After two months of uncertainty the 2020 election cycle has finally been completed. As usual, it has provided us with significant information about our electorate and the issues that motivate them. And as usual, the analyses provided by our political leaders and pundits are a mixture ranging from learned wisdom to wishful thinking. But there was much about this election that was not usual. The fact that it occurred during a world-wide pandemic, a disease that struck the United States especially hard, inspired worries that voter turnout would be significantly reduced. That did not happen, in large part because of the other extraordinary election irregularity; the personal characteristics of one candidate, the incumbent president.
Voter involvement in the 2020 election was historic. This was true both in the presidential election in November and in the runoff election in Georgia in January. Records were set in the number of votes received by the winning and losing candidates for president and in the number of votes tallied in the runoff. The punditocracy was correct in attributing this high voter activity to one factor; the high positive and negative voter reactions to the tenure of President Trump. A similar, mostly negative factor was also significant in the 2018 mid-terms.
Where the expert opinions went wrong was in interpreting the mixed results coming from the various levels of the election. Joe Biden won by a large margin, but Republicans prevailed in more of the down-ballot races. They did not regain majority control of the House of Representatives, but reduced the margin. In the Senate the GOP lost control, but not by as much as had been expected. In response, many analysts resurrected the old chestnut that “Americans like divided government”. Well, no. A more applicable generalization would be that all politics is local. The reality, in my own humble opinion, is that the Democrats were a bit too successful in their record turnout in 2018, and 2020 was in large part a balancing event. To illustrate this, I will refer to my own state of New Mexico, which trends blue. The state has three representatives in the House. Two of those, and the two senators, have trended Democrat in the past decade. But in the 38 years beginning in 1981 the second congressional district had been GOP country for all but two years. Then in 2018 a record turnout of Democratic voters pushed Xochitl Torres-Small into a close victory over GOP Trump supporter Yvette Harrell. That was a fluke. In 2020 Harrell ran again and gained an easy win because of the resurgence of support for the president. As I write this, half of the ten seats lost by the Democrat House in the 2020 election were representatives who had won close races in 2018 in districts that Trump won in 2016. Up to 30 House Democrats were fighting for re-election on GOP turf, in districts Trump had won in 2016, and many of them were targeted by a record expenditure of Republican money. That’s why the GOP did well down-ballot.
Remember also that Trump lost the 2020 race despite attracting a record number of votes, and only failed because the Biden campaign attained an even larger record count. The Republican electorate obviously was more motivated in 2020 than in 2018 and their participation both surprised the pollsters in many states and increased the chances for GOP down-ballot candidacies. Whatever the result was, it wasn’t because our citizens prefer division in our federal government.
Another hypothesis, forwarded mostly by centrist Democrats, was that their party lost seats because some members had forwarded such progressive ideas as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and Defunding the Police. Admittedly, many centrist candidates were attacked by election ads that claimed that they were in the pocket of “socialists” such as Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That couldn’t have been a comfortable experience. However, the effects of such ads are probably being exaggerated. Progressive policies are regularly approved in polls by large majorities, and Ocasio-Cortez has noted that “every single swing-seat House Democrat who endorsed Medicare for All won re-election.” The centrist complaint also ignores that fact that if Democrats themselves had not brought up any progressive ideas, Republicans would have happily invented other labels and memes that they could use in their election spin. The many bogus charges attributed to Hillary Clinton in 2016 are ample proof of that.
The November 3rd general election was act one of the election cycle. There were delays in vote counting, largely due to the need to process the massive increase in absentee and mail-in ballots caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even so, the presidential race was completed, and Joe Biden declared the winner, by November 7th. Attention then shifted to act two, the double runoff for both of the senate seats from Georgia (one a regular six-year position, the other a special election to finish out the last two years of a term ended by resignation). The GOP ad strategy in both races was similar to those in other states, with the primary difference being some race-baiting efforts against the black Democrat. Despite that, and with some help from bumbling off-target statements from Trump, the Democrats won. Again, all politics are local. As in other states, the Georgia results pitted urban counties, which ran 70 to 80 percent for Democrats, against rural counties that voted for Republicans by similar percentages. If there are any generalizations to be gained from that, it could have something to do with the dominance of conservative talk radio in rural areas and the concentration of minorities in cities. In any case, act two completed the electorate’s rejection of Trump governance.
The third act of the election is in progress as I write these words. It involves the refusal of the incumbent president to concede his loss and his continuing delusions, over the course of several months, that the Biden win was the result of widespread fraud—bogus ballots, voting by dead people and non-citizens, manipulation of machine tabulation, lies by election officials. Those fraud allegations have been incorporated into more than sixty lawsuits filed in federal and state courts across the nation. All but one of these cases have failed in court for lack of evidence, and two more general attempts were rejected out of hand by the Supreme Court for the same reasons. Those same allegations, however, have had significant impacts in the public sphere. Months of repetition in right-wing broadcast and social-media outlets has convinced millions that the presidential election was, in fact, stolen and that President Trump should have won. Indeed, as Trump himself tells it, he did win by a landslide.
At this point Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States on January 20th, but he inherits a nation that is divided by widely divergent interpretations of reality. The majority, certainly, accept his election and are ready to move on. A different significant percentage, however, including most Republicans, has become devoted to conspiracy theories telling them that the Republican Party is defending their values, but that the presidential election was stolen and that their votes were negated, adding strength to the following disruptive beliefs: (1) Future participation in elections is useless; (2) The agenda of the Democratic Party is aimed at imposing immorality and “socialist policies” through illegal efforts, efforts that will, in effect, destroy the United States; (3) Only militant action can be effective in restoring Republican rule and saving the country from collapse.
The potential danger of these beliefs was displayed clearly on January 6th when a mob of thousands, most wearing Trump’s MAGA hats and carrying extreme right-wing flags—pro-Trump, Gadsden, Qanon, Confederate—and shouting pro-Trump chants, marched from a provocative and incendiary White House rally directly to the national Capitol Building. There they broke in and trashed many congressional offices. They would have physically attacked congressional leaders if they had been able to find them. Their attack halted the ceremonial joint meeting that was being held by Congress to certify the results of the 2020 election; one of their goals was, in fact, to stop that certification. This was an attempted insurrection by people who had come to believe that violent insurrection was their only viable option; with no trace of irony, they called it the “Save America Rally.”
A timely article in the December 28, 2020 issue of The Nation provides a look at the dangers we are facing. It is a review, by philosophy professor Peter E. Gordon, of the life and ideas of Theodor Adorno, a historian who studied the rule of the Nazis in Germany and other authoritarian regimes. As Gordon writes:
“any attempt to explain mass politics purely in institutional terms or as an expression of rational self-interest will miss the underlying factors that make authoritarianism an enduring temptation… Every society, [Adorno] admitted, has its residue of ‘incorrigibles.’ But a mass movement is not made of them alone. It consists of ordinary men and women who are no more irrational than the world they inhabit. If their politics are irrational, this is only because they make explicit the systemic irrationality of the social whole… For Adorno, democracy is not a full-fledged reality that fascism has damaged; it is an ideal that has yet to be realized and that, as long as it betrays its promise, will continue to spawn movements of resentment and paranoid rebellion.”
The election of President Trump in 2016 was an expression of widespread malaise and discontent with government policies that had created decades of economic stagnation among ordinary workers. This formed an irrational system that was seen as broadly unfair. Trump’s election messages and right-wing media capitalized on the anger of ordinary voters. In rejecting President Trump in the 2020 election cycle, the United States dodged a bullet. However, that bullet was created and eventually fired by the effects of decades of growing inequality and irrationality in the social structures of the country. It will return if we don’t manage to make our political and economic policies more reasonable.