Former Vice President Joe Biden’s decisive victory over President Donald Trump makes him the first challenger to defeat an incumbent president in the 21st century and only the fifth in the past 100 years. From those who took to the streets in celebration on Saturday, to signs of relief around the globe, it’s clear that many people are relishing the defeat of an American president who has frequently exhibited dangerous authoritarian tendencies.
Trump also tapped into the deep divisions long stoked by political partisans and inflamed them more than anyone who came before him. President-elect Biden now pledges to usher in a period of healing and unity. But this year’s election shows that the unstable politics that produced Trump are not going anywhere.
A 5 million vote lead (and counting) will not produce an easy governing mandate for Biden. Even though his current 50.9% share of the electorate will be higher than any challenger’s since Franklin Roosevelt, it could have easily gone the other way. A change of less than 50,000 votes across Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin would have produced an Electoral College tie and delivered Trump’s reelection despite his losing the popular vote by more than 5 million votes.
Biden’s Democratic Party will also hold one of the slimmest majorities in the still-gerrymandered House of Representatives, after losing seats in the election, and can only hope for a tie in the Senate, if two runoff elections in Georgia go the party’s way.
And this year wasn’t a one-off. Hillary Clinton famously won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College by a large margin. This is the era we’re living in. It’s one of divided government, competitive elections, ideological polarization, vicious partisan combat and anti-majoritarian obstacles that combine to create escalating crises as the parties ― but mostly the Republicans ― seek any advantage to hold and wield power.
The country is still divided in the way it came to be in the wake of the 2000 election between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. That election produced the first unpopularly elected president since the 19th century, the smallest House majority since before the Civil War and a Senate tied at 50-50. It was also the last presidential election in which 10 or more states voted for a candidate from a different party than they had in the previous election. The 2000 election saw a crescendo in the politics of partisan polarization created by the return of competitive congressional elections in 1978 and the victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The 2000 election even produced a symbolic representation of our divided politics: the red state-blue state map, which entered popular parlance during the long post-election stretch when there was no clear winner. Politicians now reach for the red state-blue state language when they seek to transcend our polarized divisions, as Barack Obama did in his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, or to exploit them for political gain, as Trump does in statements denigrating “Blue States” that elect Democrats.
Democrats may be the majority party, in that they have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. But Republicans are a robust minority who can win elections even when they lose thanks to anti-majoritarian provisions of the Constitution. What we are left with are two highly competitive parties polarized along ideological lines with neither able to win a breakout victory and establish a new regime to supplant the one inaugurated by Reagan 40 years ago.
Reagan’s victory over President Jimmy Carter marked the beginning of a new conservative political cycle supplanting the New Deal era. It was the culmination of a purposeful right-wing movement to transform the Republican Party into an ideologically conservative party that would use any tactic available to polarize the country. Those GOP strategists believed that if liberals and conservatives were split into two camps, conservatives would hold a decisive majority.
They were right at that moment. Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, won with sizable majorities. But Reagan’s smashing 1984 reelection was the last landslide in American presidential politics. Since then no presidential candidate has won the popular vote by more than 10%, the longest such stretch in American history, while two have won the White House while losing the popular vote. No president since Reagan has won 80% or more of the Electoral College vote, the second-longest such stretch in history.
Congressional elections in this period have been just as competitive. Neither political party has won a House majority of 60% or more since the 1990 elections. A party has only once in the past 32 years won the House with a 60-seat majority. These are both the longest such stretches of partisan competition in American history.
“These changed competitive circumstances have had far-reaching effects on political incentives in Washington,” political scientist Frances Lee wrote in her 2016 book, “Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign.” “Intense party competition for institutional control focuses members of Congress on the quest for partisan political advantage. When party control seemingly hangs in the balance, members and leaders of both parties invest more effort in enterprises to promote their own party’s image and undercut that of the opposition. These efforts at party image making often stand in the way of cross-party cooperation on legislation.”
Hyper-competitive elections push the parties into a kind of trench warfare where every little advance or retreat carries great significance. They incentivize obstruction and negative legislating, forcing votes on unpopular legislation to use in campaign advertisements. They also lead political parties to change the rules, break norms and, increasingly for the Republican Party, refuse to recognize the opposition as legitimate.
It is the Republican Party that led the way in partisan polarization after it was infused with the win-at-all-costs attitude of the New Right and that continues to lead the way in polarization and gaining power within the polarized system. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) prioritized negative partisanship in his blockade of Obama’s agenda, culminating in his refusal to even hold hearings on Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to an open Supreme Court seat. Trump’s pugilistic mendacity and compulsion to break the rules are a natural fit for the Republican Party’s polarizing politics.
Polarization works for Republicans more than for Democrats because the Republican Party is far more homogenous, both ideologically and ethnically, than the Democratic Party. Democrats, who continue to pull in suburban moderates and the college-educated affluent, have a much larger ideological tent to tend to.
That explains why successful Democratic presidential candidates seek to run on bridging the nation’s divides, only to learn that they can’t. Obama’s post-partisan high-mindedness, where “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” perhaps led Democrats to squander the only significant majority of the post-2000 period. As then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) put it, “When he talks about being post-partisan, having seen these people and knowing what they would do in that situation, I suffer from post-partisan depression.”
Biden now finds himself in a familiar position. He has won a significant and rare victory over an incumbent president on a message of unity and “restoring the soul of America.” But the presidential election result did not bring clarity down-ballot.
The mood in the air is certainly not one of post-partisan unity. Instead, Trump has pushed the politics of polarization and rule-breaking close to their limit by pretending to have won the election. He is the first president to refuse to concede his defeat and nearly all Republican Party actors are going along with it. This is a nationalization of what previously happened in states like Kentucky and North Carolina, where Republican governors refused to concede initially and sought to overturn their losses by claiming voter fraud, and in Kentucky, North Carolina and Wisconsin, where lame-duck Republican legislatures gutted the incoming Democratic governor’s ability to govern.
Whether congressional Republicans believe Trump or are simply humoring him doesn’t matter. By pandering to an increasingly agitated and heavily armed base, Republicans are making it normal to refuse to respect the results of future elections. Without belief in the legitimacy of elections, the country would no longer be a functioning democracy.
The 2000 election ended with Gore’s meek concession after he decided the country could not handle a continued fight without tearing apart. It was an act that went against the spirit of our age. The Republican Party’s excusing of Trump’s effort to pull down the temple on his way out signifies a new chapter in the story of polarization: One party is considering abandoning elections entirely.