Trump should have lost in a landslide. The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes.
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
NATHAN J. ROBINSON / THE GUARDIAN /
Blaming the voters simply will not do. This is a failure of leadership. Those responsible for it need to be held accountable.
In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Democrats were extremely confident in Joe Biden’s prospects. With his comfortable lead in national polls, there was talk of a Biden landslide, a giant “blue wave” that could turn Texas blue. Even though the polls had been off in the 2016 election, media commentators reassured audiences that Biden’s lead was different – far stronger and more stable – than Hillary Clinton’s had been.
As of this writing, it does look as if Biden will squeak his way into the White House. But only just. And no “blue wave” materialized. Far from turning Texas blue, Biden appears to have severely underperformed relative to Hillary Clinton in some heavily Hispanic areas. Democrats have not retaken the US Senate and failed to knock out a single Republican in the House of Representatives. Millions more people voted for Trump than in 2016, and it became disturbingly clear that even if Trump himself is booted from office, “Trumpism” is alive and well. There was no need for it to be this way. Donald Trump has badly mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. The economy is in recession. The Republican war on the Affordable Care Act seems more heartless than ever as millions lose their insurance. Trump did not run a good campaign. He botched the first debate. He squandered his campaign cash. His messaging against Joe Biden was unfocused and often incoherent, simultaneously trying to paint him as a radical Antifa-sympathizing socialist and a corrupt corporate establishment figure. At a time when the economy was voters’ No 1 issue, Trump was focused on the emails of Biden’s ne’er-do-well son, Hunter. A campaign that presented voters with a clear and compelling alternative should have easily defeated Trump.
But Biden didn’t offer a clear and compelling alternative. He was a weak candidate from the start, so much so that even some of his allies were worried what would happen if he won the primary. Biden, like Hillary Clinton before him, represented the corporate wing of the Democratic party; he loudly defended the private health insurance industry and the fracking industry from attacks by the left. He ran away from proposals favored by the Democratic base like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He didn’t show much interest in courting core constituencies like Latino voters (reportedly, the Biden campaign did not consider them part of its “path to victory”, which helps explain the losses in Texas and Florida). Biden didn’t even put much energy into the campaign; at crucial moments when Trump’s team were knocking on a million doors a week, Biden’s was reportedly knocking on zero. His ground game in important swing states like Michigan was “invisible”.
To many on the left, then, Biden’s lackluster performance is no surprise. Yes, Trump could have been resoundingly defeated. But 2016 proved once and for all that the Democratic establishment simply doesn’t have a message that can effectively counter Trump. The party leadership ignored the lessons that should have been learned four years ago. Instead, Democratic strategy is the very definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
We know how Democrats can win again. Thomas Frank, in his vital book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, explains that Democrats need to get back to being a party that offers something meaningful to working people. We know that voting Republican is no indication that voters actually want the agenda the Republican party will pursue in office. Fox News polling indicates voters want universal healthcare, abortion rights and a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Florida voters, even as they selected Donald Trump, also opted to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Democrats do not need to propose insipid half-measures when the data indicates that the public are fully on board with a progressive agenda.
This is why many of us on the left were pushing so hard for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. We believed that he had a winning formula for combating Trumpism, that the conventional wisdom that centrism is “pragmatic” was totally upside down. Bernie knew how to speak to Trump’s own voters, he could go to a Fox town hall and have the attendees cheering for single-payer healthcare, or win over a crowd at Liberty University. We believed that in a general election, he would be able to move the kinds of discontented anti-establishment voters who put Trump in office, and would have dominated in the rust belt states where Biden is just barely squeaking by.
That theory is untested; we never got a chance to compare what a left candidate could do against Trump with what Clinton and Biden managed. But the disappointing Democratic performances in both 2016 and 2020 should tell us that something is deeply, troublingly wrong with the party. A reality TV clown who supports policies most Americans hate (eg tax cuts for the rich) should not be coming anywhere near winning a presidential election. Yet he is. Why?
Blaming the voters simply will not do. This is a failure of leadership. Those responsible for it need to be held accountable. Unfortunately, it looks like some in the party will learn the wrong lessons. Even though dozens of democratic socialists won their elections this year while centrists struggled, there is a contingent among Democrats whose solution to any problem is the same: become more like Republicans.
Already, there is talk that they need to embrace tax cuts and run away from the “socialism” label. In other words, double down on what they were already doing. Those who think that is the lesson may simply be “unteachable” – a word George Orwell used to describe the old British cavalry generals who still insisted on using horses long after the invention of automatic weapons, and could not be persuaded that a horse is not useful against a machine gun. Today’s Democratic leaders are like those generals. If 2016 couldn’t persuade them that they were wrong, this won’t either. Nothing ever will.
It is time for a whole new approach, not a double dose of the existing one. We need to take the right lessons from this election, the ones that didn’t take in 2016. First, don’t trust polls, and don’t get complacent or assume the tides of history will carry you to victory. Second, Trumpism will not “self-destruct”: you can’t simply run against Trump, you need a powerful alternative vision that actually gives people what they say they want and fights for something worth believing in.
Nathan Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs and a Guardian US columnist. His latest book is American Monstrosity: Donald Trump—How We Got Him and How We Stop Him