The 2020 Election Redux

Revelers near Lake Merritt in Oakland, November 7th 2020 after the election was called for Biden/Harris.

On Election Day, November 8, 2016, we were in Brooklyn, watching the returns late into the night under a sagging Happy Birthday banner. It was our son’s first birthday. That morning we had put a number 1 candle in his oatmeal. We had played in heaps of fall leaves in Von Herbert King park, in Bed-Stuy, where we lived. A friend, a Wisconsin native, came over to watch the returns at our apartment, pulling out his laptop to have the Nate Silver probability needle at the ready and predicting a blowout for Hilary Clinton. That evening turned from clenched disbelief into head shaking acceptance as we crawled into bed at 1am thinking, how did we let this happen?

2016 was the only presidential election since 2004 that I didn’t do GOTV work. I couldn’t make that mistake again. So this year, I started phone banking in August from our home in Oakland, California. On Election Day, rather than play in the leaves, I left increasingly horse voicemails on phones in Florida and North Carolina about the need to vote Biden/Harris. I’d make it personal, saying something like, “I believe we need to preserve Obamacare, it’s how my wife got health insurance before the birth of our first child. Biden will expand federal college loans, which is how I was able to go to college. And he’ll bring humanity and critical thinking back to our politics.” Based on the voter data given, I’d sometimes tailor it with a shout out for expanded child-care subsidies, universal free state college for those making under $125K, or just how much I loved X about the nature and people in that state. Pandering? Perhaps. This year I was pulling no punches.

Before jumping in the Bay for a freezing Fall swim on this year’s Election Day, I got a text from that same Wisconsin native friend I’d watched the 2016 returns with. “Let’s Get this! So glad we are not in your cursed Brooklyn apartment again.” He was happy to report that his entire extended family in Wisconsin had broken for Biden (which was not the case for Clinton in 2016). “Biden will take Wisconsin by at least 7%” he texted.

I was nervous the whole election. At 4:30pm, shivering in my car after twenty minutes in the frigid bay, Ari Shapiro on NPR was reporting that Florida was already leaning Trump. I muttered to myself: “Shit, this is really happening already.” Time to man the Election Day battle station that is my couch and the live feed on CNN.

There I traded texts with friends while watching the never-ending and increasingly meaningless “Close Race Alerts” spin out with more unclear data. I didn’t sleep well that first night. I woke up at least five times and that uneasy thought of, “Is this really happening again?” would slide into my consciousness. Probably the one thing in common Americans felt across the country late Tuesday was an edgy unease.

And it didn’t end there. For four days we became election data cyborgs. The words Cobb, Gwinnett, Maricopa, Dade, McComb, Waukesha emblazoned in our collective consciousness, directly firing neurons in our brain. In a way, it’s comical. The electoral college has shrunk our democracy to a handful of states, and now a dozen counties. Will we sit around years from now and reel off famous battleground counties of each election like lineups from our favorite childhood baseball teams?

Finally on Saturday morning, as I picked up pastries for my son’s fifth birthday, the news came in. The A.P. had called it for Biden. The Times headline “Biden beat Trump” ricocheted around social media. By evening we were at Lake Merritt. Cars crawled by playing YG’s anthem “F — k Trump.” A very large Black man in tight Black Lives Matter biking spandex cycled in circles pulling a wagon with a large 1920s style gramaphone blasting it out. People sorta danced. Some traded semi-exhilarating elbow bumps from car windows. Mostly people just “whoooed!” And filmed each other sorta dancing, elbow bumping and whoooing. Catharsis. Relief. The wicked witch had been vanquished. Democracy and it’s many institutions — election workers, the press, business leaders, international organizations, and heads of states, even a couple stray Republican leaders — had turned back the demon and said “Not today Satan.”

And yet, it was pretty close. Trump this year got the second most votes ever for a President (second only to Biden). By 7 million, but still. The Blue Wave did not happen. I checked in with various folks. The reaction varied. Black activist friends greeted it with muted relief, and a wary shrug: the real work had just begun. Some white liberal friends were dismayed at the results. Texted one friend: “100k people a day getting covid, 230k Americans dead, media and elites lined up against him, economy in the crapper…how is this close?” He continued, “I’ve been told I live in a bubble my whole life. But based on the facts, who lives in the bubble? “ Yes, it’s dismaying that Trump, despite everything, got that many votes. And yet…

Biden had serious headwinds. Since Reagan, the Presidency has become a popularity contest, the winner is he (yes, so far always still he) who commands the most celebrity, whether it be Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” funky white boy sax playing Southerner, George W.’s bush-clearing, born again, recovering alcoholic Texas swagger, Obama’s historic rise and soaring rhetoric, and then Trump’s dystopian 4chan cringey chatboard hate-watch reality show. Also, the incumbent always wins. The exceptions to both these rules seem clearly the last of a bygone era, the measured, Rotarian booster club Republicanism of George H.W. Bush.

Combine that with a year of massive social unrest, with looting in dozens of cities, the Democrats deciding to not to door-to-door canvassing til the very end, while Republicans did, and Trump held large rallies, a full-throated call to Defund the Police (not by Biden, but by enough on the Left to link him to that) and a fear that more economic lockdown would lead to job hemorrhaging for the most vulnerable.

But Biden/Harris pulled it off. What really swung the election to Biden in key battlegrounds was the unsexy demographic of upper-middle class and wealthy suburban whites (following a trend that began in the 2017 special elections, and gained steam in the Dems strong 2018 midterm showing). Cue the applause for the ice-cube in the chardonnay set? Some numbers even suggest that Trump got his biggest swing among suburban white men. Certainly there would be no Instagram posts praising the well-off whites who finally broke away from Trump, given that Trump still won the majority of the white vote, but it was significant.

During the 2016 Republican primaries, after winning Nevada, Trump famously blurted out, “I love the poorly educated.” In 2020 he whined, “Suburban women, will you please like me?” The answer in 2020 was that low-educated whites still loved him back, but that there were enough comfortable cul-de-saccers who couldn’t stomach voting for an unstable bigot in exchange for a shot at another tax cut. Progress!

The sub-story of the election is that although Black and Hispanic voters gave strong-as-always aggregate support for the Democratic ticket, Trump made significant improvements among Black and Hispanic voters in Detroit, Philly, and Milwaukee. Black turnout was actually down in those cities from 2016. It seems Georgia was the exception, where Biden put together a mix of strong urban Black turnout, and disaffected suburbanites in formerly conservative counties. (If you wanna get more amped about Georgia, listen to what Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown had to say about the decade of work they put in on the Pod Save America podcast.)

But to even talk about this sliding of Biden support among Black and brown voters in some circles has been met with rebuke. Politics reporter Marissa Lagos was essentially shouted down by another guest on KQED’s Forum for bringing it up, and told that this data was distracting from the important thing that Black women are the soul of the Democratic party and delivered Biden his victory. It’s true that the bulk numbers are overwhelming, and that Black women have been the under appreciated soul of the party for decades. But if the Left can’t even acknowledge that there was a change and what that might portend, we have a problem.

So Democrats won the big battle for the soul of this country. We showed that we are not that callous. That the rhetoric and temperature and impulses and policies of this President were just too damaging. But now begins the battle for the soul and the strategic way forward for Democrats.

Defund the police is a pretty fascinating case study. I was surprised when I saw it emerge so prominently. Wow, that sounds like a seriously off-putting slogan for non-politically adept voters (which describes most people). There are parts of what it means policy wise— demilitarizing the police and redistributing certain functions towards agencies more equipped to handle them — that make lots of sense. Deploying social workers to attend to mental health related incidents, and taking traffic tickets off the police docket seems like a no-brainer. So why not do it quietly at city council meetings with progressive votes and no slogans? Instead it became a battle cry and essentially put a target on its back, because the language (though a clever nod to historic and dismaying defunding of schools, health care, social services) needed too much explaining.

Meanwhile police accountability reforms and demilitarization policies such as the 8 that can’t wait get lost in the battle over a slogan. Which brings us to the fault line of performative politics and virtue signalling, especially on social media. It seems this election was a rebuke of that. It seems clear we need to spend less energy brow-beating already liberal folks to become ever more woke and more energy trying to enlist the millions of voters who sit out elections AND win back the 15 million or so Trump voters that might be winnable. (Of the 74 million Trump voters, there’s a solid 50–60 million that I would not bother trying to win over now. The catharsis of conspiracy theory to describe complex world events is way too powerful. Resentment, plus sliding socio-economic status, plus social media disinformation, plus low media literacy, plus white identity politics has increased the calcification I saw traveling through small town and rural America in 2008, 2011 and 2016.)

This requires a strategic approach. It brings up the thorny question: does inclusivity only cut one way? Tolerance can be a slippery slope to accommodating bigoted views. In the age of Trump, with hate crimes spiking, it’s important that those of us with privilege are on high alert. But that needs to be balanced with a need for an inclusive, big tent approach. And with Trump winning larger numbers of voters of color than any Republican in decades, that persuadable slice of the Trump electorate might not be who you have in mind.

This excellent analysis of the rift in the Democratic Party examines that in depth. It includes the big problem for Democrats and progressive parties globally going forward, as seen by Harvard economist Dana Rodrik: “As their traditional working-class base has eroded, the influence of globalized professionals, the financial industry, and corporate interests has risen. The problem is not just that these elites often favor economic policies that leave middle and lower-middle classes and lagging regions behind. It is also that their cultural, social, and spatial isolation renders them incapable of understanding and empathizing with the worldviews of the less fortunate.”

What’s missing, essentially, are actual in person interactions with working class voters by the middle and upper-middle class liberal base. When Abigail Spanberger, a moderate who barely held her congressional seat in Virginia, complained that the Defund the Police slogan cost the Democrats congressional seats, Rashida Tlaib shot back that “To be real, it sounds like you are saying stop pushing for what Black folks want.”

But it’s not actually clear that is what Black folks wants. Check out this Detroit News piece about defunding the police in Detroit, Tlaib’s district. Closer to home, a compelling piece about Oakland’s spike in gun violence in the San Francisco Chronicle, notes: “A poll released last week by the Chamber of Commerce showed that, citywide (in Oakland), 58% of residents want to either maintain or increase the size of the police force. That figure climbs to 75% in District 7, an area of East Oakland where gunfire exploded this summer. Notably, the poll showed that support for increasing the size of the police force is higher among Black voters, at 38%, than white voters, at 27%.”

It’s clear we need massive police reform, including greater accountability, demilitarization, and the end of immunity for police unions that serve essentially as protection rackets. Read this disturbing piece on Vallejo’s Police Department’s defacto control of the city for a harrowing case study. But majorities in the neighborhoods most affected by crime and the police do not support reducing police numbers.

After the election, I talked to a friend who lives in the housing projects a couple blocks from our old apartment in The South Bronx. He said he would only support defunding the police if he were allowed to own a firearm. New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents are not allowed to own firearms, and only security personnel are allowed to carry them in New York. So for him, living in one of the most violent precincts in the city, it was a non-starter. He did mention that the amount of money so many American cities pay in wrongful police-involved death lawsuits is so great that they should just start paying Black people reparations already. Also, he’s a Trump supporter. His reasons for supporting him were strikingly similar to those of rural working-class whites I heard driving across the country in 2016.

He is not representative of Black voters in general. The overwhelming majority (82%) of Black men voted for Biden. But that percentage has dropped every year since 2008, and includes the surprising statistic that 1 in 3 Black men in the Midwest supported Trump. It’s these types of complex and counter-intuitive realities that the Left cannot block out. My fear is that it’s easy to do so.

The biggest communication divide I see in this country is across class. A national racial reckoning is long overdue. I’ve heard from many folks though that the stunted workplace sessions on zoom trying to address such a big topic is less than ideal. What we are getting is still mostly middle and upper-middle class pods of professional co-workers. How helpful will this be if it doesn’t reach across class lines and is absent actual on the ground experience? And does it really change people’s thoughts and feelings and understanding, or just their vocabulary? I dream of a post-Covid reckoning that involves massive in-the-field cross-cultural engagement. Immersive experiences up and down the socio-economic totem pole. Sure, it’s what I’ve dedicated my life to doing through theater. Maybe it’s time to scale up.

The fact that some exit polls show Trump gained the largest percentage of the non-white vote in 60 years presents an opportunity. Liberal elites can’t dismiss all Trump voters as hopeless racists. His appeal is bigger than his white, grievanced base. So reaching across the political divide doesn’t always mean going to white, rural America. Of those 15 million Trump voters that are worth trying to reach out to, many could be voters of color in our hip, gentrifying cities and our ever more diverse suburbs.

At times I’m hopeful that our racial reckoning will lead to a serious push for broad reparations payments and/or investments in Black communities and people, along with police demilitarization, reform and accountability, increase in funding for public schools and access to business and human capital.

Other times, I fear we will get more symbolism than substance. This summer, on the same day a campaign to end the Trader Joe’s Trader Jose product line went viral, Senator Brian Schatz’s bill to stop the transfer of old military equipment to city police departments went down on a party line vote. There was a small, back-of-the-newspaper article.

It’s impossible not to ask whether a readjustment of focus and priorities is in order. It’s not a zero sum game. We can push for both. But it seems we need to pick our battles strategically, and fight for those things that will have concrete impacts on millions of our country’s most vulnerable. And then run campaigns on those successes. It has to be broad based and across class and racial lines. This is the lesson of the 2020 election. If we care to listen in.

Actor, playwright, journalist, sports fan, politico.

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