Democrats would be thrilled with these results if this was an ordinary election. Defeating an incumbent President is rare in our system. When the votes are all counted on the West Coast, Biden will likely have outperformed every Democratic nominee since Johnson.
Democrats held their House majority while moving within striking distance of Senate control. By winning just one of the two upcoming Senate races in Georgia Democrats could neutralize Mitch McConnell, one of the cleverest political operators of all time and the last lynchpin of sane leadership in the GOP.
But it was not an ordinary election.
Facing the most lethally inept and personally vile President in our history, the race still came down to razor thin margins in a handful of states that could have triggered a dangerous popular vote/Electoral College split. Democrats failed to replace a North Carolina Senator who responded to an early pandemic briefing by committing felony stock fraud. Spineless, doddering Republican Susan Collins easily defeated a well-funded challenge. A referendum on basic human decency produced a disturbingly close result.
The fault line in this election ran through the following factors, in order: race, geography and income. A contest that should have broken us out of politics as usual instead saw a hardening of the same political dynamic that settled over us after the Dixiecrats completed their flight into the GOP. The good guys won a referendum on white nationalism, but it only buys us a little time.
So, what happened? People who depend on a culture of white supremacy for their dignity, their religious identity or their careers, voted Republican. Blacks and Native Americans, who are the prime scapegoats of white supremacy, voted almost unanimously against Trump. Everybody else split based almost entirely on their relationship to race. That’s the 2020 election in a nutshell.
What changed from 2016? Black turnout was modestly higher, just enough to rescue Democrats across the upper Midwest while a big push in Georgia put Biden over the top. Affluent white suburbanites, especially women, broke from the GOP which provided the decisive margin in Arizona. Hispanic voters in places where white supremacist pressure is very high, particularly Texas and Florida, slipped away from Democrats at stunning rates. Turnout on tribal reservations was high, helping seal a Democratic win in Arizona. And Republicans solidified their hold over less educated and rural whites.
Winning margins for Democrats were higher the farther those voters were from states that failed to outlaw slavery prior to Lincoln’s election. Those states include Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky.
The urban/rural split in this election was unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times. Republicans lost 48 of America’s 50 largest cities, carrying only Oklahoma City and Tulsa, each by tiny margins. There are lots of traditionally Republican cities in the top 50, including Virginia Beach, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, Mesa, Indianapolis and Colorado Springs. Democrats swept them all. Biden was the first Democrat to carry Phoenix’s Maricopa County in 80 years.
This Democratic dominance now extends with few exceptions down through the second 50 largest cities as well, even though many of those “cities” are pure suburbs like Plano, North Las Vegas, Hialeah and Jersey City.
Biden won counties producing well over 70% of America’s GDP while Republicans dominated the nation’s poorest counties, as long as they are overwhelmingly white. Basically, Democrats now win in almost any place that has a lot of black people, on tribal reservations, or where whites are just one among a number of different ethnic groups. Republicans dominate white farm and resource extraction towns like Amarillo or Tulsa, poor white counties, or cities that are very, very white like Boise and Wichita.
White voters were more likely to vote Democratic the higher their education level. On income, whites were split into two tiers. Trump support was highest among the small number of whites at the pinnacle of wealth and the mass of whites at lower income levels, the same coalition that powered the Confederacy and its “Copperhead” allies in the North. Republicans now win Beverly Hills and rural Kentucky. The GOP is literally the Beverly Hillbilly Party.
Down at the precinct level, Republicans often won more than 90% in precincts that are extremely poor and overwhelmingly white, precincts in places like Harlan Co., KY and Rusk Co., TX. Where white people live in small, isolated communities, with limited contact with anyone unlike them, like the white belt of SE New Mexico or eastern Tennessee, Republicans dominated.
Democrats only matched these near-unanimous outcomes in precincts that are overwhelmingly black, on reservations, or in a few racially diverse big city precincts. Though turnout in places like Philadelphia and Milwaukee was anemic, Biden’s numbers in the nearby suburbs were enough to put him over the top.
There have been some lousy takes about deteriorating black support for Democrats. They are derived either from exit polls, or from the highly visible gullibility of a handful of black entertainers like Ice Cube or 50 Cent, who were scammed by the Trump campaign into embarrassing, career-ending endorsements. Exit polls were rendered hilariously useless by the strange dynamics of this election cycle. Not only did record numbers prefer early voting or mail-in, the Trump campaign engineered a strange partisan spin on early voting, hopelessly skewing Election Day exit polls. It’s safe to ignore the exit polls and along with wealthy entertainers who live beyond the feedback loop.
Hispanics became by far the most interesting voting bloc in this election. In places where the pressure to “assimilate,” or in other words “become white,” are the highest, Hispanic voters began peeling away from the Democratic Party at disturbing levels. Meanwhile, Hispanic support for Democrats remained strong in solidly blue places like California, Chicago and the Northeast.
The poorer, less educated and whiter your precinct, the more likely it was to vote Republican. If that precinct is also in a place that failed to outlaw slavery before 1860 (which includes Kentucky, Utah and Arizona by the way), the Republican dominance is often near-unanimous. Democrats are now the Party of Lincoln, with near-unanimous support in black communities and growing support among affluent, educated whites.
While nationalism has always been a powerful force in our politics, but there has never been an election, not even in 1860, where it was more explicitly on the ballot. The supreme role of white culture, status and preferences has always simply been an unchallenged assumption, even during the Civil War. Thanks to Donald Trump and his cult-like Republican following, Americans in 2020, for the first time ever, voted on whether white nationalism should officially be the organizing principle of our republic. The outcome was frighteningly close.
No issues beyond the role of white nationalism moved voters in this election. Republicans didn’t even bother assembling a platform. Polls showed no movement as the President’s disastrous denial of the pandemic piled up economic damage and corpses. On Election Day the unemployment rate was almost double where it was when Trump took office. Trump’s impact on GDP has been worse than GW Bush’s. No issues raised by either candidate moved the needle in the least.
Where referendums placed specific issues on the ballot, like drug legalization and the minimum wage, voters broke against type. Progressive priorities passed in Mississippi, Florida and South Dakota while mostly failing in California. This election wasn’t about issues. It was about Fascism.
On the one hand, it is possible to see this as remarkable progress. Reaching a point where the continuation of white cultural supremacy could be in question took generations of work and bloodshed. To win is even better. But for those who imagined racism was a dying relic of a few hardened bigots, seeing Trump maintain the same level of electoral support as McCain while running on distilled white nationalism is troubling. Worse, the stark geographic split in the outcome raises questions about our capacity to sustain the union.
Our problem is that, just like Nazism, white nationalism is not a negotiable position, subject to political horse-trading or compromise. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Those who insist that white men possess a holy obligation to determine everyone else’s fates aren’t going to be political partners in an otherwise diverse, multi-racial democracy. We’re going to isolate and defeat them, or they’re going to dismantle our democratic system. They won’t be peaceful partners in a culturally diverse government.
Republicans didn’t make any effort to persuade voters, instead investing all their energy in campaigns to instill cult-loyalty in their base and disenfranchise everyone else. You don’t gain an edge against white nationalists by reasoned arguments. It’s transmitted along lines of identity, largely through religion.
Review of a map of the slave states and territories in 1861 Put an asterisk on Kansas, as it didn’t outlaw slavery until secession removed the Southerners from Congress.
Now compare it to the 2020 Electoral Map.
See the problem? With a few exceptions we remain locked in much the same racial and geographical divide that fed the Civil War. Needless to say, this is bad.
A coalition of Americans who want to continue our democratic experiment won this election, but the fight isn’t over. The Fascists only have to win one more time to finish this off. There’s reason to expect they aren’t going to sit around waiting for an election to make their next move. All we won in last week was a chance to fight another day.