Americans Voted to Make Politics Boring Again

Joe Biden is the President-Elect. The Democratic Party lost. That’s the short version of what will surely go down as one of the wildest elections in American history. It took almost a week to declare a winner, and it will take weeks more of litigation before Donald Trump concedes defeat, if he ever does. The emotions of this election will linger, indeed, will likely still be high when 2024 rolls around. For a substantial number of Trump supporters no amount of evidence in the world will ever convince them that this election wasn’t stolen from them. For a substantial number of Democrats, making Trump a one-term president will never dampen the rage they’ve let build up over the last four years. This election will certainly be a major storyline in the next one. And some on both sides will never forgive.

And yet, it seems the biggest outcome of the 2020 vote is a rejection of the hardcore partisans on both sides. Joe Biden might be the winner, but he comes into office with no blue wave and certainly no mandate for the Democrats more extreme policy prescriptions. In an election almost tailor-made to give the Democrats control of the Senate, they failed to do so. Their hopes on that front hinge on a Georgia special election booting two Republicans in favor of their Democratic challengers, and then that will only give the Democrats the barest advantage of Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaker vote. Meanwhile, improbably, the Republicans gained seats in the House. Nancy Pelosi has openly admitted that the results amount to a rebuke of Democrats’ embrace of the socialist label, and even so she is facing a challenge to her leadership from newly-insurgent centrists in the party. It turns out Americans don’t want to get rid of the police. It turns out that looking the other way when unhinged — but “mostly peaceful” — mobs set cities ablaze isn’t a winning strategy, nor is tacitly endorsing those who tear down statues of Frederick Douglas and Ulysses S. Grant in the name of “anti-racism.” And it turns out people who fled a hellish life in socialist paradises of Cuba and Venezuela saw too much that looked familiar in the current iteration of the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, in a year where everything else went more right for Republicans than even the most optimistic of them dared to hope, the president with an R next to his name will be the first one-term resident of the White House in nearly three decades. A few of the more conspiracy-minded point to Trump losing when Republican congressional candidates won as evidence of voter fraud, but the real explanation is far less sinister: a high enough number of voters who favor Republican policies still voted against Trump. Trump took heart from polls that showed a majority of Americans believe they are better off economically now than they were four years ago. Setting aside the fact that public opinion polls enjoy about as much credibility as Bill Belichick’s ethics handbook right now, such numbers are actually a damning indictment of Trump himself. It means a decent chunk of people believe they’re better off than under his predecessor, and they still voted for for Barack Obama’s right-hand man to take the reins. Yes, Trump did far better than expected, but he still became the first Republican to lose Georgia since 1992, took a drubbing in the popular vote, and saw (pending final counts) five states that he carried four years ago flip to his opponent, albeit by narrow margins. He still has to deal with the fact that, the whole time a majority of people apparently believed their lives were improving, his own approval ratings remained underwater for the entirety of his administration.

If this was a vote against rioters, statue-topplers, and Green New Deal-promoters, it was also a rejection of the office of the President as reality TV show. Trump torpedoed himself with his endless promotion of ridiculous conspiracy theories and generally obnoxious behavior. He never fully understood that the office of the presidency is bigger than the person who occupies it; he couldn’t take the weight of his office seriously because he couldn’t take anything but himself seriously, and even some of his 2016 supporters grew weary of it. And as for his staunchest supporters, this vote should also force a reckoning about who should be driving the Republican Party. Yes, by all means the Republican establishment must reckon with their own failures that led to Trump’s populist uprising; the way Trump resonated with so many working class voters — including black and Hispanic voters — must set a blueprint for the GOP going forward. But in the aftermath of 2020, the party leadership should also face the fact that the country shows a clear preference for a Republican Party that calls for Democratic leaders to lose elections, not for them to be thrown in jail. America has called for Republicans who believe Barack Obama was a flawed, or even poor, president, not those who believe he was a Kenyan Muslim bent on destroying the country. Only a tiny fraction of Trump’s supporters showed up waving rifles and harassing workers at polling sites, but that minority was loud enough to disgust moderates who are otherwise supportive of Republican policies.

The angriest of the angry in both parties were left with more to be angry about by this election, but that was by design — Americans reject their vision for the future. Joe Biden will very probably have to deal with a divided government and will certainly have to deal with a power struggle within his own party. His will be a caretaker presidency, and even under the best of circumstances he wouldn’t be able to deliver much. But perhaps his administration will be able to deliver something this nation has desperately-needed for a very long time — the occasional slow news day. If we get those on a regular basis over the next four years, a majority of the American people will have gotten what they voted for.

Tommy Sheppard is a historian living in northern Virginia. He earned his PhD in military history at the University of North Carolina.

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