Why Are Democrats So Upset?
People attend watch parties during 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. (Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg)

Why Are Democrats So Upset?

Should Democrats have ignored the pandemic and done more door-to-door canvassing? Should they have diverted resources to South Florida to cut into President Donald Trump’s margins with Cuban-American voters and bolstered Joe Biden’s standing with immigrants from Venezuela, Colombia and elsewhere? Should Biden have championed your pet issue or renounced that thing you really don’t like?

Such questions are inevitable after a campaign, especially one that doesn’t go as well as hoped. But they are more tangential than usual this year. This election was — and could only have been — a referendum on Trump and Trumpism. As pundits and partisans engage in their traditional rounds of woulda-coulda-shouldas, they might keep in mind this looming fact.

In the context of Trump’s presidency, and what his re-election promised, Biden was both a generic Democrat and a generic democrat. He signaled unequivocally that he would govern in a familiar manner, from the center of his party. And he carried the promise of halting the government’s precipitous slide into lawlessness and authoritarianism.

Every election features low-information voters who miss the fine points. But Trumpism is not a politics of nuance. It promises concrete rewards for members of the MAGA tribe and blunt punishment (“lock her up”) for those who resist. Trumpism is familiar as politics to those who’ve studied thuggish political parties and regimes. But as an exercise of power, it’s equally understood by anyone who ever watched a bully work a playground. No political science degree is necessary.

Biden received more votes than any American in history. He will likely have the largest popular vote margin in decades. His voters knew what they were voting for: an end to the lies, corruption, racism, incompetence and blunt cruelty — who kidnaps children and deports their parents? — that are Trumpism’s most salient features.

Is there really any policy that Biden could have proposed, or message he could’ve reinforced, that would’ve altered the contours of such a well-defined contest? If you need access to health care, you know by now which party is committed to it. If you are wealthy and want your taxes low, you are similarly informed. The notion that better Hispanic outreach or more focused attention to Black men might have had a sizable impact on the election seems highly dubious.

The 2020 Democratic campaign, despite a pandemic, was probably the largest grassroots fundraising and outreach endeavor in modern history. Democrats massively outraised and outspent Republicans at the presidential level and in House and Senate races across the country. Enthusiasm for voter turnout operations — phone banking, texting, postcard-writing, Zoom organizing — was spectacular. After failing to rally to Hillary Clinton in 2016, the left, right and center of the party, aided by independents and moderate ex-Republicans, put astonishing personal and institutional resources into electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Any multibillion-dollar enterprise that is mounted in a matter of months will make some mistakes. But this was a well-led and well-executed campaign. Biden’s promise of a return to reasoned, ethical politics was inherent in the campaign’s communications and conduct. There is no evidence that he sacrificed the left in appealing to the center. On the contrary, his efforts were rewarded by a huge outpouring of voters.

Scores of millions voted for Trumpism. Whatever they might have told pollsters, they surely knew what they were supporting. They either viewed corruption and cruelty as a plus — own the libs! — or as inconsequential. The unchecked spread of disease — Trump literally held super-spreader campaign events — was not a disincentive.

Authoritarianism had a test run in the White House from 2017 to the present. More than 60 million Americans wanted to keep the show going. This vibrant mass market for demagoguery is backed by a broad network of propaganda outlets. For Democratic politics — and democratic politics — to succeed, the Democratic Party will need to invest in research to understand how to increase trust in government, society, facts and democracy. (If Republicans control the Senate, Democrats will have plenty of time for a research project.)

A historic mobilization appears to have rescued democracy for now. But the fire still rages.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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