Every four years, a peculiar sort of mania reliably settles over the partisan landscape as Election Day nears. It is a seductive hysteria whereby those who succumb to it become convinced that their political adversaries are a threat. This fever convinces its sufferers that those on the other side do not need to be persuaded or even recognized—they must be anathematized. What’s more, this can be achieved at the ballot box. We don’t need to understand our political opponents—we can see them destroyed, vanquished, repudiated for all time.
This is a harmful self-delusion, and not just because elections are not gladiatorial spectacles in which one combatant or the other is unambiguously defeated. Partisans are forever waking up the morning after the election to find their opponents are still there, dauntless as ever, and the hard work of governing still involves compromise. This is as true as ever in 2020, and that’s a good thing. As Tuesday’s election results come into sharper focus, this election cycle may have produced two seemingly conflicting results: a bitterly divided political culture and a more responsive and responsible governing culture.
For example, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some Democrats didn’t just want to see Joe Biden win the White House. They also wanted to watch as Donald Trump was repudiated, along with all his works and those who ever countenanced his presence in the Oval Office. Those Democrats did not get their wish. Trump may yet lose his race for reelection, but, to the extent that it was on the ballot, Trumpism did not meet a similar fate.
Republicans outperformed their polls almost everywhere. In the Senate, enough vulnerable incumbents beat back challenges to the point that it is increasingly unlikely that Democrats will have a majority in the upper chamber of Congress even if the vice president’s tie-breaking vote goes Democratic. In the House, the Republican minority was expected to contract further while Democrats gained anywhere from 10 to 15 new seats. In the end, Republicans finished the night with a net gain of at least 5 House seats. Perhaps most consequentially, Democrats expected to make substantial gains on the state legislative level that would position them well ahead of the decennial redistricting cycle. But Republicans managed to hold on to almost all the chambers they controlled on Election Day and even made some gains in places like New Hampshire. “It looks like this will be the least party control changes on Election Day since at least 1944,” wrote the National Conference of State Legislatures’ analysts.
The GOP could be forgiven for concluding that the party does better when Trump is on the ballot than when he’s not. Trumpism is not a governing philosophy. If anything, it’s a critique of a governing philosophy—conventional status quo ante conservatism. But if Trumpism is merely a disposition, it is duplicable. And the GOP will seek to duplicate it. The Republican Party of the future can be expected to target Trump’s demographics while wielding Trump’s preferred set of issues. And they will do so with the 45th president playing an active or passive role in the party’s evolution.
The GOP may be a hostage to this president and his movement, but wait until you see what happens to the Democratic Party over the next four years.
If Joe Biden wins the White House, he will have won with a surprisingly weak margin in the states he needs to become president. That may be entirely the result of public perception (which was shaped by some flawed pre-election polling), but perception has a habit of becoming a reality. If Biden represents a critique of the progressive wing of his party, it’s more muted now. The Democratic Party’s drift toward “wokeness” will continue apace.
Pro-Democrat (or anti-Republican) partisans are already convincing themselves that the party’s stumbles on Tuesday are attributable to “whiteness”—even when the voters they lost weren’t white. Architect of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones immediately went about explaining away Donald Trump’s surprisingly strong showing in places like Miami-Dade County by attributing the victory to “white Cubans,” who are “Hispanic” only insofar as that is a “contrived ethnic category.” Influential former ESPN host Jemele Hill insisted that it is “on white people” and “no one else” if Trump had won. “I don’t trust the White vote,” former RNC Chair Michael Steele told Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. “And I don’t trust it because, at the end of the day, it is very self-serving.” This is rapidly becoming enforced dogma on the left. When elected Democrats depart from this line of thinking, they are berated and harangued until they retreat.
No matter that weighted exit polling data found that Donald Trump increased his margins among minorities, drawing the support of 32 percent of Hispanics and double-digits among black voters, and Democrats improved their showing among whites. This isn’t analysis; it’s the avoidance of analysis.
This element of the progressive activist class has already demonstrated a capacity to influence, if not set, the Democratic Party’s agenda. And because the consequences of Democratic weakness at the polls on Tuesday fell disproportionately on the party’s moderates in purple districts, there will be fewer voices around in 2021 to push back against what is essentially a tantalizing conspiracy theory.
So, where is the good news in all this, you ask? These voices have once again been relegated to the fringes of their respective parties. It’s the quisling moderates and dealmakers they so hate who will soon find themselves in the driver’s seat.
Progressives can say goodbye to their already tenuous hopes for dramatic reforms to the institutions that govern American political life. There will be no filibuster nuking, no punitive expansion of the federal judiciary, no sweeping institutional reforms to “restructure things to fit our vision.” Nor will there be transformative legislative reforms without a Republican buy-in. Say goodbye to the Green New Deal, a Universal Basic Income, “debt-free” college, single-payer health care, the dissolution of the Department of Homeland Security’s border enforcement agencies, or half a dozen other big ideas that loomed ominously over American heads for the better part of two years.
If Joe Biden wins, Republicans will be relegated to the role they occupied in the final two years of the Obama presidency. The GOP will be able to block, obstruct, and frustrate, but it will not govern. It is unlikely that we will see much productivity under divided government, but that is not the same thing as dysfunctional government—precisely the opposite, in fact. If we’re entering into a period defined by equilibrium in which the federal government is all but paralyzed in the absence of some bipartisan consensus, that would at least be predictable. And predictability has been in short supply these last four years.
Much to the chagrin of the American system’s would-be demolishers, no one assuming the reins of power in Washington seems to have much interest in blowing anything up. If that frustrates those for whom political instability is advantageous, the more the better. They deserve to be on the outside looking in for a while.