Not all votes have been counted as I write this, but it looks like Joe Biden will be elected the next president of the United States. This result came after days of tense ballot-counting in some of the same swing states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Joe Biden’s victory is a good thing, but we shouldn’t forget how close we were to another four years of Trump in what was supposed to be a Biden landslide. Also notable is the contest for control of the Senate, which is still undecided and may not see a result until runoff elections are held, though a Democratic majority is unlikely. Democrats are also expected to have a net loss in controlled House seats. These races were both expected to be won handily by the Democrats.
One of the biggest shifts in demographics was seen in trends among Latino voters, whom the Biden campaign openly neglected in their campaigning. In fact, almost all racial minorities and the LGBTQ+ community saw a greater portion of votes going to Trump than in 2016, albeit still having a solid majority going to Biden. What actually led to Biden’s victory seems to be a shift among white voters, some of whom shifted from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020.
The Democrats’ failure to form their ideal broad coalition this election requires deep analysis that can’t even begin until all the voting data is available. However, these results are still the best sample we have to represent the current political attitudes in America. Biden barely managed a win in the face of a disastrous Trump presidency defined by a horrendous response to the pandemic; this must be explained.
The easy reaction to this entire election would be to say that the Democrats offer no tangible policy benefits to Americans, and therefore no one wants to vote for them. This is true to a large degree; a Fox News exit poll showed that 72 percent of voters favored a government-run healthcare system while neither candidate fully supported this policy. Marijuana legalization is another wildly popular policy that neither candidate has taken up fully. Trump was able to win Florida while a minimum wage increase passed in the state with a huge majority of the votes.
However, there is a much deeper force at play that prevents the Democrats from ever sweeping an election. Even if reform at the institutional level was offered, it would still take a huge grassroots movement of ideological reframing to prevent it from being shut down by the media during campaigning and the political establishment once in office. We should never forget that Bernie Sanders’ campaigns in 2016 and 2020 both failed. You can blame the media and Democratic Party elites all you want for those losses, but those will always be forces with which we must contend It was not just direct interference from these forces that defeated Sanders; it is the overall political atmosphere they have created in America.
The best election for Democrats in recent years was Obama’s in 2008. Obama was able to channel an inspirational energy, bringing in a wide coalition and giving him a landslide victory. His aesthetic-focused and progressive-gesturing campaign might be the only possible strategy for the Democrats in the near future. There is still a large block of voters who oppose direct proposals for real progressive change. They are the upper-middle class, college-educated and primarily white people who find any challenges to the status quo — aesthetic or material — unappealing. Biden seemed to do very well with this group. The Democratic Party is explicitly targeting this group at the exclusion of diverse working class voters facing wage stagnation and poverty. Democrats didn’t even embrace Obama’s surface-level progressive gesturing with Biden; his campaign was explicitly in opposition to the progressive movement. Shifting the Party and its voters away from its current strategy will take a broad ideological reframing among the voters and huge change of leadership at the top.
The liberal establishment’s only electoral strategy was to draw more white upper-middle class voters from suburbs. If we are to shift the Democratic Party’s focus to a more tangible progressive focus, radical reframing is needed for these voters. Some might argue they could simply be abandoned, but the reality is that these are a huge block that can’t be ignored. Rather, we need a way to unite these genuinely well-intentioned voters with the disadvantaged classes in American society while avoiding the Obama trap of failing to deliver.
Obviously, a Sanders-style platform that enables real material change in the country is the preferable solution. There is a hope that candidates of this brand begin to slowly grow in popularity, with new Representatives like Cori Bush being clear examples. Supporting these candidates — in addition to strengthening labor unions — is still probably the best path forward for the left in America. However, to avoid failures like Sanders’, these organizing efforts have to shift Americans’ fundamental views of politics, power and the media, not just offer policies and expect votes.