Biden Won. The Democrats Haven’t (yet).
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
While citizens of the United States festively celebrated the electoral ouster of Donald John Trump Jr., a less positive consensus was reached by pundits all over the country; it was not a clear-cut victory for Democrats.
Democrats had not only hoped to take the senate and send a definitive message that the Trump experiment had failed colossally, but also to consolidate their control over the house of representatives, which they’d so impressively taken from Republicans in 2018. Instead, the democrats lost ground in the house (while maintaining control) and are now relying on run-offs in two Georgia senate races to stay on level ground in the senate; a victory in both races would provide them with a Vice President Kamala Harris-tying vote. Anything less and the status quo remains intact—McConell can remain the “grim reaper” of senate legislation that he so enjoyed being during the Obama presidency, and Biden and the democrats will be stifled yet again.
The Georgia Run-Offs
The two senate races, even in a flipped-blue Georgia, are by no means a given and especially one candidate has a major battle in store in the coming months. Jon Ossoff was behind David Perdue at last count but carries some momentum after a strong finish to the campaign. He was fortified by a viral debate drubbing of his conservative opponent in the run-up to election day. He’ll certainly be in for a challenge, but it’s Reverend Raphael Warnock, a pastor for the same Atlanta church that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in, who has the more clearly uphill battle (against incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler).
Loeffler had a good portion of votes theoretically taken off her slate by Georgia republican state representative Doug Collins, whose 20% certainly rivaled Loeffler’s second place showing of 25.9% in the final tally. Collins’ absence in the run-off would stand to benefit the incumbent republican, though certainly many other variables will come into play by then.
What will it take to overcome the coalescing of Georgia’s conservative voters around a single candidate? Certainly not ‘I am better than Trump,’ now that he's been defeated. That seemed to be the core message up ticket coming out of the presidential candidate for much of the last few months. What’s now needed, evidently, is a real, articulated party platform.
Initial Analysis Post-Victory
Clearly “unity” and relative silence were all Biden needed to beat Trump in the end, and beating Trump was the goal that overtook all others—perhaps for good reason. Many on November 7th celebrated in the streets of their respective cities, and even if they weren’t overjoyed by the prospect of Joe Biden—the reported cabinet favorites of Biden that had supposedly been leaked earlier in the day were pretty uninspiring (Politico Staff, 2020)—they were at least overjoyed by the ousting of Trump. If not for who Trump was and what he represented domestically (which was certainly bad enough), then for what he empowered and activated globally in the way of autocrats & far-right extremists.
Many in the media hyper-focused on a call among democratic house representatives, a 'caucus call,' that was leaked (AP News/Mascaro, 2020). Within the conversation, certain centrist democratic figures such as Representatives Abigail Spanberger, Stephanie Murphy, and others were quick to accuse the emerging left within the party of making prominent such concepts as “socialism,” medicare-for-all, defunding the police, and even Black Lives Matter, among a longer list of grievances. They had made up their minds that ‘fringe’ concepts such as those had been easily attached to the whole party because of Bernie, AOC, and others, and had endangered swing state candidates and even severely put at risk the presidency.
It seemed the party had all but decided that the path going forward would be to continue pursuing a vision that would attract the center-right, and peel off disenchanted republicans who couldn’t associate with the more open brand of racism and vitriol of Trumpism. Signaling that Biden will likely veer in the direction of this group, he made much of “unity,” and bridging the gap between democrats and republicans in his victory speech on Saturday night.
Pundits quickly praised the move and surely many US citizens embraced the reverse in course regarding rhetoric and vitriol. It had long been the case that a president (-elect) had spoken to the public and not used the opportunity to jab at an individual who’d spoken against him, belittle the media, or a political rival. In terms of rhetoric, this ‘return to normalcy’ is probably welcomed in most corners, probably even secretly among those who support the flailing soon-to-be ex-president. This isn’t the part of ‘normalcy’ that anyone dreads, but the punching left that has immediately ensued, by the likes of politicians and pundits alike, very likely is.
The claim that the left was a negative presence in the party should immediately have been rebutted as a flawed argument (and was brilliantly by none other than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself in the NY Times on Sunday via Astead Herndon, 2020).
Going back to that leaked, contentious phone call, centrist democrats used the backing of data and poll experts to show that “socialism” and “defund the police” scared off potential voters. One wouldn’t have to dig too deep to find evidence that much of the rest of the left’s vision for the future was also very much backed by popular sentiment. Of all sources, Fox News (which obviously tends to skew right) posted results on election night of internal exit polls that showed the logic of medicare-for-all, or something in that direction, to be in the clear popular majority (72%), as well as fears about the climate, income inequality, and so on.
Florida, of all places, adopted the $15 minimum wage, a platform considered so ‘radical’ that only Bernie Sanders vocally promoted it for much of the last decade. Florida being the state to do this is important because it is also where establishment democrats and centrists unequivocally evoked the Miami Cuban-Americans as prime evidence of a disconnect between the new left and an important base of voters in a swing state.
Other policies ‘of the left’ also passed around the country, and particularly often in swing states: expanding tenants' rights, funding public schools, raising taxes on the wealthy, expanding medicare coverage, decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, and so on. To cap the big night for the left, 20 of 29 DSA-endorsed candidates were victorious and eight of the eleven ballot initiatives they’d backed went their way (Jacobin/Featherstone, 2020). Not only did ‘the squad’ all get easily re-elected, they added to their ranks in the way of Jamaal Bowman of New York state and Cori Bush of Missouri.
Additionally, the DSA winning in a number of key state senate races, especially consolidating its presence in the New York state senate, further cemented the presence of a true left in the democratic party and US government-at-large. It is a presence that is now coming into greater prominence as the group has instantly been challenged by the establishment in the coming fight for the identity of the democratic party.
The Final Verdict
If statistics and figures are what matter most, there is one 'stat' that is most damning of all to the establishment’s approach; despite millions poured into the Lincoln Project and the like to help turn those fringe center-right voters into Biden voters, the results weren’t good.
While 90% of registered republicans voted for Trump in 2016, 93% did the same this year. For all the appeals to the conscience of the conservative centrist, there were no gains among them, and if anything, the gains made in swing states were made by those who did commit to backing medicare-for-all, and other policies of the supposed detrimental left (NY Times/AOC/Herndon).
While not all of the policies, or more importantly perhaps, messaging, of the left needs to be adopted into the democratic party’s platform, certainly some of it very clearly should. One could also argue that more could be done with the huge surge in funding provided by a democratic base hungry for change yet powerless to enact it beyond donating to whatever cause they can get behind. “Socialism” and “defund the police” may not sound appealing to the general populous, but raising the minimum wage, fortifying tenants’ rights, and holding the police accountable for murder certainly do. The party could theoretically invest resources into teaching and establishing that the 'boogey man' of “socialism” the misinformed public knows of is merely the economic theory that gave them a postal service, fire fighters, and public pools. Disassociating it with the political theory of authoritarianism that they’ve been misled into inherently associating it with would go a long way towards resolving once and for all the ever-present question of Cuban-American Floridians and the like. And if one couldn’t ultimately persuade them that their fears were unfounded, the logic could certainly be floated that such a small group could easily be offset by the swaths of disenfranchised young people, people of color, women, and working class white folks that could be attracted with proper platforming and resources.
There hasn’t been a democrat alive in the last 30 years who hasn’t been smeared as a socialist. Even if you’re young, it’s easy to recall the fear-mongering among conservatives about Barack Obama being a Marxist Muslim, terrorist, etc.
As such, finally dispelling the potency of the charge of being labeled a “socialist” could go a long way towards killing a narrative that has theoretically done damage down the democratic party line for decades. But even if such efforts to explain those concepts once and for all were seen as a losing strategy, the policies themselves certainly cannot be. Establishing a party platform that can transparently claim that it seeks to improve the material conditions of people’s lives on the ground will be vital. From getting healthcare to everyone, to ending systemic racism, to providing cleaner air and water, or economic aid, these appeals will definitely go a long way towards converting ‘anything but Trump’ into the actual enthusiasm that will be needed post -Trump. No matter how many votes or electoral college points Joe Biden ends up winning by in the end, the hard work of defining the future of the democratic party already began on day one post-election, and the left needs a place at the table.