I was wrong. Were you?
It turns out none of us knew anything at all
Find a friend for cuddling and screaming into the abyss
How are you all doing? Terribly? Same.
As we all sit around waiting for the presidential election results we knew would take this long on this never-ending Tuesday, I’m watching all of the pundits prepare to Monday-morning quarterback the results — once they know what the results are, of course. Hindsight makes very smug experts out of everyone. But while we wait, I’m considering what I got wrong and what I got right about this election, knowing what we know so far. And… it’s a little painful. Being wrong is not fun! Especially when it’s about something you really wanted to get right.
So here’s what I got wrong: Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t have won.
I cannot tell you how much I hate typing that sentence. I was 100% in the tank for Warren in the primary. I thought — and still think — that she was the smartest and best-qualified candidate, the one who had the right blend of policy chops, progressive ideals, and the simple ability to get shit done. I have no doubt that Warren would have made a fantastic president. I absolutely believe that she would have made the best president of every candidate in that competition.
I also now believe she would have lost to Donald Trump.
During the primary, I was convinced Warren had a great shot. The nation seemed exhausted by this reckless president who had done so much harm to so many. The 2018 midterms were fueled by pissed-off suburban women, many whom seemed to regret not working hard enough for Hillary, and who were natural organizers in communities where they already ran the PTA, organized field trips and playdates, and planned community get-togethers. Sexism would be a problem, sure, but we also surely learned something from 2016. And Warren is not Hillary — Hillary is one of the most complicated and polarizing figures in America, and while Warren would certain face attacks, she didn’t come with the same baggage. Warren’s performance during the debates further solidified my confidence in her: She took on Mike Bloomberg and knocked him down before he really even got in the ring; she was bright and tough and funny and, dare I say, charismatic. She had the thoughtful progressive policies I’ve dreamed of seeing in a presidential candidate — not just lofty ideas and promises, but detailed plans — and a track record of actually shepherding legislation all the way through to law. She was competent, and after four years of Trump, wouldn’t we all want competence?
Welp, turns out not so much.
Yes, Joe Biden won the popular vote. Millions more people voted for him than voted for Trump. And it looks like he just may win this election. And yes, it was a squeaker. Which is why I am so tempted to convince myself that it was a squeaker because Biden was the “safe” choice; if we had just gone with someone who brought new ideas to the table, who was fresh, who was the person who inspired me personally, we could have inspired more voters and more enthusiasm. Same-old moderate Democrat Biden was clearly not the answer.
Except, well, the results are telling a different story. And how this election went undermines the old arguments.
This was not a policy election. I wish it was, but here we are. Elizabeth Warren was a policy candidate. The Republican Party didn’t even put out a new platform this year. Donald Trump made zero specific policy promises; he ran on nothing other than dominance and his own cult of personality. Biden did put out a policy agenda, but it was largely ignored and it truly does not seem to have mattered — not in his favor, but not against it, either. This was an election of identity, of who we are: Are you a person who believes in Trumpism, hyper-nationalism, America First? Or are you a person who believes in democratic norms, who rejects the man at the top of the ticket, who wants restoration?
But maybe, the argument in my head goes, it would have been a policy election if Warren had run. I don’t think so. It still would have been about who you are, because Trump steamrolls the conversation and frankly the media lets him. And Warren, as inspiring as she is to college-educated urban professionals, represents a kind of American identity that has, so far, never been welcomed into the Oval Office, and that causes a truly hysterical reaction from folks on the right (and no, Bernie wouldn’t have won either). You’re surprised by Trump’s turnout against Biden? Imagine if he had been running against someone who it’s much easier to make his supporters hate and fear.
Warren promised more transformational change, which is a big part of why I wanted (still want) her in office. But look at what a great many voters did: They voted for Biden, but then voted for Republicans in Senate and House races. Democrats’ only hope for taking control of the senate comes down to Georgia, and is largely to the credit of Stacey Abrams. Democrats lost seats in the House. Republican senators who were vulnerable handily won reelection, even in states where the presidential tallies are close. That, unfortunately, does not confirm my hope that people want transformation change. It confirms my suspicion that they just want Trump out, and then want things will go back to normal, whatever that means.
Of course, there were some significant progressive victories, too — and there were moderate Democrats who lost. So far, there’s no discernible pattern here, no easy conclusion of “run more leftists” or “run more moderates.” We’re still getting all of the information in. The takes will certainly evolve as the facts do. But it does seem worthwhile to take a breath and ask what we’ve learned, and where we might adjust in the future.
It sucks. I hate it.
So now what? Is the conclusion that folks like Warren are simply too far left for the U.S. (and just too female) and so we should settle for moderate white men for the rest of our lives? Of course not. The conclusion, I think, is that the American electorate is not static: Peoples’ preferences can shift pretty radically, and of course people themselves die and new ones turn 18. Look at Georgia! If there was ever an example of what local organizing can do, that’s it. Or look at Donald J. Trump: He was a joke, until suddenly he wasn’t. That didn’t happen by accident; it took years of conservative culture-making: A right-wing television network that funneled lies into American homes and turned liberals into enemy number-one, a Republican party that undermined science and fact and education and slowly normalized rule-breaking and grift if it meant a power-grab. Trump wasn’t built in a day. And while Trump wouldn’t have been possible if American racism hadn’t saturated us down to the roots, he also wasn’t purely responsive to an American that had always existed. The GOP helped to build the America that Trump came to dominate.
Democrats, leftists, and progressive-minded folks can do the same; we can build greater consensus in our direction, and move the nation leftward. You just can’t do that on the fuel of a presidential election alone. Just because I don’t think America would have elected Elizabeth Warren 2020 doesn’t mean I think America can’t become a place that would elect Elizabeth Warren — or a Stacey Abrams, or an AOC, or an Ayanna Pressley, or a Katie Porter. But it’s useful to be honest with ourselves about where we got it wrong, and why — and if the “why” is because we were too optimistic and believed this place to be better than it is, well, then the next job is to get working on improving it.