Despite who wins, here’s what we have already lost
It appears as if Joe Biden has a good chance of being the next president. And that is a win and an important win after Donald Trump’s four-year assault on decency and on the Office of the President. But the story of this election — the closeness of it despite the horror of this administration and of the Republican politicians who debased themselves by not fighting back against the emperor with dno clothes — is also a story of loss.
Prior to last night, one could imagine a blue wave sweeping across the country. If Biden wins, books will be written that focus on how he won, but the real story is that it was even a contest. Trump won in 2016 despite, or because, of the Access Hollywood tape and his seemingly vile displays of xenophobia. If we were a decent society, if Americans cared about other Americans, 2020 should not have been a contest.
All that should have mattered was the Democratic primary. It should not have mattered that democrats went for the safe choice, the center, establishment choice, because the option offered by Republicans, an incumbent president intent on destroying the basic fabric of the country, should have been rejected by broad swaths of the country. The books that should be written place Trump exactly where he wants to be — at the center of the narrative.
How is it that so many voters looked at the last four years and thought, “I want more of that”? The administration’s abject failure to deal with the COVID19 pandemic should have been enough for Biden to win 70-30. Amid a pandemic, one would have thought at least that many Americans would want an adult steering the ship.
After the 2016 election, there was a wave of books, many quite good, that explored the origins of white resentment that Trump is so deft at manipulating. And after decades of stagnant wage growth for large swaths of the population, the country needed to pay attention to rising inequality and the related feelings of political alienation that Trump tapped into. Even if Biden eventually wins, the major question should not be how he won, but why it was even close.
Critical trade policy books could help. The closeness of the 2020 election demands even more analysis of the ways the pain associated with the free trade policies championed by establishment democrats is not distributed evenly across the country. One of the central organizing principles of the neoliberal order is that free trade is good.
Yes, there will be losers, but the growth in the size of the pie makes losses in manufacturing or other previously protected industries worth it. But such theoretical arguments look pretty shallow if little to no effort is made to compensate those who lost their jobs or if the gains from trade flow to only a small segment of the population. As an academic, I have to think that such explorations would help.
But the biggest explanation on why this election is close is obvious to everyone: Trump and the Republican Party have used racial anxiety to garner votes — it was apparent when looking at the support Trump received last night. There was no question that openly racist conservative voters — those who valorize the Confederacy or celebrate the “good old days” of segregation — would get in line behind a president who defended the “very fine people on both sides” of the protests in Charlottesville.
But the distance between those voters and the voters who quietly agreed with Jared Kushner’s claim that Black people “must want to be successful” in order for Trump’s policies to help them is not all that great. Those are the voters who made this election close despite the daily reminders that the Trump administration is intent on breaking everything.
Racism and lost privilege arguably play the most important parts, but there are other factors as well. It should not be an answer to simply blame Russia, as was done after 2016, or blame ignorance, as seems like a likely 2020 scapegoat.
But more is needed. Some of the post-2020 election explorations can be academic, but it should also be done by communities. Why is it that so many white Americans vote in ways that show their continued indifference to the ongoing subordination of racial minorities living in the United States? For much of the last four years, those of us who looked on in horror could try to convince ourselves that the 2016 election was a fluke. A result of sexism perhaps or perhaps economic resentment, but something that the nice people down the street or in our own families just had to regret.
This election’s closeness challenges that optimistic effort to treat 2016 as a one-off event. What does it say that so many whites chose to fly giant Trump MAGA flags? Has Trump successfully moved the country back to its seeming default position, “love thy neighbor as thyself” unless the neighbor is non-white? Do they not know that supporting Trump and his Republican enablers in Congress says to the people who see such a flag that they do not care about Trump’s racism? Or, scarier still, do they just not care about making such a statement? Even if Biden wins, the closeness of this election shows bad things have gotten in this country.
Ezra Rosser is a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @EzraRosser.