Third Time’s a Charm: Biden Elected President

On Saturday morning, battleground state voters brought the Trump Administration to an end. What happens now?

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On Saturday morning, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. won a majority of Electoral College votes, securing victory in his campaign to defeat President Donald J. Trump’s bid for reelection. His victory marks the end of one of the most contentious presidencies in American history and the beginning of a political realignment whose final form is as yet nebulous. The victory of the Democratic ticket also represents a historical milestone: Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) will become the first woman, and the first woman of color, to serve as Vice President. In the coming months and years, the consequences of the Democratic Party’s shift left during the Trump Administration will be brought to bear, while the Republican Party (GOP) will face a reckoning over a presidency that has reshaped the party.

All signs were looking good for Biden in the months and weeks leading up to the election—his lead over Trump in polls both nationally and in key states was comfortably wide and consistent—but Democrats and Republicans alike, recalling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, knew the election wouldn’t be over until it was over.

Now it’s over. Biden won. It took four long days, but with Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, Biden reached 273, three more than the 270 needed to win. Nevada’s make 279. He’s the President-Elect.

A newly progressive Democratic Party comes to power

It started before Trump. About midway through Barack H. Obama’s presidency, story after story spread through the nation of unarmed Black men being shot, often but not always by police. Such stories were nothing new, but the internet let them spread like never before—often accompanied with videos. White liberals watched these videos and followed these stories, including how they so often ended in acquittal for the killer. The cases of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014 were among the most famous, but there were so many that simply listing names became a common rallying cry at protests.

That was one of a number of factors that pulled the Democratic Party socially leftward during the 2010s, a movement that has been called “The Great Awokening,” an allusion to the explosion of Protestantism that swept the U.S. in the early nineteenth century. In 2008, Obama said in an interview, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.” Twelve years later, the 77-year-old Biden—who represents his party’s moderate wing—responded to a question about transgender rights at a town hall by saying, “too many transgender women of color are being murdered.” It’s difficult to imagine a better encapsulation of the Democratic shift.

Social progressivism is not the only area where Democrats have moved significantly; they have moved markedly left on economics, too. When in 2010 Democrats wanted to pass the Affordable Care Act, which would set up pools for private health insurance to be traded on the market, it was mildly controversial even within the Democrtatic Party: Speaker of the House Nancy P. Pelosi (D-Calif.) struggled to whip the votes for the bill, and her eventual success is widely seen as the crowning achievement of her career. Biden won his party’s primary in 2020 as the moderate candidate by supporting a public option for health insurance, a significant shift left from Obamacare; the Democrats’ leftist wing, meanwhile, supports abolishing private health insurance entirely and replacing it with Medicare for all. Major voices in the party, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), support proposals like a 70 percent top marginal tax rate and a wealth tax. And, of course, self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders (D-Vt.) came within striking distance of the Democratic nomination for President in both 2016 and 2020.

Finally, six years of an intransigent Congress under Obama, followed by four years of Trump, have radicalized Democrats’ thinking about the U.S.’s political structures. Hillary Clinton’s simultaneously losing in the Electoral College while winning the popular vote, coming only 16 years after the same thing happened with Vice President Al Gore, have led a majority of Democrats to support abolishing the institution; similar frustrations have resulted in widespread skepticism among Democrats of the Senate. Statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. have been floated as potential means to unskew the Senate. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stonewalling of Obama’s judicial nominees has allowed Trump to fill about a quarter of federal judgeships, leading many Democrats to call for packing the Supreme Court (including, for full disclosure’s sake, this author).

To what extent Democrats now act on these three branches of movement remains to be seen. Though Democrats will now hold the Presidency and the House of Representatives, Republicans will probably maintain their majority in the Senate—Democrats would have to win both of the upcoming Senate run-off elections in Georgia for a 50-50 Senate, with Harris as the tiebreaker.. That will prevent any Democratic plans to pack the court or add states, at least, from coming to fruition, and it will necessitate compromising on policy aims. But they’ve got President-elect Biden. That’s the first step. And Biden, despite his moderation, has done some moving of his own in the past year. In conversations during the campaign about what his administration would look like, the name “Franklin Roosevelt” was frequently invoked.

Where do Republicans go from here?

When the GOP nominated Trump to be President four years ago, there was much speculation to the effect that if he lost, the party would fall apart. Torn between irreconcilable wings favoring economic neoliberalism and hawkish foreign policy on one side and economic nationalism and isolationism on the other, the party would atrophy. Then Trump won. And over the past four years, the party has consolidated around him. Senior party members like Senator Judiciary Chairman Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) did about-faces on their opposition to Trump, and when it came time to write a platform for this election, the party simply reaffirmed its support for the President.

Now Trump, always historically unpopular, has lost, and the party is poised for an internal civil war. On one side will be Trump loyalists. Expect them to hold real sway, despite the loss; earlier this year, in the midst of a raging pandemic, Trump’s approval among Republicans dropped all the way to… 80 percent. Which is to say, he’s very popular. Of course, it’s possible that this loss will destroy Trump’s credibility and prestige in the party. But don’t count on it. On the other side will be those who argue that Trump was and ought to be an aberration in the party’s history. Watch for what they propose as an alternative, and expect to hear the name “Ronald Reagan” a lot. Whatever fights develop in the next four years can be expected to play out in the 2024 Republican primary.

Republicans are going to have to do something though to win future elections. Their Electoral College advantage may be slimmer in upcoming years as the South begins to turn purple. After Governor Mitt Romney’s (R-Mass.) loss in the 2012 Presidential election, some Republican operatives began to plot a course forward for the party that would attract more voters of color. If only for their own electoral success, they may want to take another stab at that.

The 2020 Election and the future of the American political landscape

At the end of the election, only one candidate can emerge victorious, and this year, that was Vice President Biden. But that binary obscures larger electoral trends, which tell a bigger, more nuanced story.

First, Trump did better than expected not only in percentages of votes in battleground states but in absolute votes: about 71,000,000 people turned out for him, a figure surpassed only by Biden. It is clear that the Democrats’ issue is not simply that they need to turn out enthusiasm against an unpopular movement and that high turnout is necessarily good for the party: a vast swath of America is enthusiastic about Trump and his movement, and Democrats will have to confront that fact.

Second, the Midwest is not unwinnable for Democrats. After Trump won the “Blue Wall” states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2016, there was much speculation that the Midwest (save Illinois) was on a track to solid Republican victory. This year’s results showed that, while Midwestern states may or may not be trending toward leaning Republican, Democrats are very much competitive in the region, where Biden took back the Blue Wall states, ensuring his victory.

Third, Democrats are genuinely competitive in the Sunbelt. Biden looks on track to win Georgia, which Democrats haven’t won since 1992, and Arizona, which they haven’t won since 1996. He performed worse than expected, though, in North Carolina, Florida, and Texas; Democrats still have work to do.

All of which is to say that, even without electoral reform, and not accounting for voter suppression, the electoral map could look very different in the 2020s and 2030s. This map, unthinkable less than a decade ago, could well be what Americans wake up to see two days after the first Monday in November at some point over the next 20 years:

Today, however, is not 2024, 2028, or 2032. Today is the beginning of President Biden.