It’s the morning after, and Americans all over the country are waking up to the uncertainty that we were all pretty sure was coming. There’s rumblings that we won’t have final results out of certain important battle ground states until Friday. That said, if you’re a Democrat, you’ve got reasons to feel pretty good this morning. As I write this, there are many races that aren’t yet called, but Joe Biden’s chances are looking very good when you consider the areas where there are votes left to be counted.
The thing is, a lot of Democrats, myself included, aren’t feeling particularly good this morning, and our mood isn’t likely to improve all that much, even if Joe Biden wins the presidency. The problem is that the results we’re seeing are nothing like the results that were hoped for – even expected – by many in this country.
Any hope that Democrats might take the Senate has basically evaporated at this point. While Democrats are almost certain to retain control of the House, they actually lost seats in this election. Most importantly, even if he does lose, Donald Trump has had a showing in the battleground states that have many, many observers asking the question: What are these people voting for? What is it that compels so many people, many of whom were once-upon-a-time Obama voters, to gravitate to Trump specficially, and the Republican party more broadly?
This question is asked with a sense of incredulity. Aren’t these people paying attention? Don’t they see what Donald Trump is doing to the country? To our standing in the world? To immigrants, to the environment? Can’t they understand that he is fundamentally unfit for the office he holds?
I’ve been grappling with those questions for four years, and for four years I’ve been holding out hope that the 2016 election was some kind of freakish confluence of events that brought about an outcome that in no way reflects the reality of the American character. I’ve held that hope because the alternative has been too dark to contemplate: The American character that so many of us hold up with patriotic fervor is a lie.
Democrat politicians are extremely fond of talking about the character of America. Joe Biden called this election a “battle for the soul of America”, and the expression, “this is not who we are”, has been uttered so many times over the past four years that it’s become almost dogmatic in anti-Trump circles.
The 2020 election has shown us something different though. Even though the ballots aren’t all counted, and even though there’s still and extremely good chance that Joe Biden will be our next president, the current state of this election tells me that, in fact – at least to some degree, this is who we are. But what does that actually mean?
In the days that follow this one, I’m sure the Democratic party is going to be doing a lot of soul-searching. They’re going to wonder why their message didn’t “resonate”. They’re going to wonder how they lost a significant chunk of the Latino vote in places where Biden has under-performed Hillary Clinton. They’re going to ask themselves how Biden was unable to win back the strong support in the upper-Midwest enjoyed by Obama. I believe that the answer lies in examining what both candidates, (and their parties, by extension), are actually offering the American people. Those offerings are based upon two very different readings of the American character, and I’m afraid that it’s the Republicans that understand that character far better than the Democrats do.
Republicans realize that, fundamentally, Americans are self-centered. At the end of the day, the vast majority of people in this country are “looking out for number one”. It’s even difficult to fault this thinking. Every single one of us, to one degree or another, and at least from time-to-time prioritizes our lives over those of other people. What liberals like to decry as callousness, evil, or ignorant, is – seen in a different light – nothing more than bald self-interest.
Because Republicans realize and accept this truth, their messaging is tailored to it. The vast majority of Republican messaging and philosphy is centered around the individual. They care about your taxes. They care about your religious liberties, they care about the security of your country and your job. Their policies are loudly geared towards making people believe that, their self-interests are best served by Republican policies and Republican politicians. That reality doesn’t always line up with this promise is irrelevant. Reality is seldom relevant to politics.
Contrast that to the current mainstream of Democratic thinking. Much of what defines the Democratic platform today is only nebulously connected to the individual. They care about the “environment” – for everyone. They want everyone to have health care. They want everyone to have money, most egregiously, even if that means taking it from someone else who has a lot of it.They want to share our nation with others who weren’t born here and are only coming here because where they are from is such a terrible place.
In my opinion, if you’re a reasonably intelligent person with half a heart and a quarter of a concience, it’s hard to find fault with any of these ideas. But the fault is there if you shift your view a bit, and try to see this from the perspective of someone who’s “looking out for number one”. The Republican platform is talking about you. The Democrat platform is talking about “everyone”, which might as well mean “no one” to a self-centered individual.
I don’t think anyone needs to look further than that to understand the “Trump phenomenon”. First of all, Trump embodies the notion of self-interest in a way that no other president in history has. His example makes it “okay” for Americans to feel the way they do. He’s one of them in a way that may not appear obvious if all you’re looking at is class or racial divides.
As depressing as all of this is, there is a bright spot. First, you could make the argument that the majority, (slim though it may be), of Americans are rejecting this blatant brand of self-interest, and they tend to vote with other things, and other people in mind, at least to enough of a degree that the Democratic platform hasn’t been rendered entirely irrelevant. Second, this issue is correctable. Democrats are just as capable of making good arguments on an individual level.
Of course, that’s not the real challenge. The real challenge, and in my opinion, the real reckoning for the Democratic party is going to come when they realize that there are certain darlings of left-of-center thinking, (universal health care, expansive environmental programs), that are going to be very difficult to frame in a ‘selfish’ way, and therefore may have to take a back seat to simply winning over minds with incremental changes and progress. The far left in this country doesn’t want to hear that, but they’re going to have to if they want to be heard at all.