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How Biden Did It

(Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

The Economist’s less-than-ringing endorsement of the former Vice President—resignedly titled, ‘Why it has to be Biden’—typifies the sentiment.”

After four years of Donald President Trump and at least as many days of deliberation, it appears there will be a changing of the guard. President-elect Joe Biden has been projected the winner by national media outlets, a narrow victory that came down to razor-thin margins in a handful of states. The race was tighter than expected, with most professional pundits having predicted a victory for the former Vice President by a large margin. Instead, we got a drawn-out showdown—the most expensive election in history and one likely historic in terms of turnout.

Pandemic conditions made for a fraught tallying experience. With record amounts of early voting and many states having widely adopted vote-by-mail for the first time, election workers appeared somewhat overwhelmed, exacerbating extant fears of fraud, intimidation, and other forms of electoral interference that had loomed in the run-up to Election Day. 

As of yet, President Trump has not conceded the election. On the contrary, his campaign is promising litigation in the coming weeks. Nevertheless, under the presumption that President-elect Biden’s victory will not be successfully overturned in court, here are a few initial takeaways from the recent election.

Why Biden Won

One reason might be exhaustion with President Trump’s antics and the reactions they have inspired. The last four years have been crazy-making for many people. Some—maybe even most—of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of the media and other increasingly politicized institutions, which have seen fit to go full boar in their efforts to remove President Trump from office. But the President has been no help to himself in this regard either, having done nothing to deprive his detractors of ammunition—something of a low bar given that so much of the case against him took the form of stylistic and rhetorical criticism.

In fairness to self-styled “Resistance” figures, President Trump’s shortcomings have not been limited to the realm of aesthetics. At The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk details some of President Trump’s more blatantly corrupt actions: 

“Trump has repeatedly interfered in the processes of  awarding federal contracts and  approving corporate mergers to punish companies that have dared to criticize him. He has made  illegal payments, possibly using campaign contributions, to women with whom he has had affairs. He has  fired inspectors general of federal departments when they have uncovered wrongdoing by members of his administration. He has engaged in  blatant nepotism and awarded his son-in-law the  highest level of security clearance over the objections of professionals. He has invoked a  fake national emergency to redirect federal funds toward a political pet project, the wall at the southern border. He has used the resources of his office to  boost companies of friends and allies, and channeled significant sums of  money into his own properties. He has separated thousands of children from their parents, and has  lost track of hundreds of those parents.”

The impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) on President Trump’s political misfortune cannot be overstated either. The pandemic has claimed the lives of over 228,000 Americans to date. As of early October, merely 37% of Americans approved of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic. His perceived failure to get the virus under control may have been responsible for the erosion of some of his support among seniors, whom he won by 7 points in 2016 and only 3 in 2020. His inability to produce a second round of pandemic-related economic stimulus right before the election could not have helped his chances either.

In the end, the level of mutual hostility between the President and virtually every politically upstream institution proved key to both his initial success and subsequent defeat.

Whether or not any of the above would have been or will be better under a Clinton or Biden administration is unknown and ultimately secondary to the present salience of the issues. In the end, the level of mutual hostility between the President and virtually every politically upstream institution proved key to both his initial success and subsequent defeat. The huge differential in institutional support is, in my view, one of the key factors that led to a victory for the President-elect. Even prominent figures in the Republican Party, such as Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake, and John Kasich, were vocal in their opposition to the President.

Notably absent thus far in this analysis is any mention of the President-elect himself. While Joe Biden has been well liked over a long political career, I do not believe there was any special enthusiasm to see him become the 46th president of the United States—even on the part of the candidate, who made himself relatively scarce in the run-up to the election. Journalist Michael Tracey’s accounts of President Trump and President-elect Biden’s respective events describe the former as large, rambunctious gatherings and the latter as small affairs attended solely by party insiders and pre-approved guests. 

It has felt like President-elect Biden was simply the vector by which the true, singular mission—defeat Trump!—was pursued. The Economist’s less-than-ringing endorsement of the former Vice President—resignedly titled, “Why it has to be Biden”—typifies the sentiment. It spends far more time listing President Trump’s flaws than extolling President-elect Biden’s virtues.

What the Next Four Years Might Look Like

A landslide victory for the President-elect could have been interpreted as a repudiation of Trumpism and a strongly voiced desire to return formal control of the country to its rightful meritocratic rulers. In reality, the election was far closer than predicted, and it cannot be said that either the President or his politics have been resoundingly rejected. Democrats will interpret their narrow victory as a mandate at their own peril. 

Additionally, it remains to be seen whether Democrats will control all three decision-making bodies as some had projected. Republican have, as of this writing, picked up at least seven seats in the House and could hold the Senate. Accordingly, it is more difficult to imagine that we are on the precipice of an ambitious first term, as some right-leaning pundits have feared, despite left-activist talk of “expanding” the Supreme Court, a Green New Deal, or other wishlist items bandied about by progressives.

Yet progressive ambition was never the reason President-elect Biden, historically a centrist, was elevated to the role of presidential candidate. The appeal of a Biden presidency (as it has largely been sold to the American public) is the hope that we can put these last four years behind us and return to normal, that people can safely tune out national politics and get on with their lives.

This promise, unfortunately, is largely illusory. Just because President-elect Biden is unlikely to usher in an era of “woke” governance does not mean the highly polarized and acerbic world of politics will change. In fact, I think it may get worse. Here are three reasons why. 

First, while I have no doubt that President-elect Biden will prove a more congenial president than President Trump has been, it will take more than conciliatory rhetoric to repair the damage (much of it self-inflicted) done to key American civic organs. In their zeal to expel President Trump from office, many American institutions—from prestige media outlets to Internet platforms to the dictionary itself—have subtly and not-so-subtly contorted themselves to take an active stance against what they described as an existential threat to American democracy.

By doing so, they have compromised their roles as apolitical actors, and, in the eyes of many, they have lost their credibility in the process. This might sound like a good thing to those who have a bone to pick with the supposedly meritocratic ruling elite, but it probably is not. These institutions, when functioning properly, are crucial to a republic. They allow us to form a common, baseline understanding of reality, the dissolution of which is caustic to any nation and much more so to a country that insists on thinking of itself as epitomizing “an idea.” We can no longer agree on matters that should be matters of objective truth, let alone a national mythology.

If this happens, establishment Democratic figures will need to manufacture a common enemy to keep the Left in line.

Secondly, the coalition that brought President-elect Biden to the White House may prove unstable. Although both President-elect Biden and his Vice President-elect have shown a willingness to rhetorically placate progressives, they do not appear likely to deliver many legislative wins for the Left. The mismatch between their verbal concessions and their likely policy and staffing decisions could set the stage for intra-party conflict. If this happens, establishment Democratic figures will need to manufacture a common enemy to keep the Left in line. Already the goal posts are being moved, and elected officials and party apparatchiks are signaling their desire to continue the Manichean feud.

The third reason is a matter of simple economics. The last four years have been a huge boon to media companies old and new. The outrage machine generates clicks and revenues that are simply too good to pass up. Production must continue apace.

The Future of the Republican Party and the Right

Traditional Republicans may be glad to be rid of him, but President Trump’s time in office has undeniably re-oriented the GOP—or at least shown it a new path forward. Although he did not win, President Trump greatly exceeded expectations, and all available evidence suggests he managed to do it by picking up support among demographics that have not traditionally been known to support Republicans: black men, Hispanics, and members of the LGBT community. Hispanic support, in particular, will likely prove crucial to the future of the GOP. That day-of voting seems to have favored Republicans speaks to the extent to which the socioeconomic statuses of the parties’ respective bases have flipped relative to decades past. 

Given the overwrought but ubiquitous talk of an “emerging Democratic majority,” the prospect of diversifying their support should appeal greatly to Republicans. And, as a matter of opinion, a multi-racial, working-class coalition will bring about a better incarnation of right-of-center politics than have the narrow business interests that have dominated the Republican Party for decades. What remains to be seen is whether some form of right-populism can endure within the GOP or whether it is back to business as usual.

In addition, it has become obvious that the institutional deficit must be addressed. As once-neutral institutions have become viewed—rightly or wrongly—as left-leaning, the Right must work on establishing reputable alternatives or re-establishing themselves within existing institutions. The failure to do so is equivalent to forever ceding claims of factual neutrality and the ability to manufacture public opinion to the Left. 

A more vibrant right-of-center party, grounded in working-class politics and possessing its own epistemic prowess, would be a boon to all Americans—including those who would stand in its opposition. If we get nothing else out of the last four years, it will have all been worth it.

Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He studied sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter @EdwardFerrara_

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