There’s No Going Back by Harry Clennon ’21
In the late hours of November 3rd, 2020, America held its breath. With the broken “blue wall” of the Upper Midwest still hanging in the balance, and Arizona and Georgia still open questions, President Donald Trump was performing more competitively than pre-election polls had indicated he would. Nonetheless, his leads in key battleground states crept lower into the night and the early morning, as poll workers turned to the counting of absentee ballots heavily favoring former Vice President Joe Biden. By mid-day Wednesday, close observers of the election knew where the final count would stand.
Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, and it was not particularly close. To be sure, his margins of victory in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin are small, less than twenty five thousand votes in each state, but he will likely win the popular vote by around five percent, with a larger vote share than any challenger since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and with 306 electoral votes, the same number that Donald Trump won in his stunning 2016 upset over Hillary Clinton. Biden ran a far more competent campaign than his most of detractors on the right or the left are willing to credit him with, and his decades of experience in Washington, D.C. mean that he will act as a skilled executive manager of the federal bureaucracy with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking a few glass ceilings as the first female, first Black, and first Asian-American Vice President. In some ways, one might say that American democracy worked, ousting a historically unpopular and authoritarian incumbent in the midst of his incredible mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden’s message, centered on a return to normalcy, the elevation of marginalized communities, and the idea that the United States is better than Donald Trump, might be interpreted as having prevailed.
A cynical realist, however, would argue that this is not the case. Down the ballot, results were disappointing for Democrats. The GOP gained upwards of seven seats in the House of Representatives, and while Democrats flipped one net seat in the Senate (they gained seats in Colorado and Arizona but lost Doug Jones’ seat in Alabama) and have an outside shot at control of the Senate in two runoff elections in Georgia, the party came up short in races it hoped to win in Maine, North Carolina, Iowa, and Montana. Republicans maintained an upper hand in control of state governments, offering them the opportunity to hold in place the state legislative and congressional district maps that offered them such decisive victories throughout the past decade. All of this suggests that there was something of a repudiation of Donald Trump, but not the Republican Party. It is not clear which party Americans prefer to govern them. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had expressed a desire to work with President-elect Biden in the opening days and months of his presidency, one might reasonably say that the United States is on a path to return to consensus-driven bipartisanship.
This is not what happened. President Trump, who, it should be noted, won the second highest raw vote total of all time (after President-elect Biden), has refused to concede the election and his campaign has mounted a series of legal challenges in battleground states with the objective of throwing out many or all of the absentee ballots that led Biden to victory. Of the lawsuits filed so far, almost all have been rejected, but, disturbingly, Republicans in the House, the Senate, and across conservative media (barring a few exceptions) have refused to acknowledge Biden as the President-elect. Their reactions have ranged from coy assertions that the Trump campaign is within its rights to pursue “all legal avenues,” to overt speculation that President Trump is the rightful winner of the 2020 election. This is a ploy to hamstring Biden before he takes office, to hold a specter of illegitimacy over him as an excuse to block his political agenda. Additionally, it indicates the impossibility for elected Republicans of leaving Trump behind, given the extraordinary hold he maintains on the party. The conservative lean of the Electoral College and the Senate suggests that Republicans will be able to maintain and perhaps even extend their vice grip on power despite Democrats winning a slight majority of votes in most presidential and midterm elections of the past two decades. If they resolutely refuse to participate in the necessary process of compromise, government will grind to a permanent halt.
Another problem stands in the way of Biden’s hopeful refrain of a return to normalcy: the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The grassroots movement begun by Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign in 2016 has manifested in a growing number of electoral successes for left-wing Democrats in the House of Representatives. Rightly, these progressives see issues like climate change and increasing inequality in need of urgent action, and the Democratic Party as a chronically impotent vehicle for confronting them. A flareup between Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her moderate colleague Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger suggests that intra-party fighting will be a drag on Biden’s ability to broker political compromise. Progressives, in contrast to Biden, see the old era of bipartisan comity–not incorrectly–as utterly inadequate to the moment, and their case is bolstered by the Republican party’s outright refusal to work across the aisle on the most critical issues of our time.
If I am right, and Biden’s vision for the future is limited to the shrinking establishment wing of the Democratic Party, then it is a vision doomed to fail. With one end of the political spectrum demanding that the system must change and change now and the other moving ever-closer to a goal of minoritarian rule with no room for political compromise, there can be no going back. Surely it would be preferable to have a consensus-driven government that works, even incrementally, to resolve the looming crises facing the United States, but the experiences of the past decades and the recent weeks following the election do not inspire much confidence.
Joe’s Promise by Philip Brain ’21
On November 7, 2020, Joe Biden declared victory in the Presidential Election. After four grueling days of vote-counting, hope, despair, and dispute, the answer had become clear, and Biden had his mandate—though the childish disputation rages fruitlessly, embarrassingly on. But what is Joe Biden’s mandate? In his words that night, “Americans have called upon us to marshal the forces of decency, the forces of fairness, to marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time…To restore the soul of America.”
With a Senate most likely to be divided—unless the DNC should work some miracle in Georgia—Joe Biden’s vision for American politics is going to require bipartisanship, but it’s likely he’d pursue it even if he didn’t have to. His campaign has been laser-focused on a rhetoric targeted at dialing back polarization and lowering the temperatures of our heated political confrontations. The question remains, though, whether cooperation and compromise is even basically possible in our so-called “world’s greatest deliberative body.”
If you are looking for a dreamlike, rosy-pictured prediction to counterbalance the grim image offered by my co-editor Harry, this is unlikely to satisfy you. But, it may offer some grounding for some moderated hopes for American politics.
Biden has a strong history as a man of friendliness and forgiveness, of moderation and bipartisanship. This was the core of his promise that he was uniquely suited to bring back moderation and compromise, to restore the soul of America and push our institutions to a “return to regular order,” to quote the late John McCain. Compared to the other Democratic candidates of 2020, that may just be right. Buttigieg had no experience in DC deal-making. Sanders never had any interest in it, even with Democrats. Warren had brilliant policy plans, but they could never stand a chance with Republican control of the Senate. The list goes on, and Biden’s track record as a man with a distinct capability of finding the political center and his stubborn rhetoric of flexibility offer some hope that he is the man to get it done. After all, it was Biden who orchestrated multiple bipartisan legislative efforts during the Obama presidency.
It’s likely too that many Republicans see this potential in Biden. In this recent election, Biden’s success was greatly ballooned by down-ballot Republican voters. Some credit the campaigning efforts of organizations like the Lincoln Project or the Republican Voters Against Trump—the latter founded by the highly accomplished Kenyon alumna Sarah Longwell ‘02—which targeted these voters to break with Trump for Biden’s promises of bipartisanship and democratic values. It’s possible that Republican elected officials see this desire from their supporters and change strategies to work with Biden, but it will be a hard change to make.
The Republican strategy of constant opposition was largely pioneered by Newt Gingrich and has since taken very strong hold of the party. Gingrich in 1998 declared that American Politics was “war” and nothing else. This tact has been taken up by Mitch McConnell who swore to do his damndest to sabotage Obama so badly he could never acquire a second term. The GOP—failing to win a popular vote since 1988 besides George W. Bush’s mid-war election in 2004—has embraced a strategy of minority rule and obstructionism which has enhanced their legislative weight and is unlikely to be abandoned easily. This combative strategy has, unsurprisingly, deepened America’s polarization and heightened political tensions to the point that political opponents are now enemies.
Unfortunately, this strategy has made the salve for American politics both of greatest necessity and near-impossibility. America has been deeply polarized before, and leaders have been found fit to lead us out of our chasms of division, but it is not likely that Joe Biden has the same force of personality as Lyndon Johnson, for example. To make things worse, the increasingly prominent left wing of his party has moved away from compromise as a political value. Radical problems may demand radical solutions, but radical solutions demand total commitment which may be simply impossible. Not only will Biden have to pull moderate Republicans into his fold but radical Democrats too.
As I said above, Biden is almost unquestionably the one prominent member of his party most suited to the task at hand. It remains a distinct possibility Biden’s old relationships with Republicans, strange path to electoral success, and uncanny ability to make “everything he does become the new reasonable” may pave America a new path to normalcy, but that does not make it a foregone conclusion. It will take spirited statesmanship, indelible dedication, and an unusual commitment to country over party from many for whom those two things are the same. But, Joe Biden has a chance, and we have to give it some hope.
The only question then that remains is why I would write an article like this when I am ultimately so skeptical of Biden’s odds of pulling off what would be an enormous political feat. Put simply, I see no other way for things to improve, for our democracy to survive the long haul in which we have begun to falter so severely. I see no other possibility for hope.
If there is one thing we learned from the Obama presidency, it is that hope does not always bring change, but without hope there can never be change.