American politics reaches new inflection with heated election

American politics reaches new inflection with heated election
© Getty Images

The 2020 election has dueling mandates. Despite losses for Democrats in down ballot races, Joe Biden has won the most votes of any candidate for president in our history. He is on a road to surpass the 1980 popular vote majority of Ronald Reagan at just over 50 percent. However, most of the forecasts of a blue wave did not occur. Are these more signs of a divided country? Or are these the new contours of a country in transition?

Shifts in politics come amid times of tumult. A shock to the system often hastens their arrival. If we are now in such an era of transition, we have to account for not only the changes in the media and culture landscape, but also the more immediate events like the coronavirus and civil unrest. The shock to the system from the current president must also be considered. Both the backers and detractors of Donald Trump must acknowledge his impact on politics and what it means for his future and his legacy.

In some ways, the traditional left and right alignment of partisan politics remains. The results of the election can, of course, be read as Americans favoring a centrist Democrat rather than a populist Republican. But other divisions have grown more important. Whether it is urban versus rural or white versus minority, many of these divisions are created much less by politics and more by identity. The parties and the broader media around them will continue to be defined by this fusion of identity politics.


Preferences from brands to music to athletes seem to carry more weight than ever. Statements from across the aisle, rather than taken as debates of policy, are taken as slights to our tribe. In many ways, the environment was primed for Trump to serve as a chieftain with politics, which became focused on one individual in the past four years. Whether it turns into an enduring reality will define how politics will change in the future.

The media echo chambers with the left and the right were set to decry and amplify everything with our politics in terms of any preferences or perceptions of Trump. Such action makes for great politics, along with revenue for consultants and news outlets, but it creates barriers. If the president is the ultimate force in government, then Congress is only a stage for partisan choruses for or against the executive branch.

The health of our institutions takes a back seat to the incentives of politics in such an environment. The further one audience is removed from reality, the harsher its return in the media echo chambers. Those institutions that are the foundation of our democracy are weakened if the parties become more important than the system. At a time when our adversaries in China and Russia want to divide us and attack democracy, it should concern us that politics for an audience of one continues to make this easier.

How the parties deal with all this is critical for the future. Republicans will be defined by how they process the defeat of Trump and how he aims to position himself either as a candidate or a kingmaker in 2024. Democrats must reconcile the broader coalition built for Biden with the liberal wing. While no one person has become the face for the progressive movement like Trump is for nationalist populism, leaders like Bernie Sanders denote that politics driven by personality is not limited to Republicans. The story of 2020 is not finished, but it will mark an inflection in our history.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.