Philip Finkelstein: Moderation and messaging moving forward

By | November 14, 2020

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Philip Finkelstein, of Charlotte, who is is a technical writer and business analyst. After attending the University of British Columbia, where he received a BA in political science, he served as a blog contributor for Citizens’ Climate Lobby. 

Post-election analysis provides a window into the soul of America. With more Americans having voted in the 2020 presidential election than any other election in U.S. history (around 150 million), there has never been a larger pool of data depicting the will and sentiment of the American people. But what the data shows is not overwhelming support for one side or party. Far from it. The data describes a country that is radically divided and irreverently frustrated. 

Voter mobilization in key cities may have won Joe Biden the presidency by fairly narrow margins, but Donald Trump revealed the real extent of rural white American grievance and the failure of identity politics — the fundamental leftist ideology of dividing Americans by race, gender and sexual orientation. For the U.S. to start moving toward a place of greater unity and less partisan polarization, both sides need to accept culpability for the division and embrace the principle of moderation. The data does not lie — neither side is blameless, both sides have a lot of making up to do.

President-elect Biden received in excess of 10 million more votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. But President Trump outperformed then-candidate Trump by similar numbers. Therefore, the conclusion many drew from 2016 — that Clinton lost due to a mere lack in voter enthusiasm and turnout, precipitated by polls essentially guaranteeing her victory — has largely been proven wrong. Trumpism was not a 2016 anomaly. Yes, Biden picked up more critical Democratic voters in swing states this time around, which translated into a reversal in the Electoral College outcome, but Trump expanded his Republican base in impressive and unexpected ways. 

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Putting Trump’s contestations of the 2020 presidential election results aside, the data coming in across all races exemplifies Democratic disillusion. For Democrats to lose seats in the House while winning the presidency suggests that there was a substantial amount of split-ticket voting. That means a disproportionate number of moderate Republicans grew tired of Trump’s antics and flipped on him, while voting Republican down the rest of the ticket in the aim of neutering a Biden presidency. This phenomenon amounted in a net gain of two votes favoring Biden for every convert (+1 D, -1 R), and yet Trump still managed to find nearly 10 million more supporters in 2020 relative to 2016. One should conclude, then, that, had Trump been less divisive within his own party, he would have likely sailed to victory.

Not only did Trump win the white vote again by a significant margin (+8%), though not by as much as in 2016 (+11%), he gained support among minority voters. Trump increased his support among Black voters by 2%-4% relative to 2016. He also made crucial inroads with the Latino community, which paid off in places like Florida where he captured nearly 50% of their vote, up from only 35% in 2016. Meanwhile, Republicans have flipped nine seats in the House so far, seven of which were won by female candidates. These statistics allude to the wavering commitments of any given group to a specific party.

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Identity politics failed to capture the mood of the American psyche. Black men do not so neatly fit into a box, and differ from their female counterparts. Latinos diverge in their politics depending on their Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban origins. Women vary greatly across ethnicity and tax bracket. Age, education, and religion influence the political predilections of all groups. Each voter is a unique composition of categories comprising an individual. Identity politics can generalize to a degree, but preferences of the individual cannot be predicted or modeled to within margins that matter.

Trumpism was not repudiated in earnest as the polls had foretold. Trump’s character perhaps cost him the presidency, but his legacy lives on within the congressional Republicans who echoed his message. Rather, it appears that the brunt of repudiation this election landed on Democrats, who, like Republicans under Trump, are facing a crisis of identity. The far-left faction of the party has taken its toll in moderate districts. Biden had to toe a tight line to win the nomination and the general. He now faces the grander challenge of fending off a progressivist agenda that will only further alienate rural, white, and non-college-educated America, as well as continue to chip away at minority support — voting blocks that will prove consequential in future elections.

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A culture war has been unfolding for a decade, brought to a head by Trump’s presidency, and typified by the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Getting back to normalcy demands moderation on both sides of the aisle. Messaging like “defund the police” will only continue to hinder Democrats in swing districts, especially those affected by violence. Liberal elite strongholds have fallen out of touch with middle America. Low- and middle-class whites have been left behind in this ever-globalizing world. They are not racist, they are disgruntled. Democrats need not demonize the white Trump supporter for expressing their frustrations. Similarly, Republicans need to stop peddling conspiracies and quietly condoning prejudices. 

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The dismantling of norms and sycophantic actions of many Republicans will unquestionably take time for the party to wash off, made harder by the sustained support Trump commands. But if the brazen anti-democratic Trumpism plaguing America is to be defeated, then the image of liberal establishment elitism needs to be attenuated. That is done by moderating the messaging. Small incremental steps is still progress. Progressives should embrace this approach, and cut ties with the far-left wing of the party. Then there will be nothing left for Trump and his base to cling on to.

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