On Monday, November 9, Dissent co-editor Timothy Shenk moderated a roundtable on the 2020 U.S. elections with Sheri Berman, Adom Getachew, Michael Kazin, Aziz Rana, and Matthew Sitman. The following transcript of that discussion has been edited for clarity and length.
Timothy Shenk: I want to read a quotation from Virginia Congresswoman and former CIA operations officer Abigail Spanberger from a meeting of congressional Democrats after the election last week:
Tuesday, from a congressional standpoint, it was a failure. . . . we lost members who shouldn’t have lost. . . . The number one thing that people brought to me . . . was defunding the police. . . . we need to get back to the basics that brought us across the finish line in 2018. . . . We need to not use the word “socialist” or “socialism” ever again, because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter, and we lost good members because of it. In my background, and I know y’all know it, coming from the CIA, the first thing you do is always do an after-action, and you dig into everything you did right, and everything you did wrong. And if we are classifying Tuesday as a success from a congressional standpoint, we will get fucking torn apart in 2022.
In the spirit of the CIA, let’s do our own after-action report. Is Spanberger right?
Sheri Berman: I think she’s completely correct. Biden turned out to be the right candidate for the right time. His ability to project a moderate, no red state versus blue state kind of thing was the absolute best way to counter the lunacy that was being peddled by the right. He managed to mute a lot of the critiques Spanberger was talking about. At a time when wavering voters were looking for some relief from the constant turmoil and tension, his connection with the past and his forty-eight years as an establishment politician played better than they would have in a different, pre-pandemic time.
The losses, or less extensive gains, elsewhere—in the Senate, Congress, the state level—are a really big deal. The Democrats need to think very carefully about that. You can imagine a candidate that’s harder to beat than Trump. The Republican Party was unified behind him, but the Democrats still didn’t manage to make the headway that one would’ve thought they would have. A very cutting, honest, and open post-mortem on the election is necessary.
Giving Republicans ammunition that has only symbolic value is an own goal, and people need to recognize that’s not the way to win elections. You can talk about all of the things that we care about—an expanded social safety net, dealing with inequality, making the American economy fairer for everyone—without using terms that are going to allow the Republicans to send voters running. Clearly, “defund the police” and “socialism” are among those terms. That’s not a compromise of our principles; that’s just what politics is about. We need to learn from this election, which should have been a blowout.
Adom Getachew: Flipping Georgia and Arizona were really historic victories for the Democratic Party. When we think about how that happened, we have to pay homage to the people who did the work of turnout and registration on the ground. In Arizona this was primarily done by UNITE HERE members, most of whom were laid off after the pandemic started. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams and others have built an incredible machine for registering folks and for getting the vote out.
It’s true that the Democrats will have to do a deep dive into this election, but the discourse coming from a number of congresspeople right now is bizarre. They’ve said for four years that socialists in the party are irrelevant and have no power. And yet they’re blaming AOC and others like her for their losses in the election. I don’t disagree that anxieties around the discourse of “defund the police” had some effect on the election, but it’s also the case that in some states new registration for Democrats was lower than Republicans until the summer, when George Floyd was murdered and the protests began. That’s when we see a massive increase in Democratic Party registration. It clearly had a galvanizing effect on the base.
How we talk about the question of policing with folks who aren’t persuaded yet or who are scared is important, but it seems to me that trying to silence and marginalize the folks who are doing the work of activism and turnout and energizing the base is a real mistake for the party. And there are a bunch of other possible reasons for weak Democratic performance including basic strategic errors, like not spending enough time and resources in Texas.
Michael Kazin: We wanted redemption, but we got relief. And redemption is a while away. The problem the Democrats have is that they’re a heterogenous party, and they have been since the 1960s, when they, at least officially, got rid of their racist past and pushed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Spanberger wouldn’t win in AOC’s district in the primary, and AOC wouldn’t win Spanberger’s district. Democrats have to find a way, as they always have (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to make both progressives and centrists happy. Biden really didn’t try to do that; he didn’t have to, because the election was all about Trump. All the Democratic operatives I know said, if the election’s about Trump, we win; if it’s about Biden, we lose. Biden was not the kind of candidate Obama was, or even that Clinton was in 1992. He was a generic white Democrat. That was good enough to win pretty convincingly in the popular vote. Only because of our ridiculously stupid eighteenth-century way of electing presidents was it even close.
Activists on the left were crucial in winning key states like Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. But they alone were not going to win control of the Senate or expand the majority in House. We have to figure out the few ideas and programs to push that will win over people in the middle who are part of neither side’s base. Some of those people were won over in Georgia, Arizona, and even Pennsylvania—Erie County had been Democratic, went for Trump in 2016, and then went narrowly for Biden. Though I don’t think Bernie would’ve won, I think he was right that you have to push universal programs, you have to have economic populist messaging, and if you don’t do that, you’re prey to falling into the culture wars.
And as far as “defund the police”—there’s no society in the world, as far as I know, that doesn’t have police. But you have a powerful movement with this demand. Political people have to figure out how to talk about reforming the police without using a term like “defund,” which to most people meant “abolish the police,” which is not something you’re going win on, probably even in AOC’s district.
Aziz Rana: I’ve been struck by the unwillingness of the Democratic establishment to engage in any kind of introspection. Centrist candidates underperform and then blame the left. This has been the play for, what, over twenty years? It’s what those around Gore did with Nader and was Clinton’s story in 2016, and I find it dispiriting to see it rehashed again. That does not mean the left is necessarily blameless. But there are many reasons that you can give for the underperformance that are not about “defund,” or socialism generally, outside small pockets of the country like south Florida.
Here are various alternative explanations. Discussions of “defund” peaked in June, and while I support that approach it is not clear how significant that perspective was to these House races. Biden ran a campaign that was entirely personality-based about Trump and deemphasized policy. He had Republicans, like the neoconservatives involved in the Lincoln Project, participate in the national convention and involved in ad campaigns, which gave a permission structure for people to split their ballot. There were all sorts of problems with the digital campaigns run by some of the candidates that lost, who were overwhelmingly from the conservative wing of the party and were explicitly opposed to things like Medicare for All and “defund the police.”
More broadly, one might question whether this was a natural moment for a blue wave. Globally, the pandemic has actually helped incumbents. It’s the kind of event where citizens often don’t blame the party in power. Trump was uniquely unpopular in this context. So under that reading it may not be a surprise that he lost the general, while other Republicans did better in congressional districts and statewide races. All of this is to say that it’s a really complicated picture. Yet the knee-jerk response of the center is to cut against the left, and that strikes me as a profound problem for the Democratic Party.
It is a way to avoid confronting the party’s central institutional dilemma. Given the undemocratic features of the political system, in order for Democrats to effectively govern they can’t just win a majority of popular support. Indeed, Democrats have been winning majorities in election after election. But because of state-based representation, gerrymandering, and a host of counter-majoritarian roadblocks, they actually have to win something like a super-majority. That creates incentives for the mainstream of the Democratic Party to think you have to run to the right to get that super-majority—to capture center-right voters who essentially lean Republican. But if you run to the right, not only do you end up embracing policies that are destructive for the country, you undermine the enthusiasm of your own base. The party is stuck in this catch-22, and the center is unwilling to confront it, because they have a built-in history going back to the Cold War of attacking the left.
Matthew Sitman: I thought this election, based on the polling, was going to be something like what Sheri mentioned earlier: a persuasion election, where Biden, a broadly acceptable elder statesman who conveyed empathy and decency, would win over voters whose ties to Trump or the Republican Party had been loosened by the pandemic, or who just wanted an alternative to his incompetency—including the kinds of so-called independent voters that broke for Trump last time. But as Eric Levitz recently pointed out, most Americans are better off now, financially, then they were four years ago, in part due to the CARES Act. When you combine that with the fact that Trump turned out 10 million more voters than he did in 2016, it raises the question: was this less of a persuasion election than a turnout election? I thought Biden was well-suited for the former; despite his success at the top of the ticket, it’s not clear to me, in hindsight and when considering the overall results, if he was the ideal candidate for the latter, or if the better bet would have been to draw sharper substantive distinctions that went beyond being not-Trump.
I also would say that we should take a lot of the exit polls with a grain of salt until we know more, and I’m especially hesitant to make big claims about how “defund the police” or fears of “socialism” ranked in voters’ minds. As Ezra Klein has pointed out, not only do Democrats control the House, the part of our government closest to the people, they have won more votes than Republicans in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, and they’ve won more votes over the last three Senate elections. But because our political system counts states and districts rather than people, our political geography means that there are places Democrats will have to win where the median voter is center-right. That tension is partly why these discussions about who’s to blame for underperforming expectations down ballot can be confusing, because you have a party that’s winning more votes while losing actual power. Our political system is driving these outcomes, and it presents Democrats with strategic problems that I’m not sure always map onto the ideological divides in the party—or rather, they go beyond them.
Shenk: We started with Spanberger. Now let’s go to AOC. This is from an interview she gave to the New York Times on November 7, talking about the relationship between the Democratic Party establishment and the progressive movement.
The leadership and elements of the party—frankly, people in some of the most important decision-making positions in the party—are becoming so blinded to this anti-activist sentiment that they are blinding themselves to the very assets that they offer. . . .
I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy. And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy. This isn’t even just about winning an argument. It’s that if they keep going after the wrong thing, I mean, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.
How should we think about the left’s relationship to the Democratic establishment after this election?
Berman: Saying that we should not be pushing things like “defund the police” or using words like “socialism” does not mean that we don’t care about reforming the police and expanding the social safety net. I don’t think anyone in the Democratic Party believes we don’t have problems with racism in this country; that the police don’t need to be reformed; that we don’t need to do something about healthcare and education. I don’t hear voices in the Democratic Party saying we don’t need to deal with the problems of historically disadvantaged communities, or that we do not have an economy that has very significant problems, or that we do not have social divisions in this country that need to be healed. The question is, how do you talk about these policies, and how do you sell them to a wide range of voters?
There’s no doubt that people like AOC have been incredibly mobilizing. But the idea that the only activists out there registering voters and mobilizing voters are people on the left is just empirically not true. A lot of the grassroots activism is coming from suburban women and other constituencies within the Democratic Party. This is a much more ideologically diverse party than the Republicans, and if we want to win elections, we need to bring people together on the policies and appeals that can keep that coalition together.
On that point, Democrats did not win more Black and Latino voters than Clinton did. For all of the activism, they did not vote more for the Democrats; they defected to Trump. They want things that they did not feel the Democratic Party was offering them. Where Biden ended up doing better was among a variety of white groups. I don’t think Trump or the Republicans care about any working-class or middle-class people, but that is still something that we really need to think hard about. What do these voters actually want? We cannot take them for granted.
Getachew: We saw a Democratic campaign that spent a lot of time and resources trying to turn out Republicans. That, too, failed. More Republicans voted for Trump this time than they did in 2016. So I share AOC’s fear that the party is constantly chasing a particular sort of suburban voter, which is something like a Reagan Democrat. In fact, the suburbs have been radically transformed by immigration, by demographic shifts. This is not to say that those folks are for defunding the police, but it’s a different kind of configuration from just ten or fifteen years ago. I’m from the Virginia suburbs of D.C., which have helped to turn Virginia blue, and this is a place that is less white and younger than it was a decade ago.
I also find it shocking how “defund the police” has become this slogan that supposedly prevented the Democrats from gaining seats in the House. The Democratic Party, including the top of the ticket, made it very clear they do not support “defund the police.” They put together a reform bill in early June, in the context of the uprisings, that would likely provide more funding for the police.
It’s crazy to run a political campaign and a party that’s constantly fixating on what the other side says about you. The Republicans are going to call the Democrats socialists, and they’re going to use law-and-order dog whistles. Left policies are really popular. “Fight for $15” won in Florida, with a million more votes than Biden got. The question is: why don’t voters think that support for this policy program, which was part of Biden’s platform, should entail a vote for the Democratic Party? Why this mismatch?
In terms of AOC’s fear that this will be John Kasich’s party, we’ll have to see if that bears out. There is some sense in which the party has moved closer to the left. Its 2020 platform is more progressive than the one from the 2016. It’s striking that Chuck Schumer is talking about student debt cancellation—not total student debt cancellation, but $50,000, which is way more than what was in the Biden platform. I think Democrats will try to get some popular policy programs passed, even as they try to discipline their base. Whether that will yield the kinds of majorities they think it will, I’m not sure.
Kazin: It’s important to draw distinctions between different left proposals. “Fight for $15” is a popular left-wing proposal. The public option is a popular proposal. Medicare for All, I’m not sure. “Defund the police” is not a popular left-wing proposal. The idea that if you don’t accept every left idea, you are betraying the left, is absurd.
The old cliché is that armies fight the last war. In 2018 Democrats flipped the House by forty seats, because they won the suburbs. All the polls showed that the same thing would happen this year. We don’t know yet exactly what happened—some races haven’t even been called. Whether the Democrats lose seven seats or twelve seats will make a big difference in terms of what they can get through the House.
When we think about the party, however, we also have to think about civil society institutions, which are central to helping Democrats win. If the Democrats are going to become a real majority party again, it’s got to be with the help of some of these groups. Indivisible, for example, was certainly helpful in 2018, and evidently was this year as well. We talked about the massive registration effort that Abrams and those who worked with her did in Georgia. I just saw this morning that 74 percent of eligible voters voted in Georgia. It’s probably going be a little lower than that nationally, but in Georgia, where you usually have a harder time trying to get younger people and African Americans to vote in the same numbers as rural whites, that’s pretty amazing.
And then there’s labor. You don’t win a state like Nevada unless you have amazing mobilization by the Culinary Workers local, who help Democrats carry Clark County even though they lose almost every other county in the state. Exit polls are probably going to be revised a lot, but it looks like union members voted for Biden over Trump by about 56 to 40 percent—which means a majority of white union members probably voted for Trump. But if you can boost unions and double their density, you’re going to have a lot more Democrats winning seats in the House, and probably the Senate too.
We focus too much on whether people bash the DNC or praise it, and we forget that a winning party is made up of intermediary institutions. That’s why Mexican-American voters helped get Biden over the top in Arizona but not in south Texas, because there are very different institutions, and different politics, in those places. We focus too much on what the media tells us the party is, instead of how people actually organize, turn out to vote, and persuade people in their own communities.
Rana: Zooming out a little bit, here’s my worry: the country is facing rolling social crises, and institutions are totally broken and dysfunctional. And that means, because of partisanship, that we’re trapped in a cycle where we see these lurches from election to election. One party is unable to effectively govern, and the other has policies that are so unpopular that they can only be imposed through deregulatory schemes in the executive branch. You end up with paralysis, disaffection, and then the other party takes over. I hate to be grim at a moment where people are understandably experiencing some cautious relief, but that feels like what we’re set up for: Biden won’t be able to govern effectively, and we don’t know what’s going happen in 2022, let alone 2024.
It’s not clear that the Democratic Party’s establishment has a model for creating something like a workable governing majority. The left has an argument: if you commit to a brand of economic populism, and you run on policies that have large-scale support but cut against the conventional wisdom of the 1980s and ’90s, you might, with the help of movement activists and various extra-electoral institutions on the ground, be able to build something like a workable majority and capture voters whose economic interests align with the Democratic Party. I don’t know if that actually is going to work. I do know that it hasn’t been tried. I wish it were tried, this election cycle, with Sanders, but we also have to confront the fact that the left wing of the party was unable to convince a majority of Democratic primary voters to pursue this path. Some of this had to do with an understandable fear on the part of voters of taking a step into the unknown, especially in the context of a dangerous and belligerently racist far right, embodied by Trump.
The left is more electorally powerful in the United States than it’s been at any other point in my life. But it hasn’t been able to break through and claim control of the Democratic Party. And the party leadership refuses to confront the fact that its approach seems destined to reproduce this current paralysis. I am concerned that unless there is a significant effort to recalibrate the coalition by pursuing something like the class-based, cross-racial alliance that Sanders was aiming for, it’s going to be very difficult to get out of the bind that the country faces. The left will have to convince party voters that the real risk is actually remaining bound to the centrist approach, one that has been recycled time and again. The hard part is that this convincing has to be done even if there is no certainty or proof that the left’s approach will solve the impasse.
Finally, one thing that’s distinctive about the Republican Party is that it has fully abandoned the Cold War fantasy of bipartisan agreement. We can see this most obviously in the seeming willingness of party officials to back Trump’s autocratic drive to delegitimize the election itself. But the Democratic Party leadership strikes me as still stuck in an earlier moment, hoping to turn back the clock, when the enormity of the political, economic, and constitutional dilemmas facing the country basically make that impossible. There is certainly a type of nostalgic safety in invoking that earlier moment, but the hope for normalcy is nonetheless an exercise in wish-fulfillment and only underscores the need for a genuine ideological change.
Sitman: I don’t like to bill myself as a Trump-voter whisperer, but I was struck by how totally disconnected the conversations I had with my family members in Blair County, Pennsylvania—which in 2016 went 71 percent for Trump—were from what Biden was campaigning on. One of my parents said that a public option was a Trojan horse for socialism; not just that Biden wanted to defund the police, but to get rid of the police entirely. You can go down the list. I would patiently try to explain that none of this was actually what Biden was running on, and it didn’t matter.
The Republican Party is a minority party that is holding onto power through our anti-democratic institutions, and that is producing a sort of permanent existential crisis. It’s the Flight 93 election over and over again for them. My family members believe that America itself is under threat. I’m not sure telling a few left-wing Democrats in the House to be quiet or telling activists not to do their work is going to change that. The fundamentals of why the Democratic Party is perceived the way it is go far beyond the messaging: it’s because the Republican Party and conservative media constantly are poisoning the minds of millions of people.
Democrats needs to stop writing off entire parts of the country. My friend Luke Mayville runs an organization called Reclaim Idaho that won a Medicaid expansion referendum in that very red state in 2018. In a lot of red states where these supposedly popular left-wing policy items, like a minimum wage of $15 an hour or Medicaid expansion, won, it was because of the margins in the cities and suburbs. Idaho was one of the only states where that sort of campaign won in rural counties. Luke helped organize teams in each county. The people they met in rural areas had almost no contact with the Democratic Party at all for years, apart from perfunctory campaign stops. This was some of the first face-to-face discussion and organizing and door-knocking that had ever really been done on a progressive issue in the state. And it turns out that made a difference.
My sense is that AOC’s right that the Democratic Party is pretty bad at this sort of politics. But where my parents live in central Pennsylvania, it’s not that the Republican Party is necessarily better at politics. My parents go to church. They’re a part of a network. I can tell that they’re getting information from sources connected to that network. They’re a part of groups and discussions that are off the radar. In certain areas, the closest thing there is to an infrastructure of mediating institutions are places like churches, and that gives Republicans an advantage. That means Democrats have to work harder to break through in these areas. Whether it’s unions, voter registration groups, or other forms of local activism, there has to be some kind of on-the-ground structure that engages people and tries to get them to shift somehow.
I don’t think you’re going to win over people in these parts of the country simply with finely calibrated messaging. Our system demands that Democrats do much better than Republicans to actually wield power. There are real questions about how you can win in these areas, but as Aziz pointed out, the left at least has an argument and, I’d say, even more, a tradition of organizing. The establishment wing of the party is just leaving these parts to the country to the side, while the messaging they think will appeal to so-called moderates isn’t really doing the job.
Shenk: Trump and the Republicans have factored in our conversation so far as everything the Democratic Party isn’t. Republicans are ideologically and demographically coherent and cohesive, whereas Democrats are all over the map. But maybe this is changing. I want to bring up a quote from Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who’s widely rumored to have his eye on a presidential run in 2024. This is what he tweeted on election night: “We are a working-class party now. That’s the future.” Later, he retweeted this from Adrian Vermeule, a conservative professor at Harvard Law School: “The future will be multiracial, working class, socially conservative populism and I can’t wait.”
Michael mentioned earlier that according to exit polls, Biden did better with union households nationally than Trump did. But in Ohio, voters in union households supported Trump by fourteen points—more than voters in non-union households, which supported him by just seven points.
Some leading intellectuals and politicians on the right are saying they want Republicans to be the party of the multiracial working class. That’s something I hear AOC say about the Democrats all the time, but not Nancy Pelosi. What do you make of this turn in the GOP?
Berman: There’s a tension between folks on the left claiming that they’re out there mobilizing people and rousing the troops, and then saying, well, isn’t it unfair that the Republicans tar the Democrats as socialists and defunders of the police, because, after all, that’s not what Biden ran on. You can’t go out there and say, we’re doing all the hard work and making the noise, and then complain that the Republicans are listening to you and using your words against you. I agree that the Republicans are going to try to tar the Democrats with these things regardless. My only point is, why make it easy for them?
By all survey data, there is very strong, even majority, support—including significant support within the Republican Party—for a whole variety of what might be considered left-wing economic policies. In fact, some Republicans, when you tell them exactly what the Republican Party advocates on tax policy, or the healthcare system, don’t even believe it. They assume there’s no possible way they could be advocating those kinds of things, because they’re so obviously unpopular.
Why are they able to do this? One reason is that voters are more left-wing on economic issues, but more centrist on non-economic ones. So focus on the former rather than the latter. Marco Rubio, or frankly any Republican candidate without Trump’s obvious disadvantages, would likely have pulled even more Latino voters to the Republicans. A Republican who advocated similar policies to Trump—including clear limits on immigration, an appeal to religious voters, and so on—but dropped Trump’s obvious racism would likely have done even better.
So pursue your policies, work for the interests of underprivileged minorities, focus your firepower on the economic issues where you have the voters with you and where that cross-class coalition exists. Again, the question is how you talk about these things, and the kinds of things that you focus on in national campaigns, so that you can hold together that diverse coalition. There’s actually a lot of agreement here, I think, among us and the various groups within the Democratic Party; a lot of the division has to do with the questions of emphasis, priorities, and symbolism.
Republicans have captured voters and civil society organizations. They have outrun us at the state and local level in ways that mean that we have to fight harder to get our message across than they do. That is where AOC’s critique about the organizational deficiencies of the Democratic Party is right on target. If we want to win over the long term, we have to be able to rebuild a party that can reach down deep into the grassroots in all fifty states. I believe the Democrats have a winning message. I just don’t believe that everyone understands how to sell it. And I’m not talking about selling something that’s watered-down crap. I’m talking about selling something substantive and important.
Getachew: My favorite moment of election week was hearing a Fox News anchor have to say out loud what percentage of the American people support universal healthcare. It’s absolutely true that these kinds of policies are popular. Trump made overtures to a certain kind of right-wing populism, and Rubio tweeted something very similar to Hawley the week of the election about being a working-class party. These figures are trying to reconstitute their constituency and imagine a version of economic populism palatable to the right. But they will have their own uphill battle to persuade party leaders and members to go that route.
But I think this should be a real warning to the Democratic Party: they may have been the party of economic redistribution, but they may no longer have a monopoly on that question. We might even read the small, but not insignificant inroads that Trump made among Latino and African-American voters as signaling the possible wider appeal of a version of right-wing populism. Though we want to be careful around this year’s exit polls, it looks like those who ranked the economy as their primary concern were more likely to vote for Trump. This could be Trump getting credit for the pre-pandemic economy. It could also be that what the economy means here really is anxieties about the consequences of lockdowns on small businesses.
These overtures from the right might not amount to much at the end of the day, but it makes it much more necessary for the Democrats to try out the left’s argument: to be very clear about a set of egalitarian commitments, and then do the work to build a majority across the country that would support that program.
It’s really important, though, that the question of racial injustice not be treated simply as a matter of symbolism or as a side story to and distraction from the question of economic populism. There’s a lot of work to do around these questions, but the Movement for Black Lives has a platform that links policing to wider questions of state violence and links abolition to economic redistribution and transformation. These issues must be intimately connected to what kind of economy and social order the left wants to build. Building a consensus around that message is going to be different in different kinds of communities. It will require the kinds of institutions and interactions that Matt was talking about, which would allow a wider swath of citizen to come into contact with the Democratic Party and encounter the projects and political programs that the left represents beyond its caricature on Fox News.
Kazin: I’m writing a whole book arguing that Democrats do best when they stress economic populism, so I’m not going to disagree with that. But the problem with Hawley’s statement is that the working class is becoming less and less white. And despite all the handwringing about Latinx voters moving toward the Republicans, the exit polls show there wasn’t a national shift in their partisanship: about two-thirds voted for Clinton in 2016 and for Biden this year too. More Latinx are voting Democratic in Arizona and Nevada, and fewer in south Florida and south Texas. The idea that Black and brown people were all moving together toward the Democratic Party, and that if you’re from a background where people speak Spanish, that’s the same strong political identity as someone who comes from a background of people whose family were slaves—it was always a myth.
We do have to think about how to define class better than we have. If you go to church and you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, or if you’re an Orthodox Jew, you’re much more likely to be a Republican no matter what your occupation is. And if abortion is an issue that really matters to you and you’re working class, you’re going to vote Republican—and that includes evangelical Latinx people, too. Economic populism is more of a unifier, and it leads to more universal programs but only if working people get past their profound cultural and religious differences.
At the same time, we have to think about other aspects of what’s going on in our culture and our politics. Just because Democrats talk more about universal healthcare and the $15 minimum wage doesn’t mean that’s going to change the minds of people in Blair County, because, as Matt says, the idea that people like us want to tear the country apart is a deeply held belief there. Similarly, if Republicans started talking more about helping working-class people, hardly any Democrats I know would believe them. The cultural gap is as large as it’s ever been. Class is not just class. Class is religion, class is race, class is region, and if we only think about class being economic, we’re going to misunderstand what’s going on.
One of the bright spots is that Trump was a particularly brilliant performer, and we won’t have to deal with him anymore, at least I hope not. I hate to admit it, but I kind of enjoyed watching him on television. He can be riveting, the way other demagogues like Father Coughlin and George Wallace were. I’m not sure there’s any Republican, Hawley or Rubio or anyone else, who’s going to be able to appeal to people in the same way. Democrats lost seats in the House in part because people who didn’t vote in 2018 came out to vote for Trump in 2020, and most voted for other Republicans as well. The fact that the Wicked Witch is dead could be a real plus going forward.
Shenk: The historian Winthrop Jordan said that when you wanted to understand how someone thought about race, you had to understand how they thought about everything. I think you could probably say the same thing about class.
Rana: The first thing I’d like to say is unrelated to the question: one of the real dysfunctions of our electoral process is the fact that we had an entire presidential campaign and a rehash of what happened with so little reference to foreign policy, beyond both candidates jingoistically posturing as “tough” on China. For all the talk of the end of the American century, the United States remains the dominant superpower. What happens in the United States has massive rippling effects on the global economy as well as on regional rivalries and alliances. Today, we have two options on the table: the belligerent, ethno-nationalist version of American power that you get with Trump, or a return to a hawkish, Cold War national security establishment, also built on us versus them thinking, represented by Biden. Biden’s foreign policy approach, and the team that he’s likely convening, remains wedded to American primacy and international police power, despite both proving disastrous. He and those around him are fundamentally opposed to the type of reorientation the United States and the world need. As past proponents of interventionist and neoliberal policies, they are not remotely up to addressing global conditions wrought by those very policies. I’d hoped that one of the effects of 2016, when Trump effectively ran as the antiwar candidate versus Clinton, would be for the Democratic Party to begin a serious debate over its relationship to the national security establishment. Unfortunately, that’s a conversation that’s been systematically foreclosed, and the left will have to find ways to open it.
On the question: the Republican Party is demographically an almost exclusively white party. I take with a huge grain of salt the notion that it is becoming a multiracial working-class party. References to the idea do suggest, though, a growing recognition among some Republicans that Reaganomics has no significant base. The party’s donor class is invested in policies that are deeply unpopular. That’s one of the reasons why Republicans are currently poised to remain a minority party.
The issue is that despite this minority status, the structure of the constitutional system ensures that the party can wield real power. It can control the Supreme Court, it can control the Senate, it has a disproportionate ability to take over the presidency. In the United States, authoritarianism is not a problem of a tyranny of the majority. It’s not populism, as a lot of the center or Lincoln Project folks fear. It’s the way in which existing institutions facilitate minority rule, and then create incentives within the elite of that minority coalition to oppose democracy.
I should add that this is a long-standing problem in American life. We do not need to look abroad for examples of authoritarianism. Explicit white supremacy from the founding to the passing of the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s was entrenched through a system of minority rule, aided by the constitutional structure, in which a small set of white elites violently rejected democracy in order to preserve their own rule. As for today, the anti-democratic worldview of a conservative elite seemingly defines the Republican Party and threatens the country as a whole.
The only way to break through this impasse is for the Democratic Party to get a governing majority and impose dramatic changes to the constitutional order—to play what law scholars are calling “constitutional hardball.” This includes eliminating the Electoral College, passing H.R. 1—which aims to extend the franchise, combat gerrymandering, and reduce donor influence—making D.C. into a state, and enacting significant court reforms, like ending lifetime tenure and dramatically altering the composition of the Supreme Court. In the longer term, the left needs to find a pathway to a basic redesign of our legal-political institutions, including by simplifying the amendment process to the constitution itself. The ambition of all reforms must be to truly enfranchise the whole polity and to create a genuine democracy in a country that has never known one.
If the legal-political order is democratized, then the right won’t be able to use minority instruments to hold onto power. But there are no guaranteed fixes, as illustrated by the apparent willingness of the Republican leadership to go down the rabbit hole with Trump. The election results, given conservative dominance of the courts and the reality of split government, are not particularly bad for the Republican Party. But the response by the right underscores that the party is increasingly undemocratic in its existential identity. The question is what would happen if the left were actually to win electorally, let alone pursue needed democratizing changes. I believe deeply that such institutional transformation has to be at the forefront of any left-liberal agenda, but the Republican response in this moment underscores just how intense that struggle for change will be.
Sitman: Aziz gets at why the election results are disappointing for me, beyond the normal push and pull—the Senate didn’t go our way, or we lost some House seats. The great hope was that Democrats would run the table in this election and then impose real changes: nuke the filibuster, add more states (and with them, Senate seats), and so on. I felt like it was a pivotal election in that regard. The Thursday after the election, I was watching Fox News, and it was a deranged alternate universe, preparing people to view Biden as a totally illegitimate president, because the election was stolen. I don’t know where that goes.
I do want to see more data on just how well Trump did with African-Americans and Hispanic and Latinx voters; I’m interested, partly, in how much better he might’ve done with men in those groups, because some of those numbers might be downstream from a gender gap that adds further complications to all this.
But I agree that the Republican Party, despite what Hawley or (especially) Vermeule says, is not a multiracial working-class party. It’s a party held together by its commitment to thwarting democracy, and its reliance on undemocratic features of our Constitution, in service of plutocracy. That’s the core of it. This election comes at a moment where the Republican Party has totally turned against democracy, and now it doesn’t seem like we’ll have the opportunity to make the institutional fixes that might’ve let us begin to rebalance our political system and let the majority of the country’s political will matter.
The only way the Republican Party is going to moderate is through the democratization of our system. They would actually have to compete for more votes to win, rather than being able to ride to power on a minority vote. That’s the only way the fever’s going to break. And that’s the reason why, despite my great relief at Biden winning, I was disappointed. I see this bigger problem on the horizon.
Like Michael, I do wonder how much the whole thing depended on Trump holding it together. He created a sense of allegiance, generated feelings in his supporters. Hawley and Tom Cotton are as charismatic as a wet towel. If I have any hope going forward, despite these rather pessimistic comments, it would be that Trump held it all together in a way I’m not sure other candidates will.
Kazin: One final thing we didn’t talk about at all is climate change. If there’s anything that I’m really happy about with Biden winning, it’s that, under Trump, this disaster would have accelerated. Now there is a possibility for a better climate change policy, but a lot depends, as always, on pressure from movements below. Biden talked more about climate in his campaign than he did about a $15 an hour wage, or about unions, and we know he’ll rejoin the Paris Agreement. But there’s a lot he can do with executive orders—we’ll have to see.
Sheri Berman is a professor of politics at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author, most recently, of Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.
Adom Getachew teaches political theory at the University of Chicago. She is author of Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.
Michael Kazin is editor emeritus of Dissent. He is a professor of history at Georgetown University and is writing a history of the Democratic Party.
Aziz Rana teaches at Cornell Law School and is the author of The Two Faces of American Freedom. He is completing a book, Rise of the Constitution, that explores the modern emergence of constitutional veneration in the twentieth century and how it has shaped popular politics.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.
Matthew Sitman is associate editor of Commonweal and cohost of the podcast Know Your Enemy.