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Will the Democrats Ever Make Sense of This Week?

They’re more likely to take the wrong lessons from Biden’s win and the down-ballot losses.

Jordan Gale for The New Republic

This is not how things were supposed to go. It was widely anticipated, of course, that Joe Biden would defeat President Trump in a victory that could take time to emerge given the pandemic-driven shift to mail voting and the Trump campaign’s threats of legal challenges to the acceptance and counting of ballots. But it was also widely anticipated that Biden would ultimately prevail in a landslide when all the numbers came in—the pandemic, Trump fatigue, and ongoing demographic shifts in once deep-red states, it was assumed, would give Biden a real shot at winning even Texas. Instead, anxious Democrats spent Tuesday night wondering if a single electoral vote from Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district might help avert a dreaded 269–269 tie.

It was assumed that Democrats would take the Senate fairly easily—incumbents whom strategists long held in their crosshairs, like Joni Ernst and Susan Collins, had consistently trailed in the polls; there was even optimism that challengers riding Biden’s coattails could win surprise victories against Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell. Instead, all four Republicans and others survived. It’s highly likely that McConnell will return as the leader of a Republican Senate unless Democrats pull off the feat of sweeping two runoff elections in Georgia come January. And it was thought that a potential Democratic trifecta would be sweetened a bit with Democratic gains in the House. Instead, House Democrats lost seats—of the 27 races The New York Times rated as toss-ups, Republicans have won or are ahead in 25 as of Thursday morning. They have won or are leading, too, in nine races Democrats were expected to win narrowly. On top of it all, the new Republican caucus will include QAnon conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene and Hitler tourist Madison Cawthorn.

In sum, if the results we have hold, Joe Biden will win the election and preside over a divided Congress. A chastened and anxious Democratic caucus will continue to hold the House. A triumphant Senate Republican caucus will obviously destroy his major legislative agenda. Biden will assuredly turn to policy by executive action, just as Barack Obama did late in his legislatively stymied administration. When he does, Republicans will do all they can to send those actions to a 6–3 conservative Supreme Court Biden will be unable to pack or meaningfully reform. In defeating Trump, Democrats will have avoided their worst-case scenario. Instead, they will have won the worst possible Biden victory, a political situation that will be a nightmare all its own.

What can we glean from this campaign? Democratic operatives have, quite understandably, focused their fire on pollsters, who seem to have misfired as badly or even worse than they did in 2016. Until the industry can reestablish a track record of clear accuracy in major races, it will be extremely difficult to justify a focus on horse-race numbers moving forward. Incidentally, issue polls, frequently derided as unreliable, are looking pretty good this week. Progressives have spent the last few years touting positive figures on support for marijuana legalization and a $15 minimum wage as evidence that their priorities, taken separately, are significantly more popular than Democratic candidates. On Tuesday night, marijuana legalization and a $15 minimum wage significantly outperformed Biden.

But we shouldn’t spend more time evaluating the polls than we do evaluating the Biden campaign itself. Those assessments should begin with the recognition that Biden has likely won. In fact, he’s likely won with exactly the coalition many assumed Democrats would need before the 2018 midterms revived high confidence in a diverse emerging Democratic majority. The Democratic nominee, it was said, would first need to claw back a substantial proportion of moderate-to-conservative white working-class voters and white suburbanites, particularly in the Rust Belt. Biden did this—Wisconsin, Michigan, and perhaps Pennsylvania came back into the Democratic column thanks largely to those gains. In a representative result Politico’s Tim Alberta noted on Wednesday, Trump lost ground to Biden in Macomb County, Michigan, where pollster Stan Greenberg famously studied “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s. “Democrats carried it by nearly 9 points in 2008 and by 4 points in 2012, only to watch Trump dominate the county with a 12-point win in 2016,” he wrote. “There was real reason for optimism, among Republicans in southeast Michigan, that Trump could add another 3 or 4 points to that spread, padding his margins in friendly territory. Instead … the opposite happened. Trump won Macomb County by 8 points, losing 4 points off his 2016 total.”

It was also said that the nominee would need to boost Black turnout—not as heroically as Obama had, but just so. Biden appears to have done that in places like Milwaukee, Detroit, and Atlanta. But this core strategy was one that relied far less on minority voters, and Latinos in particular, than one that might have actually won states like Texas and Florida. (At time of writing, Biden holds a slim lead in Arizona.) And in fact, Democrats have seen a shocking amount of erosion among Latino voters, as well as potential gains for Republicans among Black voters, although a final verdict on the latter shouldn’t be rendered before we’ve had a look at postelection surveys that are traditionally more reliable than exit polls.

Early in the Trump years, moderate columnists and strategists held that the mechanisms for accomplishing what Biden evidently has would be an aggressive critique of progressive identity politics. It was agreed specifically that Black Lives Matter and progressive activism on policing and criminal justice could be crippling. “There’s no denying,” Columbia professor Mark Lilla wrote in 2017’s The Once and Future Liberal, “that the movement’s decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and its law-enforcement institutions and to use Mau Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence played into the hands of the Republican right.”

Despite Democratic victories in 2018’s midterms, the argument lived on long enough to worry moderates who criticized Biden this year in the wake of the demonstrations and riots over the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake. “In the crude terms of a presidential campaign, voters know that the Democrat means it when he denounces police brutality, but less so when he denounces riots,” The Atlantic’s George Packer wrote in a piece about the unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “To reach the public and convince it otherwise, Biden has to go beyond boilerplate and make it personal, memorable.” A little over two months later, it’s actually quite difficult to remember what exactly Biden said that week. And he never delivered grand denunciations of cancel culture, White Fragility, the 1619 Project, or any of the other culture war material moderates and conservatives suggested he needed to address to make large gains among whites and white men in particular. Those gains were clearly made anyway.

All that said, the assumptions underpinning Democratic identity politics aren’t coming away from the campaign unscathed. The notion that minority representation and visibility and rhetoric about Trump’s bigotry would sweep not only Trump but Trumpism and the GOP away seems to have taken a real beating, particularly given, again, the gains Trump made among voters of color. So too has the idea that Democrats couldn’t improve their standing among Trump’s core white constituencies without actively engaging in Trumpism. Biden didn’t have to.

So how did he win? Was it policy? Those already proliferating the thesis that his victory proves, again, that America is a center-right country should reckon with the fact that Biden has likely won with a platform that, particularly on climate, housing, and poverty, was more progressive than Hillary Clinton’s. Trump, meanwhile, abandoned the heterodox rhetoric that characterized his 2016 run for a more conventionally Republican campaign—much of the Republican National Convention this year was about school choice, of all things—and has likely lost. But policy, of course, took a back seat this cycle, just as it did in the last, to questions of character and competence. To the extent that the pandemic was a major policy issue, voters likely went to the polls less with a real command of Biden’s plans on the coronavirus than with a general sense that he would manage the situation more capably and responsibly than Trump has. This is the dynamic Biden bet on from the outset—that voters in both the Democratic primary and the general election would be animated less by a policy agenda than by an urgent desire to put a seemingly good and sensible person in the White House. And despite a dogged effort, Trump and Republican operatives failed to taint Biden with the patina of scandal and impropriety they placed on Clinton.

There’s a real Goldilocks quality to what Biden seems to have pulled off: a campaign that eroded Trump’s strength with core white constituencies without leaning into cultural dog whistles; that got where it needed to with Black voters despite Biden’s record on criminal justice and the year’s tumult; and that substantively stepped to the left of the last Democratic campaign, even as Biden issued public repudiations of the progressives that got him there. All of it was wrapped up with a bow by a quasi-spiritual message about a return to decency, comity, and bipartisanship. It was the perfect moderate campaign, and it was enough to win.

And yet it was also a disaster. Leaving aside the fact that Biden’s apparent victory is narrow enough that Trump very plausibly might have won absent the pandemic or with a different political strategy, the campaign did seemingly nothing whatsoever to help Democrats down ballot. The failure to produce a real legislative mandate, as nearly a quarter of a million Americans lie dead in a situation the president has plainly worsened and mismanaged, is a disturbing and catastrophic setback not only for progressives but for moderates telling themselves now that Biden’s personal qualities might cajole Senate Republicans into cooperating with him if Democrats fail to take the Senate in January. They will not.

It is already being said that the Democrats’ need to control Congress was overstated—the ambition of implacable progressives set on accomplishing superfluous items on a frou-frou wishlist of policy goals. But that wishlist included a large recovery package commensurate with the damage the coronavirus has done and is continuing to do to large segments of our population and economy. We’re now likely to get, instead, a response to a deepening pandemic constrained by a speedy return to fiscal austerity and deficit hawkery from the center and right. The wishlist included climate legislation that would have put the United States on a path to decarbonization within the rapidly shortening timeframe the scientific community has told us we have to prevent the climate crisis from fully upending stable civilization. It will be truly remarkable now if the Senate manages to pass a climate bill of any kind at all. And it was hoped, particularly over the last several weeks with the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, that a Senate Democratic majority might shore up voting rights, address the party’s atrophying standing within our skewed political institutions, and disempower the Republican Party with critical structural reforms. If Republicans control the Senate, those hopes are obviously dead.

What might have been done differently? While we’ve again been given ample reasons to doubt what they tell us, polls that showed Trump consistently leading Biden on the economy seem to have been borne out somewhat—he simply didn’t incur as large a penalty for all the turmoil as might have been expected. Perhaps an effort by Biden and campaigns down ballot to deny Trump credit for the growth trends he inherited before the pandemic might have boosted them. And, obviously, the progressive thesis that a fully transformative economic agenda could bring together a powerful working-class coalition remains untested at the general election level, although it should be said that Bernie Sanders’s loss in the Democratic primary and progressive losses down ballot this week suggest the left hasn’t yet arrived at the right formula for success.

And this is perhaps the most frustrating thing about where we now stand: After four years of dogged organizing, inspiring victories, devastating defeats, deep debates, inane squabbles, takes, counter-takes, Overton window–shifting, closing, and breaking, we’ve arrived at the end of a campaign that seems to have told us little more than we already knew—that the political approach of the Democratic establishment is electorally and substantively deficient, even when it putatively prevails, and that hope for progressives and the country lies in finding some other way forward. It’s difficult to say much more; the biggest loser in all this might be political commentary as a profession. Electoral prognostication seems functionally dead; if they keep the Senate, Republicans will also rob progressive writers of whatever influence we shakily allowed ourselves to believe we might have had over the legislative process in Washington.

But we’ve always had deeper responsibilities than writing posts and polemics. It’s time to give ourselves more fully to them: listening and elevating those who will be fighting to survive all that’s to come, reflecting on what we learn from them and from history, and taking concrete action. That means participating in political organizations working to wring whatever can be wrung from the Biden White House and state and local governments, to force labor concessions from capital, and to defend the marginalized. The electoral puzzle remains a puzzle, but we can leave this campaign with one final prediction. Four years from now, Joe Biden will not, actually, have restored whatever the American people have given themselves to believing the “soul of the nation” might be. And many more Americans will find themselves looking for alternatives to the status quo. The task ahead is to continue building a movement that will be ready to meet them.