Please pay less attention to the loser and more to what’s been accomplished. Joe Biden won the White House. He reclaimed the upper-Midwest. He flipped two red states. (Arizona was called this morning; Georgia is headed for a recount, but Biden is leading.) The Democrats held the House. The party netted one Senate seat. (They won two, lost one.) There’s a chance, a slim chance, but a still chance to take the Senate seats after a couple of Georgia run-offs in January. This is not a picture of failure.
True, it wasn’t the blue wave many hoped for. (I hoped for it.) Republican resilience in the House was a bit surprising. Maine reelecting Susan Collins was very disappointing. The Democrats did not take the Senate and with that go dreams of reforming the court system. More disappointing, perhaps, was the president winning 10 million more votes this year than he did four years ago. For those hoping the whole of the county would reject Donald Trump, that was the most painful fact of all. “Post-Racial America” was never a real thing, but it felt good to believe in it. It’s impossible to believe in it now.
Let’s not let failing to meet high expectations define political reality, though. Losing House seats is not and never was about the left versus the center, no matter how much that insufferable simp Chris Cillizza insists it is. Moderate Democrats lost swing districts because swing districts swing, not because progressive Democrats half way across the country take progressive positions for progressive constituents. This isn’t to say moderates should be progressive. It’s to say swing districts are hard to hold. That a Republican was at the top of the ticket probably explains GOP gains in the House.
Not taking the Senate can probably be explained by incumbency and “undervoting.” Undervoting is when people who rarely vote, or who have never voted, decide to vote for president but no one else. In the case of the Democrats, people came off the sidelines to vote against Trump but skipped everyone else down ballot. Incumbency was probably the countervailing force for the GOP. That wasn’t enough to save Martha McSally in Arizona and Cory Gardner in Colorado, but it was enough to save Collins in Maine, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
Republican incumbency explains, to a degree, why Trump got 10 million more votes this year than he did four years ago. Reagan got more votes the second time in 1984. So did George W. Bush in 2004. Incumbency is an advantage to all presidents, but it’s a titanic advantage for GOP presidents. That Biden knock one off is underappreciated. That he did it by winning (so far) more than 5 million more votes, besting every candidate in the history of candidates, is doubly underappreciated. To be sure, Trump is bad and 72 million people voted for bad, but let’s maintain some perspective please.
If you really want to understand why so many voted for Trump, find a person who grew up in Trump Country but who now lives in or around a city. That person will tell you, I have zero doubt, that the reason 72 million voters chose Trump is rooted in the reason they no longer live in Trump Country. Intelligence, ingenuity, creativity, a sense of adventure—these are not recognized, valued or celebrated there. They are discouraged, even punished. Individualism isn’t honored. It’s despised. Power is top down. It is not shared. This person didn’t flee. This person was driven out. This person lives in or around a city, because cities are where one goes to be free. “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers,” said Gene Wilder’s character in Blazing Saddles. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know, morons.”
People who grew up in Trump Country but who now live in and around cities know something else: that the people they live, work and play with really don’t understand Trump voters and that that’s OK. It’s OK not to understand people who not only don’t make sense but insist that not making sense makes sense. It’s OK not to understand people who deny the authority of facts, knowledge and reason; who refuse the reality of climate change; who liken differences of opinion to treachery; who see diversity as oppression; who believe only they are the “real Americans”; who equate minor personal inconvenience with tyranny; who feel equality is theft; who sacrifice themselves to the covid pandemic to score political points; and who betray their country by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of lawful democratic outcomes.
It’s OK. If people living in Trump Country desire a king to rule them, let them. In the end, there are more of us than there are of them. This year’s election made that very clear. Trump punched the cities. Cities punched back. And cities won. As long as people who live in and around cities understand this, we have nothing to fear.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.