There wasn’t blood in the streets of America. There were some disquieting moments — punctuated in the middle of the night when an angry mob of President Trump’s supporters, some of them armed, swarmed the outside of a vote-counting center near Phoenix — but the images we may remember from the nation’s most angst-ridden week in at least a generation were oddly soothing. Tiny pictures on the bottom of your TV screen showed mask-wearing, exhausted but diligent election staff from both major parties in places like Philadelphia and Atlanta working together to do democracy’s most basic task: Counting the votes.
The center held in America this week ... but just barely. It’s important to cling, though, to the good, to the nourishment contained in the half of the national glass that is still full. The unrest over the 2020 election was minimal, physical violence so far has been non-existent, even normal-year irregularities were few, and local leaders from both the Democratic and the Republican parties seem determined to ignore the noise — even a childish president screaming “STOP THE COUNT!” — and tally every legitimate vote.
And in an election in which determined voters jumped every hurdle of government suppression to cast as many as 160 million ballots, shattering past records, it appears — as I write this Thursday morning — that those votes have put Joe Biden on a narrow but steady path to becoming our 46th president. If so, the soon-to-be-78-year-old Delawarean faces unprecedented challenges — a divided government, probably, and an angry and divided nation, most definitely — but also seems like a man uniquely tailored to the moment. No one in American politics speaks with more eloquence or faith on the subject of national unity.
But who is listening?
As a cynical newspaper columnist, I get paid to stare at the half of the glass that’s empty — and there’s a lot to look at. While both America’s election workers and the Biden campaign deserve our thunderous applause for having a plan to get through the 2020 election and for sticking to it, a lot of folks — my fellow journalists, pollsters (!) and pundits, and an underperforming Democratic Party — have a lot to answer for on the not-too-bloody morning after.
In the end, the 2020 contest showed that for most of us — no matter where you fall on the great political divide — the last four years have been based on magical, and fallacious thinking. Neither the Resistance left nor the Trumpist right won the war of ideas and crushed the other side or somehow brought it to its senses — because they never would.
Yes, revulsion over a president’s lies and lack of a moral character energized millions of voters, especially among college-educated women in suburbs outside Phoenix or Atlanta or Milwaukee or Philadelphia, which is what brought Biden to the brink of victory. Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, the affluent suburb that’s been considered an American bellwether since the Reagan years, saw Biden claim 47,000 more votes than backed Clinton when she won the county just west of Philadelphia in 2016 — which is also more votes than Trump’s statewide margin that year.
And yet Biden needed every one of those votes because Trump also increased his vote tally in Montco, as he did in Pennsylvania, as he did in the nation. The bottom line is that close to 75 million Americans aren’t revulsed by Donald Trump, but they remain highly revulsed by the people who hate him — those smug elite “pointy-headed” liberals in the media or academia or Hollywood looking down on Trump ... and, thus, on them.
Which raises an important point: How are we ever going to fix America when the people we pay the big bucks to understand America — the media, the pollsters, and folks who run our political parties and (normally) draft party platforms — seem determined to not have a clue about what is happening in the nation’s so-called Heartland. The 2020 race, if nothing else, exposed a lot of wrong-headed thinking about this country. For example:
— The media and its hired pollsters misread the room ... again. In a nation that can’t agree on anything, I think we can all agree that public-opinion polling in America is fundamentally broken, even as the media and large swaths of the politically engaged public remain addicted to their increasingly useless data — at the expense of actual reporting on what Americans think.
It’s not just that Biden underperformed the national polls showing him with a popular-vote lead in the high-single digits (and double digits in a number of reputable surveys), but many Democrats were lulled to sleep by polls showing the party on a seemingly certain track to retake the Senate. Candidates like Maine’s Sara Gideon and North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham, who led in every single poll for months, were blown out on Election Day.
We don’t know what this happened, but I increasingly think there’s something to the notion that a swath of Trump supporters — some call them “shy,” but it seems to me they’re more angry — won’t talk to pollsters because hatred of media is so central to their political beliefs. So why are we even doing this and, to my next point, why are Democratic Party leaders failing to dig deeper to understand why they so often lose these key races?
— Democrats need new leaders and a new approach. The Democrats not only look on the brink of failure in taking the Senate — yes, there’s a tiny pathway with two runoff elections in Georgia, but past experience suggests that trick never works — but also managed to lose House seats in a high-turnout presidential year that traditionally favors their party. Biden’s possible victory doesn’t mean that top Democrats — national chair Tom Perez, or congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi — shouldn’t be held accountable for a collapse that will make it impossible to implement their party’s policy agenda.
Here’s the thing: Voters in a state after state showed a preference for progressive policy ideas, be it legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, a $15 minimum wage in Trump-supporting Florida, or same-sex marriage in Nevada. Yet the preference of party leaders for bland centrist candidates, in an era when Trump has shown that American voters are more willing to be amused to death, isn’t yielding gains in the legislatures where most policies are set. The reasons for this are complicated — the Democrats' faith in social-distance campaigning may have been a unique 2020 problem — but there will be gridlock until something changes.
— Nobody, not Democrats or Republicans or the media, understands America’s Hispanic/Latinx vote. The largest non-white segment of the American electorate are the folks that white progressives like me have been — perhaps stupidly, this piece in Vox argues — calling Latinx, or who traditionally have been known as Hispanics. Yet neither the media nor either Democrats or Republicans seem to have much of a clue about them, and not just what to call them.
The sad history of both the media and white Democrats to view such a diverse voting block — which ranges from Cubans who fled Communism to Mexicans who fled poverty to Texans who’ve been in America for generations — as a monolith led to a surprise when Trump over-performed with these voters. The Democrats need to calibrate their ideas to account for these differences and maybe center their pitch on economics more than immigration. But I also can’t help but wonder that if Republicans had a president who actually wooed all Hispanic voters instead of insulting some, we’d be talking about Trump’s second term right now.
And yet the biggest problem with the 2020 election is that America probably took a step backward on its biggest mountain to climb: Anger and disunity that leads to gridlock in Washington and the threat of violence in our streets. The definition of insanity is doing the same things again and again and expecting different results, right?
It’s time for the nation — both its pundits and its everyday people — to understand that our new national fault line, which in 2020 was the biggest determinant in who voted for Trump or Biden, is higher education: Who has access to it, who doesn’t and why. As long as nearly half the nation is going broke on the paper chase of a job credential called a college diploma, and the other half is shut out (and ridiculed) of a rigged system that pretends it’s a meritocracy, America will remain angry and resentful. And yet we’re barely talking about the solutions — massive public support for universal young-adult education that includes free community college and non-classroom alternatives, or a “gap year” of mandatory civilian service.
Oh well ... maybe in 2024, if we don’t all kill each other before then.