and his superpower. He is one of them, but as they wish to be, instead of how they are.
Like all great marketers he’s a student of human response, saying more of what works to get people excited and less of what doesn’t to avoid bringing them down. Not immoral so much as a-moral, he sees the distinction between lies and truth as irrelevant, like excess baggage that limits the agility of those less focused on success. He cares only for winning the moment, ignoring what he said before and indifferent to the downstream consequences. Unencumbered by conventional morality, concern for others, or respect for institutions, he lives solely for the adulation of his base, supercharged in a media age where his every thought flies directly to admiring millions.
In a world where a large number of working Americans feel threatened by the changes accelerating all around them, abandoned and unheard, Trump expresses and validates the fear of others that for them is both real and forbidden, and they love him for it. When Democrats respond by calling out the “racist dogwhistle,” nobody’s mind is changed, but the contest is framed in exactly the way Trump wants it to be… between what voters actually feel and what some coastal metrosexual says they should.
Medicine, or Candy?
Democrats painted the election as a contest between the oppressors and the oppressed, then asked voters to side with the latter… which — lets be honest — nobody really wants to do.
Side with the folks on top, and you get labeled a racist. But you know what? Nothing is more American than wanting to be on top. And in the culture we’ve all grown up in, calling someone a racist when they really don’t think they are one is going to make them very mad at you. People react strongly when accused of racism because in 2020, few think of themselves or want to be seen as racist. This isn’t a political conundrum, but something to be celebrated.
In the end voters faced a choice between Democratic medicine on one side and Republican candy on the other. That enough people took the medicine to get rid of Trump is something to be proud of, but it’s a pride that quickly gives way to questions about how we got here, and anxiety about what happens next.
What Needs To Happen Next
An election is a contest of narratives. I believe the Democrats should have advanced a different one, and that in two years they’ll need to not only to take another shot at the Senate but to hang onto control of the House. That narrative is this:
Rich elites are working hard to protect their place atop an unfair system by dividing Americans along racial lines. To beat them we need to come together as working people, to implement common sense policies that make our families safer, our jobs more secure, and our nation more united.
The big difference between this narrative and the one Democrats are using today is the calling out of what Ian Haney López calls “strategic racism.” Strategic racism is racism deployed as a means toward hidden political ends, and in addition to being accurate in this case, it helps to shift the dynamic from a contest between people of color and their White allies to one between a united multi-ethnic front of working people and the emergent oligarchs who’ve been their real oppressors all along. We know this message works because it’s the reason Minnesota shifted from purple to blue.
Beyond that, it aligns with what should be Democrat’s true policy goals if they intend to not only secure their majority through the mid-terms, but deliver on the promises they’ve made to the nation. In the final analysis, Democrats need to demonstrate progressive government can actually improve the lives of a broad coalition of Americans— supporters and detractors; Black, Latino, and White; gay, straight, trans, and whatever — in order to earn the trust of independent minded voters drowning in a sea of anti-Democratic propaganda. Ending the COVID crisis, accelerating economic recovery by protecting those hurt most by its consequences, and re-engaging the world with trade deals measured against the standard of supporting working families should all be policy priorities of the first two years. Biden’s framing of climate change as an opportunity and not just a challenge for middle America is aligned with this narrative, as is renewed progress toward a healthcare system that sets a minimum standard of care to which every American should be entitled.
In the end good policy is the Democrats only hope of making this election a pivot point rather than a temporary setback for the forces of division. But voters need to understand those policies in the context of a story that makes sense to them in order for it to work.