Americans Didn’t Vote for Change. For Many, It Wasn’t on the Ballot
Yves here. There will be many articles trying to explain what happened to the Democrats’ blue wave. This one is close on the heels of the result, which means it reflects beliefs at or shortly after the vote, as opposed to later lines of thought. And the writers made an effort to speak to Trump voters.
At the same time, Democratic Party insiders are already deploying their blame cannons, and the progressive wing of the party is a big target. One of the big complaints of corporate Democrats who did or nearly lost their seats is that they were smeared as “socialists” in attack ads. It isn’t just low-information conservative voters who believe this line. One contact, a libertarian trial attorney in DC, sincerely believed that Biden would appoint “radical leftists” to his Cabinet, like Elizabeth Warren at Treasury. It took nearly a half hour to get him to understand the effort the party had gone to to stomp on Bernie Sanders, how they were loyal to various industries, like tech, higher education, Big Pharma, and finance, and how they were using idpol to mask their refusal to do much except some optics to help lower and middle income workers.
The Democrats need to quit running from socialism and start explaining that America already practices socialism for the rich (with examples) and maybe it’s time for socialism for ordinary people (with examples). But the problem is that the Dems are culpable of promoting socialism for the rich, as exemplified by the “no accountability” bank bailouts and the reluctance to address student debt and ever-rising health care costs.
Another problem is poor and presumptuous messaging. This may be due in part to the fact that Republicans are far more willing to accept party/message/tactical discipline. This isn’t just my observation; Matt Stoller has said the times he’s been involved in right/left initiatives, the Republicans and conservatives have been far more professional and easy to work with. They are much more focused on good execution and know how to do it.
I can’t prove it, but my theory is that Republicans and Democrats have different models of organization. Republicans think of corporations and the military, where there is a hierarchy and clear reporting lines. In reality, people find all sorts of ways to work around that, but there’s at least a formal picture of who is in charge and what their scope of authority is.
By contrast, my sense is that the organizational model most Democrats internalize is a law firm. Once you are admitted to the partnership, you are pretty much left alone as long as you are a big enough producer. Law firms often have problems with quality control and difficulty in reining in partners who slip into shoddy or unethical practices. This behavior has become rampant at McKinsey, which is modeled on law firms.
On the one hand, a model of many barons and no king would seem conducive to a big tent approach. But on the other, it is antithetical to message discipline, which starts with message testing and development. The bigger fish on Team Dem think they are clever enough to come up with their own pet memes, despite being too remote from ordinary people to have any idea of what counts to them.
There are two examples below where the critics have the better argument. One is on “defund the police”. Of all the ways to demand profound police reform, it would be harder to come up a tag line that would elicit a negative response. If you read the measures implemented in Newark, New Jersey, which was forced to make major changes as part of a consent decree, and is seen as having improved, they don’t read as if they saved money. For instance, they hired a lot of newbie cops to dilute the toxic culture and also implemented community programs. In other words, the onus was on the proponents to explain what they meant and why it would improve things. And some argued for eliminating police entirely, a position that would never fly in America.
But the bigger point is that when the press took up “defund the police” as a Black Lives Matter demand, the Biden campaign reaction was terrible. They panicked and said they’d increase police budgets and spend more on training and hiring social workers. There was no gripping tag phrase and no support for why these plans would reduce police using excessive force against people of color. The scheme sounded a lot like:
Step 1. More credentialing. Step 2. *Magic* Step 3. Success!
Similarly, Green New Deal advocates have yet to sell mainstream America, or even the liberal press, on how immediate the threat of climate change is and why their approach will work (occasional lip service isn’t enough to change popular beliefs). They are admittedly up against 30 years of climate change agnotology, but they seem too often to want to argue logically (like the danger of X degrees of warming) when we saw how well that worked with Brexit.
And that’s before saying, despite my agreeing with the Green New Deal diagnosis, that their program relies too much on hopium and technological saves, when building new infrastructure relies on current dirty energy technology, as well as using some environmentally nasty materials. We need a big dose of radical energy conservation, and no one is willing to say that.
Finally, on their core brand issue, idpol, the Democratic party messaging was lousy. For instance, an ad here stared with Trump telling black voters in 2016, “What do you have to lose?” followed by a black man narrating all the bad things that had happened to blacks under Trump, like higher Covid deaths. So far, so good. Then the ad shifts to clips of Biden speaking, with the only even dimly memorable part being him promising to “end systemic racism”. First, even if he can do that, it’s a project that will take generations. Second, “systemic racism” is too removed from real problems facing real people who are not seeking tenure. There’s no plan on what to do about abusive policing or job discrimination or other practices that hurt people of color. It sounds like a high-falutin’ handwave.
At the same time, as readers know well, there are boatloads of “progressive” policies that are very popular with voters, like raising the minimum wage, strengthening Social Security, providing for more income support during lockdowns, getting rid of the ACA and replacing it with government-provided insurance, and cutting military spending. And if 2016 and 2020 demonstrated anything, it’s that the Democrats aren’t benefitting from being joined at the hip with big corporations and billionaires. Bloomberg spent $100 million on the party’s behalf, for instance, yet what difference did that make?
So the Democrats institutionally could break away from the grip of corporate big money, but too many pols and operatives are in their vise for that to happen. It will take at least another epic failure for them to be rooted out. And in the meantime, the scapegoating will continue.
By Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy’s Editor in Chief, whose writing has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Statesman, Project Syndicate, Al Jazeera and has been syndicated globally and Aaron White, the North America editor of ourEconomy, and co-founder of The Junction. Originally published at openDemocracy
“When I see these people I think of Nazi Germany. The group they called the useful idiots: the ones who didn’t bother to educate themselves. It makes me sick.”
That’s what Marsha told us as we watched the massive queue of voters in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, on Monday.
For her, the high turnout was terrible news: a sign the city and state would turn blue. “People will leave this county if the Democrats win here and I don’t blame them. Defunding the police? Sanctuary cities? We’ll have violent thugs roaming our streets.”
Marsha needn’t have worried. Despite the optimism of Democratic canvassers we met that day, Ohio once again voted decisively for Trump – and in Cincinnati the Republican Congressional incumbent, Steve Chabot, saw off a challenge by Democrat Kate Schroder.
It was a pattern repeated across the country. Biden may well be sworn in as the next president, but the results are otherwise crushing for the Democratic Party establishment.
They threw extraordinary amounts of money at big Senate races: $108 million in South Carolina, $88 million in Kentucky, $69 million in Maine, $43 million in Montana. It was an unmitigated failure. Not only did Democrats fail in all of these bids, they are also on track to lose up to ten seats in the House of Representatives.
“Here’s the real story of what happened last night: I’m going to give you some positive news.” Charlie Kirk, co-founder of the right-wing youth organisation Turning Point USA, addressed voters across the airwaves in Pennsylvania yesterday morning, as votes were still being counted.
“You wouldn’t know any of this if you were just watching the activist media, but there’s a lot of good news for us today. We prevented Chuck Schumer [the Democratic Senate minority leader] and his multi-billion dollar onslaught to try to purchase your government. You stopped that: God bless you for it.”
Kirk is not wrong. Much of Biden’s domestic policy platform is meaningless without a strong Congressional majority. Everything the new president tries to deliver – even a badly needed coronavirus stimulus package – will be stymied. Should he actually manage to get some legislation through an obstructionist Senate, much of it will then be doomed by Trump’s signature legacy: a Supreme Court with a 6-3 Conservative majority.
For the rest of the world, of course, Biden’s narrow win, if it comes, will be far more consequential. Millions of women will once again be able to access US-funded family planning and other health services. Religious conservatives will continue to push their extremist agendas abroad (see the film below), but they will have lost easy access to the White House. The ending of the infamous ‘global gag’ rule – which blocks federal funding for organisations that provide or promote abortion services or rights – will also aid the global treatment of HIV and many other major health issues.
The US will rejoin the Paris climate accords. Right-wing autocrats like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Victor Orbán and others no longer have a powerful backer in the UN. Israel’s hawkish prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lost a staunch ally. The list could go on.
But at home, there’s no clear mandate for change. Strikingly, too, Trump looks set to lose by only a slim margin. Millions more Americans backed him than did in 2016 – despite a pandemic which has already claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
How has this happened?
No Justice, No Peace
We’ve been travelling through the key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Republican heartland of Kentucky, and speaking to voters across the country for weeks. If you spend long enough talking to anyone, they’ll say things you might not expect.
In fracking country, western Pennsylvania, we met a young Romanian immigrant who voted for Trump but backs Canada-style lockdowns to contain COVID-19.
A Black Biden-supporting woman in her sixties told us “all lives matter” because “we all bleed the same colour: red”.
We met a registered Democrat in a crucial swing county who voted for Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen because she’s a feminist who will legalise marijuana.
And a convicted felon on the New Jersey border told us he’d have backed Trump if he was allowed to vote – even though he wants universal healthcare.
But a defining feature of countless conversations has been the largest and most ambitious racial justice movement this country has seen in generations.
Black Lives Matter has birthed a new generation of civic leaders and inspired and activated voters across all fifty states. In the city of Louisville, we met women who rose up in March when Breonna Taylor was killed by police, and who have been organising, protesting and building “love, passion and community” for more than 160 days since.
Yet the movement has also sparked a fierce backlash.
“I don’t support what we’ve seen of Black Lives Matter… The looting, the destruction, those aren’t protests. That’s not Black Lives Matter. That’s people going out and destroying their communities and hurting and killing each other,” Aaron Johnson, a former police officer, told us in our recent podcast episode.
Like so many Trump supporters we met, he claims he supports racial equality but says “structural racism” is just media hype.
“People take the idea that there is a problem with racism in this country, and they blow it out of proportion. They make it so much worse than it really is. Is there racism? Yes. Is there systemic racism? No.”
Others write off the whole movement as “radically left driven” – and claim Biden is just a “puppet” for what they see as this more extreme, hidden agenda.
The irony is that – far from being their puppet – Biden failed to win support among many of the Black Lives Matter activists we spoke to.
Despite running on a Democratic ticket, Jecorey Arthur, the youngest person ever to be elected to the Louisville City Council, refused to vote for or publicly back Biden (he gives his reasons in the film below).
Milly Martin, who knew Breonna Taylor, also put it bluntly: “I do not like him at all.”
Change Was Not on the Ballot
Plenty of people we spoke to were voting against Donald Trump, but not necessarily for Joe Biden. This is borne out in national polls: as Fox News reported, many Biden voters were motivated primarily by the desire to get Trump out of the Oval Office, rather than to see Biden in it.
Meanwhile, across the spectrum, people derided the Washington establishment.
“I despise Mitch McConnell,” Craig, a registered voter in Florida, said of the Republican Senate majority leader who was easily re-elected in Kentucky. “He’s been in politics so long he’s completely blind and insulated from reality. So is Nancy Pelosi [Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives]. They are both career politicians whose only thought in any situation is ‘What’s best for my party right now?’ – the normal rules of law and morality are out the window.”
“I would say Mitch McConnell is one and the same with Amy McGrath [his Democratic challenger],” Jecorey Arthur in Louisville told us. Despite the party pumping $88 million into her campaign, McGrath was crushed by a decisive 58-38% margin.
“Biden, we know what he’s about. He said he’s going to do a lot of things, but he’s been in office for 43 years, and he hasn’t done it,” Anthony in western Pennsylvania, a former Obama-turned-Trump supporter, told us.
And despite far higher voter turnouts, there were many who were unimpressed with the choices on offer, or who opted out. As one of the regulars at Snow Bar on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, put it: “The reason I don’t vote is because it doesn’t affect me.”
The Real ‘Silent Majority’
Many Trump voters we spoke to claimed they were the ‘silent majority’ and that Trump would prevail on election day.
They seem to have been wrong – just. The silent majority we found across the country were not the Marshas, cursing the ignorance of those long lines of voters in Cincinnati, but the bartenders wearily closing up shop at 8pm on polling day because they expected trouble either way.
They were the woman in Washington, Pennsylvania, who told us “it doesn’t matter if you’re Black, White, purple, orange – we are all Americans and we are all one nation under God.” She was backing Joe Biden, she told us, because she wants the next president to bring the country together and “make America great again”.
Voters everywhere told us they want peace, stability – and decisive action on jobs, the pandemic, the economy. Sadly, these results are unlikely to deliver these things any time soon.
Citizens across most of the world will breathe a sigh of relief if they see Donald Trump leave office. But, as Craig from Florida put it a few weeks ago when he decided not to cast a ballot: “I don’t know who will win on 3 November. But I do know it won’t be the American people.”