In late October, when I wrote the first draft of this editorial, the polls showed Joe Biden leading Donald Trump by 10 per cent. In that draft, I asked whether this result could lead the Republican Party to eschew Trumpism and return to an earlier, more consensual form of politics if invited to do so by the new President. I concluded that the Democrats could not expect this and should instead make reforming political institutions their priority.
The goal would be to undo the damage caused by the unabashed gerrymandering the Republicans had been doing. Since the 1980s, when the time came for the decennial reapportionment of districts based on population shifts revealed in the census, Republican state legislatures have been especially eager to carve out boundaries to favour their candidates. Typically, central city district boundaries were drawn to include the largest possible number of Democratic (often largely minority) voters and place the rest of the urban population in districts extending into the Republican hinterland, resulting in a false “red” majority in the House of Representatives as well as state legislatures. And with each state, large or small, having two senators, no gerrymandering is needed to ensure that small deindustrializing states are massively overrepresented in the Senate (as well as, to a lesser extent, in the Electoral College), their “red” voters persuaded that immigrants and minorities responsible for their plight run the Democratic Party.
In light of the election results, some rethinking is required. The Biden-Harris ticket’s popular vote margin was four percentage points – much lower than the eight-point margin the final polls predicted, primarily because of especially high turnout among Republicans. Thus Trump was defeated, but Trumpism was not marginalized, and Republicans did significantly better than expected at the congressional and state levels. My guess is that the main explanation for this lies in the GOP door-to-door and mass-rally “stop socialism” campaign, a level of campaigning the Democrats responsibly eschewed because of the pandemic.
What matters most of all, of course is that Trump, to the relief of the civilized world, is on his way out. For all his huffing and puffing, he cannot reverse his defeat in the courts, though most of his supporters will continue to believe his unfounded assertions that the election was stolen. Such an erosion of confidence in the legitimacy of the election process is dangerous in a democracy, at the core of which is losers accepting the results of an election.
Overall, despite concerns, the election went smoothly: American democratic institutions proved resilient. Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President, of a deeply divided country, in January. Still uncertain, as I write this, is what Trump will do in his remaining weeks in office. Once his groundless challenges are rejected, he will lose congressional support if he continues to obstruct the transition. His priority at that point will be to seek pardons and other unsavory deals to keep out of jail and stave off bankruptcy.
From the perspective of those of us focused on the United States from abroad, what matters is that in the most powerful country in the world, corrupt ideologues are giving way to competent professionals taking charge of U.S. foreign and environmental policy. Had Trump been reelected, the few remaining civil servants who could rein him in would have been replaced by ignorant hacks. As Ron Susskind wrote in the New York Times on October 30,
That guy you saw in the debate … bullying, ridiculing, manic, boasting, fabricating, relentlessly interrupting and talking over his opponent. That’s really him … He was all but un-briefable. He couldn’t seem to take in complex information about policy choices … in Oval Office meetings …. He’d switch subjects, go on crazy tangents, abuse and humiliate people, cut them off midsentence … In the middle of a briefing, turn away and … phone … Fox television hosts like Sean Hannity or Lou Dobbs … would instantly become the key voice in the debate … Senior officials … during briefings … would ask Trump friends, members of Congress, assorted notables — to call Mr. Trump not letting on who had put them up to it.
Out of office, will he remain in the political spotlight? Trump’s deciding to be a poor loser, going on TV to mouth outrageous lies about the voting process, weakened him before the court of public opinion and among the inner circles of the Republican Party, if not among the Trumpites. Had he accepted defeat gracefully, he would have been left in a stronger position to shape the future of his party and face his creditors as well as prosecutors, judges and juries. Whatever happens, he will be spending the rest of his life bemoaning how all this could have been avoided if others (not him, ever) had not made the mistakes that lost him the shield of the presidency, including (completely without foundation) conspiring to delay annoucement of the discovery of a vaccine against COVID-19.
But he and his admirers will be around to keep Republicans from acting responsibly. Given the unexpectedly close election results, there will be no second-guessing about their defeat or public repudiation of Trump. Instead they will focus on winning the 2022 midterms. In the interval, they will have to decide to what extent they will try to undermine Biden the way they undermined Obama under Mitch McConnell’s leadership. Much will depend on the outcome of the two Senate runoffs in Georgia, a state unexpectedly, but very narrowly, won by Biden. To have a chance of winning both, rather than fighting on local issues, the Democrats will effectively have to ask voters not to let McConnell once again thwart the agenda of the President they elected.
If that strategy proves successful, and as Trump gradually becomes further discredited with each revelation about his financial shenanigans and criminal activity, a door to some across-the-aisle congressional cooperation could open. Could, say, Susan Collins, who won her Senate seat in Maine while Biden won the state by an even greater margin, threaten to jump ship? I do not rule out such a scenario, but overall I remain pessimistic. Republicans know that, under American institutions, continued polarization assures their return to power down the road.
Among Democrats, soul-searching over the disappointing result is inevitable, but hopefully will not degenerate into a futile blame game between moderates and progressives. The incoming Biden Administration will have its hands full undoing the Trumpian damage at home and abroad, playing a constructive role in addressing climate change, migration, and antidemocratic developments around the world. Biden must be given the space to seek bipartisan support for such efforts, even if they lead nowhere.
So what should the forces mobilized by the Democratic Party against Trump do now? The immediate task is to win the Senate – if not in the Georgia runoffs then in the 2022 midterms. Priority should be placed on efforts to get enough states to inhibit gerrymandering and establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions. More states should adopt the rule that their Electoral College votes will go to the winner of the national popular vote. A second priority is to reduce the impact of money in politics by capping campaign contributions and spending, and by requiring campaigns to publicly disclose the amounts as well the identity of the people or entities that finance political advertising.
Should there be sufficient support for such efforts, the Democrats’ campaign should seek a mandate in 2024 for more sweeping institutional changes that would make it harder for a Trumpian minority to return to power. Such changes would give Republicans an incentive to turn their focus away from angry voters in small red states toward more moderate suburban voters in purple states.
Part of this process would entail making it possible for more candidates from third parties to get elected by eliminating the obstacles to their even getting on the ballot. As it stands, an outsider entering U.S. electoral politics, confronted by such obstacles, effectively has no choice but to enter the primary of a major party, usually the dominant one in the district. The pure two-party system is thus reinforced. This was less of a problem when there was room in the parties for a wide spectrum of views, but now, especially with a Republican Party that demands ideological purity and loyalty to the chief, it is pernicious. If these obstacles were removed, it would make it possible for Never Trump Republicans to win traditionally Republican suburban districts.
Unless and until the American party system becomes more open, the danger will persist. The content of populist demagogy in the United States is like that in old democracies elsewhere, but only in the United States has it come to dominate a major mainstream political party capable of winning a (false) majority. Until the institutions that facilitate this are changed, the way will remain open for an equally dangerous demagogue – one with fewer personality flaws than Trump – to usher in the next populist wave.