After a year of pandemic and protest, and a big election, America is as divided as ever

dian zico

The year 2020 brought extraordinary and unexpected challenges that tested the strength of basic institutions, demanded courage and sacrifice in the face of a raging pandemic, underscored racial and economic inequities, and produced the biggest turnout of voters in the history of U.S. elections.

In the end, America was as divided as ever.

The election itself resulted in significant change — or no change. President Trump is on his way out of office after a single, tumultuous term, to be replaced on Jan. 20 by President-elect Joe Biden. Turnover in the most important of all elected offices — an office that was the major focus of the election — will bring a new tone, new faces and new initiatives to Washington and the country.

But it was Trump, not Biden, who seemed to have the longer coattails. As a result, Biden will start his term with the smallest House majority the Democrats have had in nearly a century and a half. And unless Democrats win both of the Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5, he also will be the first newly elected Democratic president without a Senate majority since the election of 1884.

Trump has been the most polarizing of all presidents, with a style designed to divide, inflame and impugn. He has accepted no responsibility for things that have gone wrong, preferring to blame others or pretend nothing went wrong. Even now, he seeks to overturn the November results. Biden’s victory would seem to signal a hunger for something different, something calmer, some change in direction.

A series exploring the political dynamics surrounding the crises facing America.

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But elections are about more than the race for the White House. The 2020 campaign was a victory for Biden and a defeat for Trump, but for the two political parties and the ideas they espouse, it was neither. Instead, it marked a continuation of a long struggle for power that has been fought out for more than a decade without clear resolution.

The broad repudiation of the president that many Democrats hoped for and anticipated did not materialize. The results underscored the persistence of divisions that preceded Trump and that now seem destined to endure when he is out of office, unless Biden, ever an optimist about the state of the country and his own political talents, can somehow coax America to a different place.

Biden’s victory in the popular vote was impressive: He won more than 81 million votes overall, or 51.3 percent. He defeated a sitting president by a margin of 7 million votes. Still, the fact that Trump won 74 million votes, or 46.8 percent, was also notable, and in some ways the bigger surprise, as polls consistently underestimated his support.

Biden’s electoral college total of 306 votes to Trump’s 232 was clear and comfortable — identical to the number Trump posted in 2016, which he always described as “a landslide.” But Biden’s majority, like Trump’s four years ago, was built on a string of narrow victories across key battlegrounds that, with small shifts, could have produced a different outcome.

The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman has noted that, while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes and came within 77,744 votes of winning the presidency in 2016, Trump lost the popular vote this year by 7.1 million votes and yet came within 65,009 votes of securing a majority in the electoral college and, with it, a second term.

That number — 65,009 — is the combined total by which Biden defeated Trump in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. Had all four gone the other way, Trump would have won the election with 270 electoral votes to Biden’s 268.

Trump has refused to concede, even in the aftermath of the electoral college tally that took place Dec. 14, which is to be ratified by Congress on Jan. 6. He has done far worse than declining to acknowledge Biden as the winner. No president has ever done what Trump has tried to do to change the results. While it is shocking, it is not surprising, given the way he has operated in office.

The president has spread the fiction that the election was stolen and has trafficked in conspiracy theories that Biden’s victory was based on widespread fraud across multiple states. He has been rebuffed repeatedly by judges appointed by both Democrats and Republicans, including twice by a Supreme Court whose 6-3 conservative majority he helped to shape.

The president’s post-election campaign has been carried out in a way that undermines confidence in the integrity of the vote and potentially Biden’s presidency. While Trump has not been able to overturn the election, the toxicity of his baseless, repeated charges has leeched into the body politic.

Tens of millions of Trump’s followers now believe that Biden was elected illegitimately, causing potentially significant damage to the electoral process and to Biden’s ability to govern effectively. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that more than 8 in 10 Trump voters said Biden was not the legitimate winner of the election. Other polls have found roughly similar results.

Many Democrats believed the election would result in a more significant victory for their party and with it a clearer mandate. Instead, the opposite has occurred — a split decision that left the balance of power little changed, though, not insignificantly, with a new president. Even as the two major political parties face their own internal strains, they will begin the new year and a new administration still looking across a wide and seemingly unbridgeable gulf.

Image: Carri Dusza, 41, demonstrates outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Nov. 8.

The absence of common ground

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who has decades of experience measuring public attitudes, said the election has left “a divided country even more divided,” adding that he cannot recall a time when there were “fewer points of intersection or overlap” between the two sides of the political divide.

“It’s not just that a Trump voter looks very different from a Biden voter, from where they live to what their demographics are,” he said. “But their belief systems are so fundamentally different that they’re essentially living in two separate realities. . . . When politicians say there is more that unites us than divides us, it’s nice to hear, but it is not descriptive of our current reality.”

Surveys both before and after the election underscore the dimensions of the gap that now separates those two worlds. A post-election survey by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm, asked whether Republicans and Democrats have less respect for people in the other party than they did four years ago. Eighty-one percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats agreed.

An October survey by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that partisans have made harsh judgments about the nature of the opposition. More than 8 in 10 Republicans said the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, while nearly 8 in 10 Democrats said the Republican Party has been taken over by racists.

The Pew Research Center found in October that 80 percent of Biden supporters and 77 percent of Trump supporters said they “fundamentally disagree with the other side on core American values and goals.” About 9 in 10 supporters of both Trump and Biden said there would be “lasting harm” to the country should the other party’s candidate win.

“What this all reflects is . . . this sense that the opposing party is pushing policies that are fundamentally going to do harm to the country,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who has written extensively about polarization.

“It cuts across everything from economic policies to dealing with the pandemic, to immigration, race relations, social issues — you name it,” he added. “This visceral dislike and mistrust and animosity reflects actual disagreement about the way the country should be governed — who should be governing and what policies they should be following.”

Trump’s presidency has expanded the values gap between Republicans and Democrats, Blacks and Whites, those with college degrees and those without, those who attend church regularly and those who do not. Nothing that happened in November appears to have changed that in any significant way.

For Trump supporters, cultural preservation of an America long dominated by a White, Christian majority remains a cornerstone of their beliefs. That helps to explains their attachment to a president who has warned that the Democrats and their allies are determined to rewrite the nation’s history and destroy its heritage.

Though the election has been settled, the country remains unsettled. Differences based on ideology and policy are common to democratic societies. Divisions over the legitimacy of an election could be far more dangerous. “I don’t mean there’s going to be riots or armed militias, but a lack of a unified belief in small-d democratic values is inherently destabilizing,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.

Although Election Day and the day of the electoral college vote passed peacefully, threats of violence and some clashes continue. Hundreds of Proud Boys — a male chauvinist group partial to Trump and he to them — marched through the streets of D.C. earlier this month, provoking fights. Four people were stabbed, including one critically. Earlier, armed protesters gathered outside the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) to register their disapproval of the vote there.

Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland whose specialty is the study of the partisan divisions in the country, said that while she sees no sign that polarization is abating, “I actually think that polarization is not as big of a problem anymore as democracy itself.”

She sees Trump’s anti-democratic actions and the support he has received for those efforts from a majority of his party as cause for concern. “He’s really encouraging his supporters to believe in something that’s not true, that’s absolutely false,” she said. “And that makes them really, really angry, which is extremely dangerous.”

Image: Trump supporters rally in Washington on Dec. 12.

After change elections, a familiar status quo

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, describes what has happened to separate the two Americas as a continuum that has turned what once was a ditch into a canyon and then the canyon into a chasm.

Nothing about the cascading events of 2020 — not the pandemic and 330,000 deaths; not the massive economic dislocations; not the killings of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor; not Trump’s stir-the-pot tweeting and attacks on rivals; not an estimated $14 billion spent to sway voters — had much impact on how people voted.

“Very few people moved, and that is, in some sense, shocking to me,” Mellman said. “We used to have presidential elections and elections generally that were much more responsive to events. Now we’re in this situation where it’s a two- to five-point race no matter what.”

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, said his firm’s analysis of the election concluded that this was the smallest number of ticket-splitters since his firm began its measurement two decades ago. “We’ve stopped having any intersection [between the two sides],” he said.

In a closely divided country, events can become catalysts for different parts of the electorate, affecting turnout patterns and election results. These shifting patterns produced change elections of one magnitude or another in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2016, 2018 and now 2020.

In 2006, voters weary of war and souring on the leadership of then-president George W. Bush toppled the GOP majority in the House. Two years later, those same forces elected Barack Obama president and enlarged his party’s House and Senate majorities.

In 2010, reaction to Obama’s presidency produced a conservative tea party revolt that put Republicans back in control of the House. In 2014, Republicans took control of the Senate.

In 2016, it was the power of White working-class voters registering their disapproval of the political elites who helped make Trump the winner. In 2018, White women with college degrees who were disgusted with Trump provided much of the energy that flipped the House to the Democrats.

In 2020, with the stakes as high as ever and the country reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, racial protests and economic losses, voters came out in force. Nearly 160 million people voted this year, compared with about 138 million four years ago, but they sent mixed signals with their ballots.

The results ran counter to expectations — and to public and private polls, particularly in House races. Down-ballot contests went far more decisively for the Republicans than most analysts anticipated.

In the House, Republicans captured almost all of 27 races listed by the Cook Political Report as toss-ups. They also won seven more seats that were listed as either “likely” or “lean” Democratic. Republicans were expected to lose ground based on pre-election polls. Instead, they gained at least nine seats, with two still to be resolved.

In the Senate, seven Republican seats were listed as toss-ups. Republicans won five, with the two Georgia races going to runoff elections. Democrats picked up only two Senate seats held by the Republicans, after heading into Election Day with the hope that they would emerge in the majority.

Image: Crowds watch the presidential election results at Pearl Bar in Houston on Nov. 3.

Shifting coalitions but deep divisions

In the weeks after the election, analysts have studied the results, looking for shifts among particular groups of voters, from suburbanites to young African Americans to Hispanics — particularly those in South Florida and South Texas, where Trump made notable gains — to those under age 45 and those over age 65, to White women with college degrees and White women without degrees, to urban vs. rural.

The analyses offer potential clues to forces that could shape politics in the future, but they cannot obscure the larger reality of a country that remains hardened in its divisions. “Most people have selected a side and predictably stuck with that side,” said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “It matters for election outcomes where these people who split their tickets go. But it’s all appearing against a background where people are clearly on one side or the other.”

Both parties have undergone dramatic changes over the past decade. Republicans are caught in the grip of Trump and Trumpism, which represents a sharp departure from the conservatism of former president Ronald Reagan. Despite successes in November, the GOP is heading toward an internal debate about its future, with Trump’s influence remaining as a wild card.

In the election returns, some GOP analysts see the makings of a new coalition, built on White working-class voters and evangelical Christians and with potential support from voters of color, particularly Hispanics. “This election might be the start of that direction,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster.

Democrats see some of those same patterns and worry. Victories in Arizona and Georgia give them hope of redrawing parts of the electoral map in their favor, but they recognize that their weaknesses with some groups of voters leave them vulnerable in northern states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

Democrats are feeling the effects of gender, racial, generational and ideological tensions, with rising constituencies demanding more representation and power and energy coming from the grass roots of the party. Those differences were temporarily put aside this fall in the effort to defeat Trump, but Cathy Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said the results of the election have left Biden with unhappy options.

“Right now he could be facing a Republican majority in the Senate that would push back on most initiatives that would be exciting to the Democratic base,” she said. “On the other hand, he has to offer up something that is substantial in institutional terms of transformation that will engage and excite the left part of the Democratic Party and many young people, particularly young people of color.”

The forces that have shaken both parties appear not to be transitory. “I don’t think we’re ever going back to the old politics in America,” Garin said. “And the new politics is very much a work in progress. But the way in which this transformation proceeds will determine a lot about the future of the country.”

America has remained hardened in its divisions through a series of major shocks — the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the financial crisis and recession of 2008 and 2009 and now a year that included impeachment, a pandemic, a racial reckoning, economic hardship and a campaign unlike any other in memory.

The task of navigating this divided landscape now falls to Biden. He has a robust policy agenda to address some of the most serious problems any new president has faced in decades. But his larger aspiration, as he has said repeatedly, is to heal the country and repair its broken politics. In a nation so divided and hostile toward the opposition, even small progress would count as a significant accomplishment.

A series exploring the political dynamics surrounding the crises facing America.

Swipe to view more stories.

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