Celebrate Biden’s Victory. Then Confront Why It Was So Difficult to Achieve.
A slow, grinding Biden victory call is still a win. Why doesn’t it feel better?
Joe Biden just won the election for president of the United States — at long last. He won more votes than any American president in history, and he unseated the incumbent Donald Trump. So why doesn’t this huge win feel better?
Maybe because we all have whiplash.
This whole process has been a rollercoaster. The lead-up to Biden’s victory on Friday was slow and anticlimactic. As the results rolled in on Tuesday night, the numbers looked like they were stacking up in Donald Trump’s favor; he won Ohio and Florida, two big Electoral College prizes, and staved off insurgency in Texas. Biden’s gains came more slowly, stacking up Wednesday and Thursday and, finally, tipping in his favor in Pennsylvania on Friday morning.
But by the end of election night, it was clear that more Americans had cast a ballot for Biden than for any other presidential candidate ever, and for the seventh time in eight elections, the Democratic candidate had won the popular vote. And yet, because of our fundamentally undemocratic Electoral College system, Republican presidents have served three of those terms, and as the nation waited, Trump threatened to hold on to a fourth.
We knew the “blue shift” would happen slowly. The pandemic meant a huge uptick in early and mail-in voting, and the refusal of Republicans in key states to allow those ballots to be processed early ensured it would take additional hours, if not days, to finally get clear results. We also knew that those mail-in and early votes that would be counted slower would lean Democratic: Biden urged his supporters to vote by mail, while Trump told his to show up in person.
And then there is the absurd fact that winning millions more votes than your opponent does not necessarily mean that you win a presidential election in America. The election could have all been called on Tuesday night if the U.S. had a simple “one person, one vote” system. But we instead, we have a fundamentally undemocratic one — and this time around, it left us all hanging.
This also feels less than thrilling because there was another option: A Tuesday-night Biden landslide so huge that it would sweep away all of our anxieties. It seemed unlikely, but some of us who have nurtured a little flame of hope through four dark years allowed ourselves to consider it. After all, a deadly virus has ravaged the United States, killing more than 230,000 people and devastating the economy. Trump has shrugged it off, rejected the advice of public health officials, and politicized the pandemic response. He has failed to bail Americans out, leaving many struggling and financially insecure while he crows about stock market returns that are largely meaningless to the kitchen-table economics of most American families.
Over the last four years, Trump has made clear that he is the president of Red America only, not the entirety of America, and that he is happy to leave blue state residents to suffer. He palled around with dictators and strongmen while rejecting America’s longtime allies, tearing up our international commitments, and making our nation an international laughingstock. He stripped children from their migrant parents, introducing the heart-shattering term “tender age shelter” — facilities for toddlers and infants who had been pulled from their parents’ arms — into the American lexicon. And he has lied, undermined faith in American democratic systems, and torn the nation apart. (Not to mention all the racism, sexism, and sexual assault accusations).
Given all of this, how could voters not reject him? Maybe it was naïve or Pollyanna-ish to believe it, but I certainly wanted to believe that a critical mass of people who had perhaps ignorantly voted for Trump the first time around would look at a country in tatters and a democracy in peril and conclude that this is not the right man to keep in the White House.
But they didn’t. More people voted for Trump this time around than voted for him in 2016.
That’s part of what makes Biden’s victory so painful. Joe Biden says that, unlike his opponent, he will be president of the entire country, even if the entire country didn’t want him to be president. But how do you lead a nation where 40% of voters have signaled that they are at best indifferent to harming their fellow citizens, and clearly willing to tear the whole American democratic project apart?
Then there was Trump’s response to Biden’s gains — a tantrum that is still in motion and is likely to extend for weeks or months. Just as predicted, he declared premature victory on November 4 (“A big WIN!,” he tweeted), then immediately stoked distrust in the slow machinations of the democratic process by claiming on Twitter, “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!”
Will Trump’s die-hard supporters accept the results of the election? That seems unlikely, especially if the president himself refuses to concede and continues to spread outright lies about the integrity of the election. His lawyers have already tried (and failed) to disrupt vote-counting. Trump fans are already gathering, alternately demanding to stop the count in states where Trump is ahead, and continue it where he’s behind.
It’s one thing to get an election result you don’t like; that’s democracy, and you’ll get another shot at changing the nation’s leadership in four years. And it’s certainly well within the realm of normal democratic debate to ask whether the rules are fair — Americans have repeatedly challenged regulations around who can vote, for example, and many people are now asking whether the Electoral College system is a good way to decide elections. But if a significant chunk of the public does not believe that the rules were followed — if they believe there was malfeasance and cheating — that’s a very different thing, and it undermines confidence in American democracy itself.
Trump is happy to fuel that insecurity, and his team is already challenging the results in courts. If the races stay close, they’ll demand recounts — fair enough as a first step, but we know that the president is immoral and litigious, a dangerous combination. If the Biden victory margin is too wide for a recount, or if a recount affirms a Biden win, do we expect that Trump will concede? Perhaps not — he and members of his team are already making clear that they expect this to go to the Supreme Court, and that they just installed an ultra-conservative judge for this very reason: They expect her to come through for them. And either way, court cases over the result mean that we’re all right back on the rollercoaster, and anxious, again, that the president won’t just win the election, but destroy democracy itself.
It’s hard to feel cheerful about the nation just barely doing the necessary thing to ensure its own survival.
A disturbing number of Republicans in positions of power are happy to help the president with his power-grab, just as Republican senators helped the president install a radically conservative Supreme Court justice just days before the election. Somehow, in 2020 America, we are left wondering if a president will concede an election he lost, and if he doesn’t, what that means for the future of our country. The root causes of this moment won’t go away just because Biden walks into the White House.
Assuming Biden does walk into the Oval Office in January, he’ll be doing so with limited power. Though the election’s not over — with two Georgia senate runoffs scheduled for January — it seems likely that the Senate stays in GOP control. A Republican senate led by Mitch McConnell will mean that most of Biden’s agenda will never see the light of day. Democrats might feel like it’s Groundhog Day: Obama’s second term all over again, with constant opposition and the gears of governance grinding to a halt. And even if Democrats do take the Senate during the runoff elections and manage to squeeze some progressive legislation through, the current right-wing Supreme Court, with its three youngest members appointed by Trump, could do away with other liberal reforms.
Perhaps it’s typical Democratic defeatism to look at a big win and still sigh in distress. Maybe we should party like it’s 2008 and take to the streets in jubilant victory. But the national celebration after Barack Obama won was a reflection of our optimism for the country’s future, and how exultant we felt about what electing the country’s first Black president said about us — a nation built on chattel slavery, about to be led by a Black man. We were deeply imperfect, but maybe we were redeemable.
This election holds no such optimism, and no such suggestion of redemption. It’s hard to feel cheerful about the nation just barely doing the necessary thing to ensure its own survival. It’s hard to feel like things are going to be okay after watching the president and those around him sow discord and distrust in the integrity of the vote and the American democratic system. America finally did the right thing. But the victory is awfully bittersweet.