No Wave, But A Sea Change

President-elect Joe Biden

It was not a wave. It was not a repeat of 2018. For a few hours it felt like it could be a repeat of 2016. In the end, it was a slugfest between two closely matched halves of an electorate seeking to impose their irreconcilable differences on the other, resulting in the election of a man who has pledged to bring them together. And it dislodged Donald Trump from power. 

For over a year I had been staring at data that told me Joe Biden would defeat Donald Trump in a historic landslide, taking down the Republican Party and handing Democrats control of government. The landslide did not materialize, but as votes continue to be tabulated it is becoming evident that Biden’s victory will be robust. This is an inflection point in our national lives and an important moment in a generational realignment that will reshape our politics by the end of the decade. The emerging electorate of young people, women and people of color was joined by suburbanites and college educated voters in large enough numbers to retake the “blue wall” states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania and likely inch the Biden/Harris ticket over the finish line in Georgia and Arizona.

But generational change happens gradually, and continues to be met with robust resistance from a receding electorate. One of the things that puzzled me was how a president with steady 42 percent approval ratings could end up (as is likely to happen) winning well above that level in the popular vote. You typically can’t get people to vote for you if they don’t like the job you’re doing. But plenty of people were willing vote for this president regardless of how they felt about his performance. Exit polls indicated that people across the country thought he was doing a terrible job managing the pandemic — but some portion of them voted for him anyway because for them it’s not about job performance. Trump is a savior figure for his voters — a protector of privilege — and for the privilege of keeping them empowered they will forgive literally anything he does. 

The absence of a wave had consequences down ballot for Democrats. Instead of the predicted gain of 5-20 additional House seats, they stand to lose a handful of their members, and instead of the Senate sweep promised by a wave election they fell short on Election Day of taking control of the upper chamber. The Senate majority will now rest on the outcome of two Georgia special elections in early January and the result will have profound implications for Biden’s ability to govern. Without a majority, the urgent need for bold action in the face of overlapping health, economic and civil rights crises will run through Mitch McConnell. There would be a lot the new president can do through executive action, but the nation desperately needs a functional congress. The ability to reform the judiciary, protect voting rights, or do any of the urgent institutional work needed to repair a democracy left in tatters by the outgoing regime now rests with the people of Georgia, where the contours of the realignment began to emerge on Tuesday. 

The absence of a wave and abysmal down ballot performances by Democrats should not obscure the scope and magnitude of Biden’s win. No one had ever tried to forge a coalition that included Bernie Sanders and William Kristol, but Biden pulled it off and it powered him to a substantial popular vote victory and a solid electoral vote win. In so doing, he kept the country from the descending into full-fledged authoritarianism and he did it with time running out. Had the outcome gone the other way we would have lost forever the opportunity to right the country using democratic mechanisms. With Biden at the helm, we don’t have to worry if there will be a 2024 election. If he does nothing more, he has already made a critically important contribution to the republic. 

But he will have to do a lot more because the moment demands it. Biden will have to help the country navigate the extraction phase that will transpire between now and the inauguration. Donald Trump is already behaving as promised, casting doubt on the vote, initiating lawsuits, and inciting his followers in a frantic attempt to find a way to stay in power. In the absence of a full and total repudiation, Trump is likely to be emboldened to fight rather than to flee. Biden’s first challenge is to get us to January 20 with the democracy in one piece.