Last summer in this space, I wrote that although Joe Biden was intermittently making noises about a new New Deal, he could just as likely end up a twenty-first-century Warren G. Harding, a caretaker president overseeing a dreary return to normalcy.
How optimistic I was.
What my analogy failed to account for was that Harding won 1920 in a walk. He carried 60.3 percent of the popular vote and every state outside the South. Republicans had majorities of eighty-five seats in the House and ten in the Senate, plus a friendly Supreme Court. The GOP, in short, could govern.
Democrats can’t, and that’s just the start of their problems—and ours. Liberals who don’t want to face up to the disappointing results of four years #Resisting have taken solace in a few comforting myths, all of which need to be discarded if we are going to think clearly about the work ahead.
Easiest to dispense with is the claim that Democrats actually won a decisive victory. A few percentage points in the presidential race, a couple seats in the Senate, a net loss in the House, and a pratfall in state legislatures is no landslide. And unless the economy roars back to life after COVID-19, it could very well be the best result that Democrats have for a while.
Next up is the claim that the Bad Orange Man is gone forever. After losing in a squeaker and increasing his vote total from 2016 by over 10 million, Trump has every reason to stick around. (Unless federal prosecutors and the Manhattan District Attorney do what Robert Mueller couldn’t.) More important, his success points the way for post-Trump right-wing populism that Democrats—like center-left parties around the world—still have not come up with a reliable strategy for combating.
Last of all is the belief that because love/science/democracy was on the ballot, Trump voters can be written off as racists, sexists, cranks, authoritarians, and other miscellaneous bigots—a backpack of despicables, you could say. Did he pander to prejudice more explicitly than any president in recent American history? Absolutely. But according to early returns, white women and people of color were a majority of Trump’s coalition. Reducing their motivation to bigotry is bad thinking and worse politics.
Dissent, of course, is home to neither. There’s a new president, but our job is the same: finding the quickest escape route out of today’s needlessly cruel world toward something better. A long national nightmare is over. Another is just beginning. We’ll be here for it all, making the dark a little more bearable, and trying to fix the broken alarm clock.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.