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Nine days on, 10 things we've learned
Written by Alex Massie
12 November 2020
This week, I offer you a list. Here are 10 conclusions to be drawn from this year’s American elections.
1. The election was both close and clear-cut
A wide-angle view confirms that Joe Biden won this election handsomely. Nationwide, he won more than five million more votes than Donald Trump. By comparison, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes in 2016. If this was not quite the repudiation of Trumpism that Democrats – and much of the world – thirsted for, it still represents a decisive victory.
On the other hand, and on a macro level, the race really was uncomfortably close for Democrats. Some 150 million Americans voted and – at the time of writing – had 150,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia gone the other way, Trump would have won his second term. Of course, that is the nature of swing states and if Biden always seemed to have more paths to victory than Trump, it remains the case that many of them were precariously narrow. A comfortable lead in the popular vote and, in the end, a clear victory in the electoral college is not the same as a thumping victory overall.
2. Trump is a loser
Trump is just the fourth sitting president to be unhorsed by the American electorate since Franklin D Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office. He joins Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George HW Bush as an incumbent rejected by the people. Ford at least had the excuse of being haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam and Nixon, while Bush senior’s defeat came after 12 years of Republican presidency, a period of one-party domination unknown since FDR owned the White House. As always, the rule of small numbers cautions us against making sweeping generalisations based on presidential election patterns; nonetheless, it is rare for a sitting president to lose and Donald Trump is a loser. Many people have waited a long, long time to be able to say that.
3. Trump is a loser who cannot accept he is a loser
There is no requirement for a defeated candidate to officially concede the race, but it is no surprise Trump is the rare presidential candidate prepared to contest the result of an election whose result cannot seriously be contested. This is not Bush-Gore, Florida 2000. Convinced of his own genius, it follows that a Trump defeat can only be explained by fraud and assorted other kinds of chicanery. Since he cannot be wrong, he must have been cheated. Eventually it will dawn on the rest of the Republican party that this is not the case. Talk of a coup, as Trump clings to what is left of his authority, and sacks senior figures in the Department of Defence, is over-heated but both typical of the age and just the kind of denouement Trump always promised. This is a symptom of weakness, not strength. Even if he wished to mount some kind of constitutional coup, he’d lack the competency to carry it off.
4. The GOP keeps losing the popular vote, but it still has a future
By sticking with Trump, even if only to avoid hurting the president’s feelings, the Republican party is, for now, doubling-down on a school of politics that cannot win the popular vote. The margin for GOP victories, at least at a presidential level, is narrowing. Each year the electorate becomes a little less white; a little more diverse. Paradoxically, however, Trump also showed what the Republican party could achieve with a less divisive, more persuasive, figurehead. He actually increased his share of the black and Hispanic votes, albeit from a miserably low level in the former instance.
Ra-ra populism, whilst untethered to any coherent policy agenda, has a greater appeal than many progressives like to think, and that appeal is by no means confined to states such as Kentucky or West Virginia. It is not difficult to imagine a Republican candidate that grafted a pro-family policy agenda onto patriotic boosterism winning the next presidential election. If, that is, they can find such a candidate.
5. The Democratic coalition is wide but shallow
A less uncouth president might have fared better in the suburbs (and especially done better with suburban women voters) but the tensions within the Democratic coalition are as obvious as they are unavoidable. Black Lives Matter is a slogan that plays rather better for Democrats in Brooklyn than it does for Democrats in the suburbs of Cincinnati or Milwaukee. There, voters may certainly agree that black lives matter – because of course they do – but they may also suspect, fairly or not, that the slogan necessarily downplays the importance of their own lives. White privilege may be real, but it is also relative.
In like fashion, ‘Defund the police’ is a slogan all but guaranteed to shift voters towards the party that promises to uphold law and order. America’s policing and criminal justice systems are a malignant tumour within the republic, but reform, not abolition, is both better policy and better politics. The summer of protest that followed the scandalous death of George Floyd may have energised many Democratic voters, but it also scared plenty of other, quieter, Americans. There is a lesson there for both parties.
6. Joe Biden was an under-rated candidate
‘Sleepy Joe’ got the job done and he got it done twice. If a candidate is constantly derided – ancient, doddery, unexciting, bland, out-of-touch and all the rest of it – yet also ends up defeating all his challengers, then it may be time to reconsider his merits. Biden beat every Democrat and then he beat an incumbent president. That must count for something, not least since the latter outcome is, as we have seen, a rare one. The progressive idea that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump too is one that I suspect owes more to wishful thinking than reality. If one party vacates the centre, it little profits the other to leave it empty too. In that respect, the parameters of any election are usually set by the incumbent. Trump left a Biden-sized hole in the middle of American politics and Biden was, well, the candidate best-suited to fill it.
7. But Biden’s coat-tails were short
Biden outperformed the Democratic candidates in House and Senate races across the country. That both indicated the extent to which he was more popular than his party – something the left might care to ponder but probably will not – and the limits of his ability to drive down-ticket votes to Democratic candidates. Many presidential votes were cast against Trump; more than they were for Biden. Partly as a consequence of that, the Senate seems likely to remain in Republican hands. That constrains Biden’s ability to deliver sweeping change but then, since the offer of a return to decency and normal politics was his greatest promise, this may not disconcert American voters as much as some might think. There will be change, of course, notably a greater emphasis on matters such as climate change, but perhaps the greatest – both in terms of challenge and opportunity – will be making the federal government a professional enterprise once again. If he achieved nothing else but this, Biden would have achieved plenty.
8. Biden will re-engage with the world
This should not be confused with any expectation that the divisions apparent during the Trump years will be easily healed. Trump, by virtue of his virtue-free character and attitude, allowed many of these divisions to be ignored. Why bother asking big questions if the American president had no interest in dialogue or answering any of them. Nevertheless, these cannot be ducked forever. In Europe, especially, some of these conversations will be difficult. The continent has relied upon the United States for its security for seventy years. That has been to the great benefit of both parties. Nevertheless, China’s rise now means European countries will have to answer this question: is China a competitor (as the US believes it is) or a partner (as Germany believes)? If the answer is – as it actually is – a bit of both, how is that balance struck? Similar questions might be asked about relations with Russia.
An absence of American leadership, as seen these past four years, means these questions can be left alone. That may one day be seen as a kind of holiday from history. In terms of global problems requiring global solutions, the United States remains the planet’s indispensable nation. Even so, America’s relative decline is not going to be reversed in the next four years and managing that – without also encouraging a fresh outbreak of resentful nationalist sentiment at home – is among the greatest challenges President Biden faces.
9. Biden and Britain will (probably) get along fine
Interests beat personalities. Biden, and many within his team, may have a low opinion of Boris Johnson but the security, intelligence, and military relationships between the US and the UK render that a comparatively trivial matter. Maintaining those partnerships, however, requires the UK to boost its capacities in these areas. Britain’s degraded military capability has not gone unnoticed in Washington.
Brexit, meanwhile, risks leaving Britain less useful to – and therefore more distant from – the United States. Scottish independence, regardless of its merits or dangers, would confirm Britain’s status as a fast-declining power. Biden is not anti-British, whatever excitable right-wing commentators here may think, but he does appear to take the view that international commitments, notably with regard to Northern Ireland, should be upheld. Unfashionable and even old-fashioned, but there you go.
10. Britain is not America and America is not Britain
The temptation to look to trends apparent in the United States and then transfer these to the United Kingdom is both hard to resist and something which should be resisted. Donald Trump may have suggested Boris Johnson was a “British Trump” but that does not, in fact, make it so. Populism, indeed, is fast becoming a catch-all term so broadly applied it risks becoming as meaningless as ‘neoliberal’ or ‘neoconservative’ have already become.
The ‘read across’ from Washington to London is always less useful and less wide-ranging than pundits – and, hell, I’ll plead guilty to this too – would often have you think. There are relatively few lessons that may be drawn from this American election and then applied to British politics. Save, perhaps, this one: the current temperature of American politics should be considered a warning, not an example. As its best, the United States remains a great shining city upon the hill, but we have seen too little of this in recent times and, far from importing the best of American public life to this country, too many people appear determined to copy its grosser, more damaging, habits. This too is something which should be resisted.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.