Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
This year’s election was among the most anticipated and perhaps most consistent in U.S. history.
But it was not an easy choice to celebrate. The results rolled in over several days and sometimes seemed confusing. Even now, President Trump has refused to admit. While the result is not in doubt, it is still disputed by the ousted president and his most ardent supporters.
As two teams meet in the seventh game of a World Series, both parties bought champagne for election night. But in this case, it was hard to either break the curves. Days passed. The bubbling got hot and went flat.
It was not only the delay that spoiled the party. And this is not a case of hangovers after the election. This was simply a sober choice.
The whole campaign was unfortunate due to the pandemic that disrupted the later primary elections and forced the convention’s planners to largely abandon their host cities and replace online productions. Meetings and bus trips were restricted, though President Trump revived his personal events in recent weeks with apparent effect.
In the end, however, the most sobering element for both parties may have been the mixed message delivered by the voters. It was difficult for both parties to demand a mandate or find a sense of validation.
We now know that Joe Biden received a larger percentage of the popular vote than any challenger to a sitting president since the FDR beat Herbert Hoover in 1932. Yes, even greater than Ronald Reagan’s share of the popular vote in beating Jimmy Carter in 1980. or Bill Clinton in beating George HW Bush in 1992. (Both Reagan and Clinton won three-way contests that included a strong independent candidate.)
But just as hard as Democrats wanted to defeat Trump, they have become sober over their frustrations and internal divisions over what caused them. Biden’s victory, though significant in both the referendum and the Electoral College, did not translate into a reasonable success for Democrats in Congress or elsewhere.
In fact, while the party may still gain control of the Senate if it can win two run-off elections in Georgia in January, it lost significant ground in the House and in state lawmakers who will draw the new constituencies maps for the next decade.
What stuck most for the Democrats was the failure to live up to the expectations created by the vote, which proposed a blue tsunami and a new progressive era in American politics, partly driven by changing demographics. That they hitherto lacked this should temper their sense of joy in reclaiming the White House.
Persistent dreams of dominance
For generations, both parties have dreamed of emerging as the dominant power in our national life. Sometimes they think they are just about to live the dream. Then the voters wake them up.
Democrats sometimes long for the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson had huge majorities in Congress and passed the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and other parts of what was to be the “great society.” But the short era ended with the 1966 and 1968 elections and an era of conservative withdrawal.
Republicans have been talking about reorganization since the 1980s, and they have taken over most of the South and much of the Midwest. The party has also improved its appeal to working-class white voters across the map. The years of Barack Obama’s presidency helped the GOP consolidate power in large parts of the country. In fact, when Donald Trump took the oath in 2017, Republicans held more power handles in Washington and in more states than they had had in a century.
Yet only four years later, their role in Washington has been reduced to playing defense.
To be sure, there were new candidates and old ones in both parties who rose, or broke through or beat the odds in 2020. There were upstart winners and enduring veterans like Susan Collins (R-Maine) who surpassed the top of her party ticket with more than 55,000 votes in her home state. There was the impressive recruitment history that led to Republicans taking Democratic seats with candidates who were women, minorities, or military veterans.
But it is difficult for the Republican Party to celebrate once President Trump has been defeated. And the recovery task is made all the more challenging by his inability to recognize that reality.
By refusing to admit – and actually insisting that he has actually won – the president not only prolongs the process, but puts the sense of closure that his party – and the country as a whole – expects and deserves.
This too has a depressing effect on the national mood.
No concession, no closure
Concessions have often been made with great grace and humility, but that is not their essential function. Congratulations do not have to be sincere or even conveyed.
What matters is the recognition of the result itself. That is what is fundamental to democracy and crucial to good governance at all levels. Detention creates anxiety in the national mood and uncertainty in the management of public authority.
In the coming weeks, much of this will be resolved. The president will have to end his peace, even in his own way, with his election fate. But the prospects for our policy in the near and visible future are overshadowed and are likely to remain so.
We must deal with the pandemic and do so despite the constraints of a divided government. We must certainly deal with a divided electorate, where more than 70 million people voted for the president, most with great enthusiasm. Despite Joe Biden’s victory in both the Electoral College and in the referendum, they have been told that their guy may have won and they are bound to wonder.
We also know that even in the midst of the highest turnout in more than a century, tens of thousands of millions participated – approx. one third of all eligible voters – no. And millions of those who participated used their voices to actually say that the promises of democracy were not fulfilled for them. And that may be the most sober message of all.