ELECTION REFLECTIONS REVISITED (December 31, 2020)
I’m pleased to report that my November 30 blog post, “Election Reflections,” stimulated an unprecedented volume of feedback. More important than their quantity, those responses were intensely personal and thought-provoking. Going beyond mere comments on my original reflections, readers offered their own electoral opinions, analyses and concerns. The collective enthusiasm persuaded me to devote this follow-up post to sharing feedback excerpts. These selections are reproduced with the authors’ permission but I’ve omitted senders’ surnames to protect their privacy. Individual readers’ comments are flagged with stars. Some animated respondents are credited more than once.
In the following reprise, I’ve retained the original Election Reflections topic headings to organize the feedback. You will also find updates of my own November observations. A final section suggests organizations we might support and activities we might undertake to contribute personally to national healing.
Let me again thank Shary Farr, whose peer profile had been the planned subject of this December post, for her gracious flexibility in agreeing to a postponement.
JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM – Election Statistics
Several readers of my November 30 post cautioned against election writers, myself included, pouncing on premature statistics and then relying on those fleeting numbers as grounds for detecting historic shifts or trends. I was acutely aware of this “now you see it now you don’t” trap when writing in late November. Vote tallies and dissections were changing hourly. I finally decided to bite the bullet and go with what I had in hand, underlining my data cut-off date for my readers and freely acknowledging that returns were not yet final.
Comparing late November with late December, two patterns have caught my eye. More complete returns broke in Biden’s favor. His popular-vote total jumped by 1 million, while Trump’s remained unchanged. Biden’s winning margin increased by the same amount, to 7.1 million votes. So Trump’s desperate struggle to overturn results, far from disqualifying votes and reversing his defeat, witnessed a significant consolidation of his opponent’s victory.
#1: Unprecedented Election Turnout
No reader comments specifically spoke to this subtopic. My own concern is that several Republican-controlled state legislatures seem to be rapidly mobilizing to roll back 2020 election procedures introduced to mitigate pandemic deterrents. Voting rules now under retroactive attack that seem to have contributed to the record turnout include extending early-voting timetables so voters wouldn’t have to stand in crowds, encouraging voting by mail, and installing locally convenient official drop boxes.
#2: The Blue Wave That Didn’t Wave
This subtopic attracted more comments and interpretations than any other. One major theme was that a practical way for us privileged coast-dwellers to better understand Trump’s lingering appeal is to pay more attention and respect to the hinterlands.
** David shared a family vignette:
A few years ago, I spent some time in Nebraska dealing with my Mother’s estate. She grew up in a town with a population of 200, now closer to 100, mostly white denizens. The industry is farming. There are no cultural amenities like theaters, nice restaurants, etc.
I met with farmers who harvested the wheat on my Mother’s land. They were all quite amiable and pleasant to be around, but I’m sure they all voted for Trump. They rarely saw a black person or a person from foreign lands, and had only occasional contact with other people of color. The local rodeo I attended was very white; it could have been a scene from 90 years ago.
If I had grown up in that town, I probably would have been a Trump guy too. With no contact with a myriad of cultures and peoples which urban folks now associate with and work beside, I would have skepticism about their values and what they have taken from me out in the Midwest. What you don’t know is often what you fear. And these folks are fearful that their world is changing rapidly and not for the better. It didn’t help that they tuned in to the news one morning and saw foreigners flying airplanes into skyscrapers in NYC.
We need to find a way to exchange thoughts and values without being offensive or smug, just because the house my wife and I bought in 1970 is now worth millions and the same home in Nebraska is less than $100,000.
** Sid wrote with equal empathy, more tightly focused on the election:
I have always thought Trump was a symptom, not a cause, and I believe Dems and centrists need to spend a lot more time separating the different components of his base to determine which are detachable.
There are real grievances out there, along with drift away from shared values that fragments us further. Dealing as I do on a frequent basis with the V.A., Medicare and federal health and social programs, I can tell you that government in some places is a godawful mess and doesn’t help some of the people who need and deserve help. People in flyover country know we look down on them, literally and figuratively. Watching TV ads filled with weird lifestyles and bouncy young, non-white people brings out both raw racism and a milder sense of being out-of-touch that makes throwback MAGA slogans seem comforting.
Out of 74 million people, it is impossible for me to believe they are all racist, authoritarian, women-hating troglodytes. We know that some of them voted for Obama once or even twice. I talk often enough to my two sons-in-law and my ex-wife, all MAGA folk, to know there are some things they favor that I agree with. Some, not a lot, but enough to keep me out of their hopeless leftie categories, as I keep them out of the opposite.
** Lance riffed on my attempt to explain the resiliency of Trump’s support by disaggregating the president’s diverse constituency into MAGA True Believers and three camps of opportunists – Oligarchs, Evangelicals and Republican officeholders:
To your trio of groups of opportunists, I might have added a fourth. I’d call them the Racists and Crackpot Fringe. Trump and his advisors fashioned a very direct appeal to this group. This would include the KKK remnants, new Nazis, white-power groups, Fascists, Proud Boys combined with the various gun-rights groups who like to swagger around with their loaded weapons and their hangers-on who periodically commit a massacre. The craziest of this group is QAnon, who may be no more than an email address, that claims the Democrats are pedophiles trafficking in children and are controlled by some Deep-State entity.
Of course, that is not to ignore the Anti-fascists and left-of-center social groups who engage in their own disruptive activities. While I support Black Lives Matter, I think Trump effectively used them to create fear and anger that drove a lot of voters right. Listening closely, I thought I heard Richard Nixon using the old “law-and-order” rubric very effectively.
Disgruntled white workers seem to be a part of the Trump base, but that is not a new group. A few years ago we called them Reagan Democrats. This may indeed be more of a permanent alignment than originally thought.
** MAJC also commented on the resilient 2020 fidelity of Trump’s 2016 supporters:
I have met in years past cult-like followers of some religious figures. Watching the video clips of Trump followers at rallies reminds me of them. It simply does not matter what new information comes to light or what new developments occur. I imagine that even when we confirm he was misleading banks on valuation (a criminal offense) and/or tax fraud (ditto), the acolytes will not be dissuaded.
** Nancy noted in that same context:
For over 70 years, we’ve known from psych, soc and communications research that facts don’t change attitudes or beliefs. Mutually respectful human interactions sustained over time can have this impact. But these interactions may require facilitation to be manageable and effective. It’s a long haul to nurture such changes. The average time commitment is 20 years. Which is why several analysts are estimating it may take a generation of concerted effort to help Americans find common ground and work together.
Still under the conceptual umbrella of the Blue Wave That Didn’t Wave, several blog readers protested that this metric was receiving too much emphasis. For one thing, President-elect Biden’s winning margin of 7.1 million popular votes was massive.
** Rex probed possible grounds for this victory:
As to why Trump failed (and that is how I would put it, rather than how Biden won), I suspect that Trump’s utter failure to respond to and manage the pandemic could be emphasized even more. Just before the election, Bob Woodward’s interview of Trump came out, revealing that in February 2020 Trump understood how serious the virus was and his decision to nevertheless downplay it. That, coupled with his brazen refusal to follow expert medical recommendations, may have been the final blow that motivated his weakest hangers-on to switch to Biden. Also, there was the “Fauci Factor”: Dr. Fauci’s presence, and his ability not to get fired, while he quietly contradicted the president and gave the public sound information, may have swung more than a few votes.
From an additional angle, only the distorting structure and impact of the Electoral College made Biden’s victory seem less decisive. With most states “safe” for either Biden or Trump, the College filter focused both candidates’ campaign time, messaging and budgets on a handful of swing states, to the near-total neglect of nearly all national voters. (For the same reason, President Trump’s overturn effort has been narrowly directed at only 4 states.)
** Wolf dove deeper than most readers in retracing the College’s complex origin and hotly contested evolution. He emerged from this historical review to advocate sweeping reform:
The worst part is that the Electoral College has several times elevated a candidate into our highest office even after losing the popular vote. It has happened twice in our own lifetime, putting doubts into our minds about our time-honored concept of “one citizen, one vote.” We can ill-afford such a flagrant devaluation of our sacred voting rights. We need to get rid of this undemocratic anachronism before bigger damage will be done to our election system.
While sharing this distress, I believe that attempting to abolish the Electoral College by Constitutional amendment will remain a non-starter so long as Republicans interpret the College as a federalist bulwark for Red rural empowerment and Blue metropolitan containment. A more modest reform proposal not dismantling the Electoral College, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, has attracted the support of 15 states and the District of Columbia. Under this formula, participating member-states would pledge to award their Electoral College votes to their popular-vote winner. If sufficient states joined the Compact to account for 270 Electoral votes, then a candidate losing the national popular vote could not be elected president. But the Compact too is likely to stall as its membership approaches the 270-vote threshold for coming into force. Republicans can count. Having lost the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 presidential elections, they are desperately waging an anti-demographic defense. They’re convinced that the College and current state-dominated voting structures serve that purpose. They will fight to retain them.
CONTINUITY & CHANGE
** Dave commented:
I liked the point that the failure of Democrats to do well down-ballot hinged on a number of factors specific to each state, which you spelled out. I suppose the most generalizable feature is that Republicans who voted for Biden snapped back to partisan voting when it came to other offices. Their opposition to Trump figured very little in these contests.
I also liked the section on California, showing how hard it is to describe our electorate as liberal when on many issues we pulled in a conservative direction.
As a footnote to Dave’s comment on the mixed California results, our state is more of a partisan jigsaw than most of us normally acknowledge. It is true that Biden trounced Trump here (64% to 34%). But President Trump received 6 million votes in our state, the most by any Republican in any state in any election in history. Liberal San Francisco and L.A. attract most of the news headlines. But rural California is solidly Red, and Orange County is very much in play. (In 2018, California Democrats swept 7 House seats held by Republicans; in 2020, Republicans recaptured 4 of those same seats.)
** Lance echoed my complaint against the influence of Big Money on California’s ballot-measure campaigns:
When the accounts are settled, I hope someone does an extensive article on the extraordinary amounts of money raised by both presidential campaigns and their PACs. The dark money is particularly noteworthy. Who raised it, where did it come from, on whom or what was it spent? For a long time it was presumed Democrats are outspent. But, recently in many cases, that is no longer true. The smart money, provided by the oligarchs, is going to both parties. They will get what they want and it is worth the price, to them.
** MAJC wasn’t surprised by my post’s finding that most Battleground-state national-election results seemed to have been influenced or determined by local priorities:
As Tip O’Neill famously explained, “All politics are local.” Whether misinformed Cubans or suburban women alarmed by proposed police defunding, hot-button local issues, whether fabricated or real, seem to have swung many races.
THE TURBULENT TRANSITION
In late December, nearly two months after the election, President Trump is still unrelenting, refusing to accept or even acknowledge defeat. His lawyers have lost an incredible 59 out of 60 legal challenges but are still plowing ahead. Most decisively, a unanimous US Supreme Court, including all 3 Trump appointees, dismissed the Texas suit to overturn battleground-states’ votes, ignoring the President’s supporting petition. The Electoral College has counted the votes and declared President-elect Biden the unequivocal winner. Attorney General Barr has found no evidence of widespread election fraud and declined to appoint a special counsel as requested by the President. Yet, despite this overwhelming consensus, over 70% of all Republican voters continue to believe the election was rigged and stolen. This marathon saga stimulated a volume of blog readers’ questions and comments.
** Tom asked, identifying himself as a moderate Republican:
Why is Trump pursuing these “false” election results so persistently? If he plans to run again, this won’t be good for his campaign.
** Bob’s explanation was psychological. But he reserved his main wrath for Trump’s enablers:
Russell, I suspect you were raised as I was. When my parents caught me telling a lie, they marched me into the bathroom and washed my mouth out with soap. Only once was necessary. But alas, the taste does become evoked whenever I’m tempted to stray. In my career studying the brain, I admit to disappointment in learning there are no inborn circuits devoted to determining truth. Respect for truth, telling the truth has to be established by education and learning, the same as speaking a foreign language or ice skating – no innate circuits here. The brain can just as easily be taught to form circuits that lie as tell the truth.
But not every child gets his mouth washed out with soap for lying. Nor do many end up in scientific research and medicine, where facts must be discovered and secured statistically, where facts ignored, or fabrications invented, cost lives. The results of this election force me to admit once again that I‘ve lived in an academic, “truth-telling” bubble. While I’ve been stunned into disbelief and outrage for 4 years, it now seems 47% of Americans are unconcerned by a president who has been a malicious liar, indeed, even think he should be re-elected.
Thus I’m surprised and greatly saddened by the lack of a stronger repudiation of Trump by the American people. And I’m greatly disgusted by the number of lying sycophants in government who continue to support him. Perhaps you and I should grab a bar of soap and march on Washington.
Don’t give up the good fight.
** Lance’s interpretation was more cynical:
Trump is immoral and unethical in every regard but he is not outright dumb. His last-ditch attempt to subvert the election system was carefully calculated to raise him money, over $200 million in a few weeks, that he will largely leave office with, carefully stashed away for the next con.
My own take on Trump’s transition motivations remains unchanged since my November 30 blog post. In part, the President is driven by a pathological refusal to be seen as a loser, the legacy of a brutalizing father. In part, he’s sustaining his “rigged-election” grievance to hold on to his core source of power, his aroused base. And in part, as Lance correctly surmises, he’s manipulating the “we wuz robbed!” protest to raise funds for post-presidency expenditures.
I do anticipate that Trump’s slash-and-burn exit strategy, manifested most recently in dragging his feet before signing the desperately needed pandemic-relief package, may crush Republican chances of salvaging 1 or 2 Senate seats in Georgia’s January 5 runoff. Just deserts, I say, for his malice and for the party leadership’s complicity.
** Alison seconded my assessment that a decent, mellow president is just what this fraught period demands:
I agree. Grandpa Joe is perfect.
** Gordon’s endorsement of Biden was tacit but provocative:
Think where we’d be if the D’s had nominated any of the other 70+ primary aspirants.
I read Gordon’s words with a jolt. Elizabeth Warren is a courageous, visionary policy wonk, but her proposed reforms terrified Big Business. Bernie Sanders is Trump’s mirror-image, a grandstanding opportunist, although with a socialist agenda. Mike Bloomberg was a genuine corporate success but lacked the common touch. As a charismatic, conservative populist, Trump would have crushed every one. Dull, moderate, compassionate Joe Biden was the perfect antidote to this divisive demagogue.
** Dave didn’t fully share my optimism for the incoming administration:
One factor making me less positive than you about the Biden Presidency is Trump’s capture of the Supreme Court, shifting it dramatically in a conservative, if not reactionary, direction for the first time since the mid-1930s. I can envisage a majority voting to throttle the administrative state, not just specific federal regulations of which they disapprove. This in turn would massively increase popular pressure on Biden to expand the court. But if he lacks support in the Senate to do this (this is where the filibuster enters in), he will be unable to undo the damage the Court will start wreaking on our political as well as social life.
I’m sure Dave’s prudent to be concerned. There will be judicial roadblocks. But as mentioned above, I draw threshold encouragement from the Court’s historic rebuff of Trump’s desperate battleground-vote-purging suit, filed by his proxy, the Texas AG.
** Rex asked, looking ahead:
Do you think Harris is ready to take over if need be? I have my doubts. She was a good candidate for balancing the ticket, but the Oval Office would be a very big step for her.
My short answer is that she’s not yet well-qualified or prepared to step into presidential shoes if emergency demanded. But she can develop the necessary experience and win the public’s confidence if given the right leadership responsibility for 4 years. Not something impossibly controversial and so doomed to failure. Not trespassing on Biden’s personal portfolio or other Cabinet domains. A management role compatible with her public-law expertise. How about coordinating national infrastructure repair and development? Very popular with the public and with the states. Enjoying broad bipartisan Congressional support. Serving rural as well as urban priorities. Great potential for public/private partnerships. A natural for job-creation and climate-change transitioning.
Healing the Nation
Advice for the New President
** Sid based his presidential advice on his earlier comments about paying more attention to Trump’s constituents:
So Joe and Co. have to look for the middle, and endure the hard-left sniping they are bound to attract if they do. Infrastructure jobs, real education reform and preschool investments that affect working-class families, and immigration reform that spotlights how hard the Dreamers work and how many people still want to come here. And water – the missing ingredient that ex-SoCal folk and Nevadans all know makes housing possible in lots of new places.
My own recommendation to the incoming administration to adopt a conciliatory approach is growing stronger 1 month later. Here’s a new angle. All of us tend to bemoan polarization as a paralyzing defect of our current political system. And we dramatize the intractability of that conflict by caricaturing each coalition’s members: “deplorable racists” vs. “Marxist radicals”.
What if, instead, we take a step back from this firing line and accept political differences, without caricature, as natural consequences of a complex nation and dynamic population — geographically sprawling, regionally varied, ethnically and ideologically diverse? Just as champions of minorities celebrate diversity, why can’t we re-envision political differences as core characteristics of democracy? From this holistic perspective, political diversity can be mobilized as winnowing and energizing. No single party or ideology has a monopoly on morality or wisdom.
In this context, I keep coming back to the Congressional pandemic-relief package (belatedly and begrudgingly signed by the disruptive president.) These negotiating factions did not betray their principles. They did not sink to reciprocal corruption. What they did do was swallow tough compromises as the best deal available for their diverse constituencies – desperately needy citizens and businesses. No one sold out. They all bought in. That’s how democracy works. When we give it a chance.
How Can Each of Us Contribute to National Healing?
I concluded my November 30 post with a question for readers: “When this election is finally over, how can each of us contribute most effectively to national healing?”
** David answered my question with an implicit one of his own:
My main concern is closing the gap between the Trumpites and Democrats. At my age, I am unlikely to try to launch a movement to solve this major issue. Perhaps your next blog could survey existing groups dedicated to reknitting the social fabric. I can certainly donate and otherwise support the best of those organizations.
For David and other searching readers, here’s what I’ve found out so far.
- Groups working directly to bridge the partisan political divide
- No Labels is a Washington, DC-based nonprofit describing itself as “a groundbreaking movement led by Americans who embrace the new politics of problem-solving and are collaborating to find commonsense, nonpartisan solutions to our toughest challenges. Moderate Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is a National Co-Chair. Founded in 2010, No Labels helped launch the Problem-Solvers Caucus mentioned in the next bullet. nolabels.org.
- Bipartisan Congressional Coalitions. Whether or not control of the US Senate shifts to the Democrats as the result of the January 5 Georgia runoffs, there is already strong evidence that moderate legislators in both chambers of Congress are going to have a degree of leverage unprecedented in recent years. Confirmation of this pivotal role was given by the successful (bipartisan, bicameral) negotiations to hammer out a pandemic-relief financing package. Blog readers interested in making bridge-supporting donations or merely following the action may wish to pay particular attention to the 4 key movers: Senators Susan Collins (R/Maine) and Joe Manchin (D/West Virginia), leaders of an informal bipartisan working group; and Representatives Josh Gottheimer (D/New Jersey) and Tom Read (R/New York), Co-Chairs of the 50-member Problem-Solvers Caucus in the House.
- Braver Angels, founded after the divisive 2016 election, is a non-partisan membership organization dedicated to uniting Red and Blue citizens to depolarize America. Their activities feature facilitated debates and workshops. braverangels.org.
- Livingroom Conversations is an open-source project to create a structured, intimate conversation format to empower citizens to discuss important issues with friends of differing political affiliations and backgrounds. livingroomconversations.org.
- Groups working on national healing more broadly defined, reducing debilitating socioeconomic inequities as well as COVID-provoked hardships
- Experience Corps is a nationwide program sponsored by AARP Foundation that trains senior volunteers to remotely tutor kids in Grades 1 through 3 to improve their English-language reading skills. experiencecorps.org The San Francisco Bay Area chapter is actively recruiting additional tutors. Call Director Sandra Strang. (415) 519-6189.
- Coro is a 75-year-old, non-partisan, non-profit organization offering leadership and civic-engagement training. Increasingly, Coro’s programs focus on serving women, youth, people of color and low-income communities. (California’s new US Senator, Alex Padilla, credits Coro with launching his career in public service.) Founded in Northern California, Coro operates additional centers in L.A., St. Louis, New York City and Pittsburgh. coronorcal.org.
- Rancho Cielo welcomes low-income, mostly Latino, teens struggling to escape from the criminal-justice whirlpool and boosts their prospects with vocational training and guaranteed employment in California’s hospitality and agribusiness industries. “(For a profile of this heralded program and its founder, Judge John Phillips, see the Agile Aging blog post of July 15, 2019.) ranchocieloyc.org.
- Here’s a pandemic-relief initiative I saw on national television that struck me as exceptionally practical and compassionate. A local contractor knew that many residents in his community were facing end-of-year shut-offs of gas and electricity, due to falling behind on their utility bills. So he went to the utility company, found out which families were most precarious, and paid their arrears. A surprisingly modest contribution kept dozens of families with heat and light as winter storms approached.
- Additional ideas for individual engagement in healing, suggested by some of my college classmates in a recent Zoom roundtable
- Steve proposed “right now, what’s probably most critical is for people to support their local food banks. The number of children going hungry has gone up exponentially and food banks have a hard time keeping up. There are also many opportunities to safely volunteer at food banks.” Feeding America is a Chicago-based, nationwide network of 200 food banks. Check out their website for local affiliates and donation opportunities. feedingamerica.org.
- Robert recommended leaving a substantial tip (even $100 or $200) when visiting a long-patronized local restaurant or barbershop. “Not as a normal gratuity topping up a bill. But as a quiet vote-of-confidence: ‘I value your service and your struggle and want to help your business survive.’ ”
- Tony added that he’s started saying hello to everyone he passes on his daily walks. “In big cities and especially in the pandemic, we’ve sealed ourselves off in self-absorbed silos. Without dropping my mask or stepping too close, I like to remind myself and my walking neighbors that we’re all in this together.”
Agile Agers, I hope that one or more of these links and initiatives encourage you to reach out and contribute to healing momentum.