As the results of the election come gradually into sharper focus, both parties have good reason to be frustrated. Both have been rebuked in some important respects by the electorate. And both rebukes are justified. If the parties are willing to learn from them, the result might be good for our politics.
In a sense, the election epitomizes our era of negative partisanship. Each party ran primarily by highlighting the danger of the other, and the public took both warnings to heart. The Democrats ran against Donald Trump, and look to have persuaded the electorate to dismiss him. The Republicans ran against the increasingly radical Democratic activist base, and look to have persuaded the electorate to reject them. Neither party has gained a mandate, and both are left wondering how they can build a majority coalition in the coming years. That could end up being a constructive question.
President Trump was not decisively repudiated in this election. He narrowly lost a few states that he had narrowly won last time. But Trump ran behind the modal Republican in many places, so that a meaningful number of the voters who said no to the Democrats also said no to Trump. And the sheer number of Americans who said no to the president is pretty staggering. This election was a referendum on the incumbent to an even greater degree than a normal reelection race because the challenger was so bland and weak a figure. Very few voters could be excited about Joe Biden. And yet he has drawn a massive turnout and, as 21st-century presidential races go, looks likely to win fairly comfortably. What Biden offered these voters had amazingly little to do with him. He offered an opportunity to reject Donald Trump.
And Republicans need to grasp that voters were right to want to reject Donald Trump. Over and over again, Trump has shown himself profoundly unfit for the presidency — and his behavior since Election Day has only added further evidence to the pile. Trump’s curious combination of narcissism and self-pity has proven oddly alluring to some on the right, but it has made the Right intensely obnoxious to many in the middle while making Trump incapable of acting like a president. I do not doubt that most of his supporters have backed him in the name of some core ideals of American life they rightly view as gravely threatened by the Left, but that does not excuse his incapacities. There are surely lessons to be learned from Trump’s political successes, but his presidency will ultimately be judged a failure because his character was never up to the job — and character is a matter neither of style nor of aesthetics but of the essential substance of executive leadership. Even if we don’t like what it leaves us with, we need to see that voters had every reason to reject Donald Trump.
But voters have also rejected the woke Left and the activist base of the Democratic Party, electing more Republicans to Congress across the country and so diminishing the Democrats’ majority in the House, probably keeping a Republican Senate (though we may not know that until the two Georgia runoffs in January), and in any case almost certainly closing off the possibility of Court-packing, adding states to the Union, or killing the filibuster. Even in California, voters said no to a misguided affirmative-action ballot measure.
And Democrats need to grasp that voters were right to reject the extremism of their activists. The radical cultural Left, which is ascendant within their party, is dangerously illiberal and often openly hostile to our inheritance as Americans. Its adherents do not say that America has failed to live up to its ideals; they reject those ideals and embrace in their place a witches’ brew of half-blind pseudo-history, crude racialism, disproven economics, and misdirected guilt. I do not doubt that most of them do this in the name of justice, and in response to real injustices, but that does not excuse their myopic recklessness. They risk closing off every arena of public engagement, learning, accommodation, grace, and compromise, and so every path to social peace. These radical voices are a minority, increasingly distant from the heart of the country. But they are not dissidents. They exercise great influence in the institutions of the American establishment, and so have very real cultural and economic power. In this election, they have sought greater political power too. But the electorate has rejected them.
This rejection was exceptionally broad-based, and in ways that should alarm Democrats because they suggest that the Democrats’ expectations about the electoral implications of the country’s changing demographic composition may not be right. After this election, the Republican Party looks younger and more ethnically diverse than it has in some time, and it looks more than ever to be the party of the working class and lower-middle class. Obviously support for Donald Trump is part of the reason for that. And yet it looks like a GOP led by Trump cannot make this coalition work. The question for Republicans now is how a GOP without Trump can hold it together and build on it.
That the public is powerfully put off by the Democratic Party’s turn to radical cultural liberalism should help calm some of the most intense social-conservative worries about the direction of the country. And that the public is powerfully turned off by Donald Trump should help calm some of the most intense progressive fears about the future of our democracy. For both parties, the resulting somewhat calmer look at the political terrain should point toward lessons about where American politics is headed in the 21st century.
At least at first glance, the terrain looks more promising for Republicans than for Democrats. If both parties hear what the electorate has said this year, each would try to bring itself closer to the public’s preferences and desires. That may turn out to be much more achievable for Republicans, because with this election the Republicans’ unpopular leader will be gone (provided they can let him go) but the Democrats’ unpopular activist base will still be here, clamoring for influence over the Biden administration and intent on using administrative power to advance an unpopular agenda.
Republicans will have some room to think about how best to build and sustain a multi-ethnic, pro-American, working- and middle-class coalition. That will almost certainly require a greater degree of open and formal factionalization within the party than we’ve seen in decades — with a more populist wing and a more libertarian wing not fighting for exclusive ownership of the party but negotiating to run the party as a coalition, with each also open to sometimes working with elements of the Democratic coalition to move cross-party measures on some issues. None of that would be simple, and none of it could happen quickly. But if Republicans (and especially those most eager to make the party more populist and better connect it with its working-class electorate) can free themselves of the disgraceful cult of personality that has built up around Donald Trump himself, this kind of evolution is more than possible.
Democrats are more used to thinking of themselves as a coalition, but they will have a harder time here because of the cultural power of the woke activists within the party, and because of the pressures involved in governing in this new environment. Biden may give the activists some power over administrative actions, but the election suggests that these would be politically risky. And if Biden chooses to resist the activists instead, he will face revolts across the party. In any case, the Democrats will have to shelve nearly all their legislative plans and policy priorities, and are likely to find the next few years very frustrating.
One crucial factor that will shape this factionalization in both parties is that their internal divisions may be sharpest over economics. We sometimes implicitly imagine each party as unified around an economic vision and divided over social issues, but that view is well out of date. Today, each of the two parties is unified around social issues (broadly speaking) but internally divided over economics. Neither party quite has the intellectual infrastructure for dealing with this reality, but both are working on it.
Of course, elections don’t offer us the opportunity to simply reject what we don’t like. In saying no to Donald Trump, voters have made Joe Biden the president. In saying no to congressional Democrats, voters have probably given us divided government, or at least a narrowly divided Senate. That doesn’t seem to have been done out of any love for congressional Republicans or for Biden. Neither party can walk away from this election with a mandate, and the next few years don’t seem likely to be the scene of much ambitious policy action. Maybe there will be some compromise legislative measures here and there, but it’s not clear if Senate Republicans have the confidence to play their part in such compromises. Maybe the Biden administration will pursue an aggressive liberal agenda of executive action, but we have now seen in both the Obama and the Trump years how ephemeral such action is by itself.
So although elections empower their winners, this election looks likely above all to end up sending a warning message to both parties. It’s not likely that many particular voters intended to send exactly this combination of messages, but the genius of our system has aggregated their voices into what the parties need to hear. It’s no wonder that everyone seems frustrated.