With Election Day 2020 only four days away, millions of American voters are wondering whether former Vice President Joe Biden will become the next president of the United States or President Donald Trump — despite trailing Biden in so many polls — will manage to pull off a reelection victory in the Electoral College. Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, November 3, journalist Ronald Brownstein is warning that the political tensions in the U.S. will not be going away anytime soon. And Brownstein, in an article published in The Atlantic on October 30, lays out some reasons why he believes the 2020s could be as “turbulent” for the country as the 1850s.
“If Joe Biden beats Donald Trump decisively next week,” Brownstein explains, “this election may be remembered as a hinge point in American history: the moment when a clear majority of voters acknowledged that there’s no turning back from America’s transformation into a nation of kaleidoscopic diversity, a future that doesn’t rely on a backward-facing promise to make America great again. But that doesn’t mean the voters who embody the nation’s future are guaranteed a lasting victory over those who feel threatened by it.”
Brownstein goes on to argue that in 2020, Republicans and Democrats aren’t divided by “class or region” as much as they are divided by “attitudes toward the propulsive demographic, cultural and economic shifts remaking 21st-Century America.”
“Republicans have grown more reliant on support from mostly White and Christian constituencies and the exurban, small-town and rural communities that have been the least touched and most unnerved by cultural and economic transitions: growing diversity in race, religion and sexual orientation; evolving roles for women; and the move from an industrial economy to one grounded in the Information Age,” Brownstein notes. “Democrats have become the party of the people and places most immersed in, and welcoming of, those shifts: people of color, Millennials and members of Generation Z, secular adults who don’t identify with any religious tradition, and college-educated White professionals — all of them clustered in the nation’s largest metropolitan centers.”
Trump’s critics — from liberals, progressives and centrists to right-wing Never Trump conservatives — will breathe a huge sigh of relief if Biden defeats Trump on Election Night. But Brownstein cautions that even if November 3 brings a “decisive Democratic win,” Republicans have “erected a series of defenses” against the “coming demographic wave” — and the 2020s could become “the most turbulent decade for America since the 1850s, when a very similar dynamic unfolded.”
Brownstein notes, “Even in the unlikely, but not inconceivable, event that Trump squeezes out another Electoral College victory, it seems almost certain that Biden will win the national popular vote. If he does, Democrats will have won the most votes in seven of the past eight presidential elections. No party has managed that since the formation of the modern party system in 1828.”
The journalist stresses, however, that even if Democrats become the majority in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, Republicans could have a right-wing Supreme Court majority for decades to come.
“With the oldest members of that Republican bloc only in their early 70s, this conservative Court majority could easily persist through the entire decade of the 2020s,” Brownstein points out. “Unless Democrats pursue legislation to change the Court’s structure, the oldest Millennials might turn 50 before the current conservative majority is dislodged. These same flammable ingredients were present in the 1850s, when a rising majority found it impossible to impose its agenda because of all the structural obstacles laid down by the retreating minority.”
The divisions in the U.S. were so bitter in the 1850s that the country ended up in a civil war.
Becoming more of a minority party, Brownstein argues, could make the GOP of the 2020s become even more “reactionary” — and in an “1850s scenario,” he says, “the Republican coalition remains centered on culturally conservative White Americans who grow more embittered and radical as evidence mounts that they cannot stop the emerging majority from instituting its agenda.”
Brownstein concludes his article by stressing that the United States’ political divisions won’t end on Election Night 2020, whatever the outcome.
“The 2020 election has been among the most vitriolic and divisive America has ever experienced, with the prospect of further disruption and even violence still lingering in its aftermath,” Brownstein writes. “But all of that may be just the opening bell for a decade that tests the nation’s cohesion like few others ever have.”