election results

The 2020 Election Has Brought Progressives to the Brink of Catastrophe

Social democracy dies in Bangor. Photo: Robert F Bukaty/AP/Shutterstock

This week, the American left clambered out of hell, only to find itself condemned to political purgatory.

Barring an act of malign intervention, Donald Trump will be a one-term president. As of this writing, Joe Biden has won 253 Electoral College votes, with expected wins pending in Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, and decent odds of eking past the president in Georgia. If you’d told Democrats one year ago that their nominee would reassemble the party’s “blue wall” in the Midwest – and make long-awaited gains in the Sun Belt, to boot – they would have been ecstatic. Today, they’ve brought less ecstasy to blue America than an amalgam of relief and despair. And for good reason: The 2020 election was likely a nigh-catastrophic setback for progressive politics in the United States.

If America were the kind of republic where a party could govern by winning the most votes, Democrats would be in excellent shape: The party has won the popular vote in all but one election since 1992; no other party in U.S. has ever won popular backing for its standard-bearer as many times in a three decade period. But we are not that kind of polity. Instead, we operate under an archaic Constitutional framework that awards individual voters wildly different levels of political power, depending on where in the country they happen to live: A voter in Wyoming enjoys 70-times as much influence in the U.S. Senate as one in California, due to a population disparity between the two states that is much larger than any that existed at the time of the founding (at which point, many framers already found the concept of equal representation for states in the upper chamber, irrespective of population, to be an outrageous if necessary compromise).

Due to the abundance of thinly populated, rural, overwhelming white states in the South and West, the Senate currently has a 6-point bias in favor of the Republican Party; which is to say, given the existing major party coalitions, Democrats are unlikely to win the “tipping point” state in the Senate (i.e. the one need to secure a bare majority) unless the party is winning nationally by 6 percent or more. Of course, this is an illustrative abstraction: In real life, all 100 Senate seats aren’t on the ballot in a single election cycle, and Democrats have longtime incumbents like Joe Manchin and John Tester, who’ve managed to hold their own in increasingly Republican states.

But urban-rural polarization is steadily intensifying in the United States, while ticket splitting – the practice of voting for one party at the presidential level and another down-ballot – is becoming less common (though it’s possible the data from this election will reveal an uptick). Taken together, this has made it harder for Democrats to retain seats in Republican territory (even in the wave election year of 2018, Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill got evicted from the Senate), or to mint new Manchins and Testers (Montana governor Steve Bullock lost by nearly double-digits in his Senate race last night).

This state of affairs makes it exceedingly difficult for the Democratic Party to win control of the Senate, while remaining faithful to the aspirations of its predominantly urban base. In the view of Democratic data scientist David Shor, 2020 was the party’s last, best chance to win a Senate majority for the foreseeable future: Red-state incumbents Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, and Sherrod Brown held onto their seats in 2018 – with the help of a historically Democratic national environment – but are unlikely to be so lucky when they are on the ballot again in 2024. Thus, the party’s best hope was to eke out a majority in 2020, while it still had votes in unlikely places – and then, to use that majority to award statehood to Democratic leaning territories like D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, thereby mitigating the coalition’s structural disadvantage.

On Tuesday, Democrats likely missed their shot. To win a Senate majority (after Doug Jones’s inevitable loss to a non-child molester Republican in Alabama), Democrats needed to flip four Republican seats without losing any more of their own. Their most plausible path for hitting that mark was to win races in Maine, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina. But Susan Collins won handily in Maine, and Thom Tillis appears to have bested Cal Cunningham in the Tar Heel State. That leaves Democrats two seats short of a bare majority.

The party still retains an outside shot at capturing those two seats: It looks like both of Georgia’s Senate races are headed for January run-off elections between the top two finishers, with Republican Kelly Loefller facing off against Democratic pastor Raphael Warnock, and Republican David Perdue taking on former Barack Obama impersonator Jon Ossoff. The odds of Democrats sweeping these races aren’t great. Generally speaking, in special elections held right after presidential ones, the party that’s just lost the White House tends to enjoy a turnout advantage, as winners get complacent while losers thirst for vengeance. Further, if Ossoff forces Perdue into a run-off, he will do so only barely: Perdue needed 50 percent plus a single vote to win reelection Tuesday; he appears likely to finish with something in the neighborhood of 49.9 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, anyone with remotely progressive political commitments should contribute anything they can to winning these two races.

If Democrats fail to pull off an improbable triumph in the Peach State, then the Biden presidency will be doomed to failure before it starts. With Mitch McConnell in control of the Senate, Biden will not be allowed to appoint a Supreme Court justice, or appoint liberals to major cabinet positions, or sign his name to a major piece of progressive legislation; and that may very well mean that the U.S. government will not pass any significant climate legislation, or expansion of public health insurance, or immigration reform, or gun safety law this decade.

With Biden in the White House, there is a good chance that Republicans will grow their majority in 2022, as the GOP will enjoy the turnout advantage that almost always accrues to the president’s opposition in midterms. Two years later, Democrats are more likely than not to lose their aforementioned red-state incumbents. Extrapolate from current demographic trends, and Democrats don’t take the Senate again until 2028 or later.

To be sure, one interpretation of last night’s results is that one should not presume that existing voting patterns will carry forward. Ten years ago, Republicans built their gerrymanders around the presumption of suburbia’s conservatism; the faultiness of that presumption is a large part of why Democrats now have a House majority. Four years ago, the growing Hispanic share of the electorate was seen as an existential threat to the Republican Party; in 2020, it was a critical source of strength for Donald Trump.

All this said, urban-rural polarization is a phenomenon with deep roots in the United States, and most other advanced democracies. The Democratic Party has always derived disproportionate support from big cities and densely populated industrial centers. During the New Deal era, this liability was offset by northern liberals’ uneasy alliance with the white supremacist South, an arrangement that (thankfully) proved unsustainable. Democrats certainly have room to moderate on issues that divide urban and rural America. But whether such triangulation will be sufficient to compensate for their party’s association with urban liberalism is far from clear; the fact that Joe Biden’s unceasing apologias for the private insurance industry were insufficient to prevent much of southern Florida from deeming him a socialist is not encouraging on this point. At the very least then, progressives must treat the notion that Republicans now have a hammerlock on the Senate as a serious possibility.

The Electoral College is a bit less problematic for blue America. Contrary to the claims of its defenders and detractors alike, America’s bizarre approach to electing presidents does less to empower rural voters, or balance regional interests, than to inject an extra dose of contingency into history. Yes, the number of Electoral College votes afforded to each state is not proportional to population. But the bigger bias comes from the winner-take-all nature of the system: whichever party happens to be at 51 or 52 percent of the (major party) vote – in whichever populous states happen to be close at that point in time – enjoys an arbitrary advantage. At the present moment, that advantage accrues strongly to Republicans. But it’s plausible that Georgia, North Carolina, and eventually, perhaps, Texas, will become light blue states, at which point, the partisan bias will reverse.

Nevertheless, Biden’s narrow margins in the Electoral College – in a contest against a Republican incumbent with historically high disapproval, high unemployment, a declining stock market on the eve of the election, and a pandemic that he spent the final weeks of the campaign conspicuously spreading and advertising his indifference about containing – can’t help but make Democrats nervous about their odds of retaining power in 2024. Further, the aforementioned rightward shift in Hispanic voting patterns adds to such anxieties. If Biden wins the popular vote by 5 points – quite plausible given the vote left to count – while flipping Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by slim margins, then one might reasonably categorize those states as “light red” in a more neutral national environment. For a few years now, Democratic strategists have seen an emerging blue majority in the Sun Belt as a potential replacement for an increasingly tenuous Rust Belt coalition. But the former was and is highly dependent on the party retaining the lion’s share of the Hispanic vote. If non-college-educated Latinos assimilate into Republicanism like the “white ethnics” of yore, the Democrats’ electoral math in Nevada and Arizona could become more challenging.

The bad news for Democrats extends to the one site of federal power where they had appeared to be building strength, if not a structural advantage: The House of Representatives. As the borders of blue America extended farther into the suburbs, it was possible to imagine that Republicans would eventually see their base of support become more geographically concentrated in rural areas than the Democratic Party’s base was in cities, leading the GOP to “waste” more votes by running up the score in exurban districts. But, contrary to expectations, Democrats did not fortify and expand their caucus Tuesday night; rather they surrendered recently won suburban districts on their way to a significant loss of seats.

Making matters worse, as of this writing, Democrats have failed to flip control of any state legislative chambers ahead of next year’s House redistricting. To the contrary, Democrats lost control of the New Hampshire state Senate and Alaska state House. Now, the GOP boasts full control of state government (and thus, of redistricting) in 22 states, while Democrats control only nine. This will enable Republicans to produce a new and improved gerrymandered House and state legislative maps for the next decade of elections (gerrymanders that may be further enhanced by a shoddy Census that undercounts Democratic constituencies).

Finally, although liberals can take heart at a major victory in Florida’s $15 minimum wage referendum, and various drug decriminalization or legalization ballot measures across the country, some of the most basic premises of progressive politics were rejected by voters in the bluest of U.S. states. In California, voters rolled back the labor rights of rideshare drivers and rejected a proposal for affirmative action, while in Illinois, a majority of voters refused to free their state from a constitutional obstacle to raising taxes on those who earn over $250,000 a year in the middle of a fiscal crisis. There is little reason to think that the latter outcome reflects the unpopularity of raising taxes on the affluent; heaps of polling indicate that there is broad, bipartisan support for soaking the rich. But the outcome does testify to the fact that moneyed interests are capable of poisoning even the most broadly appealing of progressive ideas in the minds of the public through well-funded propaganda campaigns.

So, what is to be done? How are we to make this country less cruel and unequal at home, and a less destructive force on the world stage? How are we do so within a political culture so pathological, a president can shamelessly abet the spread of  a fatal disease – and still come a few lucky breaks short of reelection? How, when increasing voter turnout to levels unseen in a century did not produce a Democratic landslide – as progressives have long told themselves high turnout would – but rather, a down-ballot disaster? How, through political institutions that systematically underrepresent the constituencies most sympathetic to the progressive project?

I did not sleep enough the past two nights to muster well-considered answers to these questions. But I can offer a few ill-considered intuitions: Progressives should redouble their efforts at making change at the state-level – and, at leveraging state-level power for national change. Democrats are underrepresented in the Senate. But they are overrepresented in the centers of American economic power. California’s authority to set its own emission standards helped nudge national carmakers towards cleaner vehicles, lest they lose access to the Golden State’s massive market. This seems like it could serve as a potential model for more audacious assertions of state level regulatory authority. Republican administrations will doubtlessly challenge such assertions, as they have challenged California’s power to regulate emissions. But given that multiple states nullified the federal prohibition of marijuana for years with little consequence, embracing a defiant, “state’s rights” progressivism may be the best of the left’s bad options.

Meanwhile, Democrats must put serious time, energy, and resources into discerning whether there are any low-harm concessions to rural opinion and sensibilities that could staunch the party’s bleeding outside of metro areas. To the extent that Democrats can win elections by running candidates in red areas who are “anti-gun control” in the same sense that Susan Collins is “pro-choice” – loudly proclaiming the ideological stance on the campaign trail, while effectively abetting the cause one purports to oppose while in power – progressives might be wise to give such heretics some latitude. Separately, something must be done to counter the benefits that the GOP derives from Fox News, rightwing talk radio, and crypto-conservative news broadcasters like Sinclair. Bleeding-heart billionaires like George Soros and Tom Steyer might be well-advised to bankroll newspapers in swing state capitals, with hefty budgets for investigating Republicans. They could also attempt to emulate Sinclair’s strategy, and buy up local news stations, or even sports channels, and lightly season their programming with progressive propaganda.

Regardless, Democrats shouldn’t avert their eyes from the bleaker aspects of last night’s returns, or from the most ominous portents for the party’s future. There were plenty of heartening small victories last night, and some positive structural trends for the party, which I’ve given short shrift here (the rising generations’ unprecedented hostility to conservatism, chief among them) And, of course, Democrats shouldn’t deny themselves a moment of congratulation for (probably) cutting short the presidency of an authoritarian ignoramus. What’s just ended is worth celebrating; barring a down ballot triumph in Georgia, what’s just begun is not.

The bittersweetness of Biden’s victory consists precisely in the fact the Trump era is dying and a progressive one cannot be born. If we are to find our way out of this interregnum, we’ll need to face up to our republic’s morbid symptoms.

The 2020 Election Was (Probably) a Catastrophe for The Left