“It is a contemporary political cliche that American politics is deeply polarised. Americans settled on their views of Mr Trump early. Those views are firmly held and to a degree not seen in decades cut across party lines. A major factor in Mr Trump’s 2016 victory was party switching by 2012 Obama voters. A major factor in the Republicans’ 2018 loss of the House of Representative (the lower house of Congress) was party switching by Republican women in affluent suburbs. Since Mr Trump took office, through now discredited investigations, a disgraced impeachment attempt, a soaring pre-COVID economy and significant foreign and security policy achievements, the President’s popularity has remained astonishingly stable.”
20 September 2020
The two party conventions are over. America’s first and perhaps last virtual national political conventions, they contrasted in a way that would normally lead one to say: “No contest.”
Not this time. The Democrats reprised their 2016 campaign – short on policy, long on the modern equivalent of George Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate, a feature of the dystopian world in his novel, 1984. For four days, in one speech after another, they denounced President Donald Trump (rather an enemy than a rival, gathering from their tone in the convention and last four years).
A week later the Republicans met both virtually and in such patriotic venues as Fort McHenry (its heroic defence against British naval attack in 1814 inspired the lyrics of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the White House. A parade of impressive speakers told the Trump administration’s story of achievement – record-breaking prosperity prior to the pandemic, an unprecedented share of that prosperity for African Americans and other minorities, strengthened defences, judicial appointments that brought renewed loyalty in our federal courts to the Constitution and the rigorous rule of law, an astonishing breakthrough in Middle East peace, and respect for family and faith.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The Democrats’ case was built on one proposition: Donald Trump is unfit to be president. It was entirely personal. The Republicans’ case was a contrast of policies and, by extension, national futures – successful free markets versus failed socialism; trade deals that work for American workers versus obsolete or poorly negotiated deals that left workers out in the cold; no ceding of foreign policy to the United Nations or other transnational bodies; no ceding of control over faith and family to a remote and secular elite. Such choices are not unique to the United States, as Central Europeans well know, but they are particularly stark in this election.
There is a term that describes the mindset of the American Left today and the Democratic Party it controls – “woke”, as in people who have woken to a higher truth, a truth that allows them to look with contempt on all who have not awoken. Or to put it another way, the Democrat globalist, new-age, socialist case versus the Republican national-loyalty, traditional-values, free-economy case comes down to woke liberalism first versus America first – Mr Biden and his Democrats four days of hate versus Mr Trump and his Republicans four days of hope.
As I say, normally this choice would be no contest. The President would win at a walk. But more is going on in this campaign.
It is a contemporary political cliché that American politics is deeply polarised. Americans settled on their views of Mr Trump early. Those views are firmly held and to a degree not seen in decades cut across party lines. A major factor in Mr Trump’s 2016 victory was party switching by 2012 Obama voters. A major factor in the Republicans’ 2018 loss of the House of Representative (the lower house of Congress) was party switching by Republican women in affluent suburbs.
Since Mr Trump took office, through now discredited investigations, a disgraced impeachment attempt, a soaring pre-COVID economy and significant foreign and security policy achievements, the President’s popularity has remained astonishingly stable. But is this new? A day-by-day comparison by the Rasmussen organisation, pollsters who called the surprise outcome of the 2016 election correctly, shows Mr Trump’s approval ratings moving in a band of highs and lows identical to those of his predecessor, Barack Obama, during his presidency.1
In 2001 America’s most astute political scholar and journalist, Michael Barone, described this country as “the 49 per cent nation”.2 “The United States at the end of the 20th century,” he wrote, “was a nation divided down the middle.” In election after election popular votes cast for the House of Representatives and the presidency split identically, the two major parties polling within a tenth of a per cent of each other, 49.x per cent to 49.y per cent. “We haven’t had such stasis in successive election results since the 1880s,” he noted, “which was also the last decade when a President was elected despite trailing in the popular vote, and when the Senate was equally divided between the two major parties.”
That was 2001. Today is 2020, 19 years later, and, while the whole world seems to have turned upside down during those nearly two decades, in American politics, it appears, nothing has changed. One party controls the House, the other the Senate, just barely. The presidency was won in a split vote, the popular balloting going one way, the Electoral College the other. Could any division of voters and institutions be closer.
My point is that the polarisation of American politics runs deeper than attitudes about the current White House incumbent. Yes, the President’s rhetoric can be provocative, but that of his most recent Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, was not and Mr Bush faced similarly bitter opposition, masked only by national shock following the 9/11 attacks. The impeached Democrat Bill Clinton and the often-stalemated Mr Obama could make the same complaint.
In all four presidencies – Clinton to Trump – the president began his term with a House of Representatives under control of his party (a key to successful governance in America). Three of the four lost the House in their first mid-term election. Mr Bush lost it at his second mid-term. And yet, Mr Trump’s three predecessors were all re-elected, in Mr Bush’s case to the astonishment of pollsters, pundits and the opposition. Will the chain remain unbroken in 2020?
With COVID–19, the normal tempo of American campaigning has been impossible even to attempt. It is not just that the President could not return to his favoured rally format until recently. The rallies have had to be cut back in size and, as a result, excitement. But his opponent, former Vice President Biden, has been limited in his appearances too.
That might seem a net plus for Mr Biden, whose rallies could hardly be duller or smaller and who exhibits a disturbing lack of stamina and mental focus. And yet, thanks to what may prove a catastrophic miscalculation, Mr Biden may need his small rallies more than Mr Trump needs his big ones. That is because he may be losing his hold on the anchor of his party’s strength over the last three decades – the nearly unanimous support of African Americans and other ethnic minorities.
The miscalculation had to do with the entire Democrat Party’s response to the rioting that has swept so many American cities for the past four months. To explain, let me tell you about a small, first-hand experience of my own. It has nothing to do with rioting or race but everything to do with how men and women see the nation and the world after they exit the centres of power.
In Washington, there was, for several decades, a tradition of former and current presidential speechwriters of both parties meeting for dinner once every other year. The dinners were the idea of William Safire, a prominent Nixon writer who went on to become a celebrated columnist for The New York Times. As a speechwriter for President Reagan, I attended most of these gatherings from the time I joined the staff in 1984 until the dinners stopped not too many years after Mr Safire’s passing in 2009. No doubt, the increasingly tense relations between the political parties in this capital city also played a role in the dinners’ demise.
At those alternating-year events, all would mingle over pre-dinner cocktails and after-dinner drinks but sit with their old colleagues at the meal. During dessert, representatives of each table would stand up and – appropriately for such a gathering – deliver speeches, the earliest administration first, proceeding to the current one, whose representative would thank predecessors of both parties for their hospitality, wisdom and service to the nation.
At the first dinner I attended, the speaking began with one of Franklin Roosevelt’s men. I could hardly believe I was there. One of the most celebrated presidential aides of the 1940s and early ’50s told a sidesplittingly hilarious story about FDR and his team. I left feeling I had walked among gods. Two years later the same icon again stood up and, with the same animation, same ironic arching of an eyebrow, same rascally inflections, and, down to the final syllable, same words, told the same story. I left realising that these gods had clay feet.
Here is the reason I am telling this story. The members of each group also bore a family resemblance to their former administration’s colleagues – a family, that is, of dinosaurs. Though all had gone on to distinguished careers, each group was in one way or another a relic of the times when they had shared high office. Each saw the world as it had been in their glory days. For me, it was amusing to watch these ghosts of Christmases past at dinner parties. But it would be a problem to take that days-of-yore mindset into, say, running for president. Former Senator and former Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden and the entire Democratic Party may have come face to face with that problem during these past hundred-plus days of street rage.
Recently, Mr Biden told an aggressively cross-examining radio talk show host: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”3 The host was black, i.e., African American. The remark was widely criticised as at least graceless and at worst patronising and dismissive. Yet Mr Biden was echoing the widely understood truth that for more than a half century virtually all African Americans have voted Democrat. President Trump got three per cent of that vote in 2016, a typically single-digit outcome for a Republican.4
Yet African American party loyalty was not always to the Democrats. In the decades following the American Civil War, African Americans stood in unbroken solidarity behind the party of emancipation, the Republican Party.
The Great Depression of the 1930s changed that. Though Democrat Franklin Roosevelt never challenged the segregation and oppression of African Americans in the Democrat-controlled states of the former Confederacy, his New Deal provided jobs in the urban North and Midwest, and farm-price and other support in the rural South. It was a lifesaver for the large proportion of impoverished African American families. In gratitude, many moved their allegiance toward Mr Roosevelt’s party.
After the Second World War, the Republican Party kept up its almost a century-long push for Civil Rights legislation. Yet it was a push that could not succeed as long as Democrats of the North remained united in opposition to it with Democrats of the South. That unity ended at the party’s 1948 national convention. In the decade and a half that followed, newly pro-civil rights Northern Democrats in Congress joined in coalition with a nearly united front of pro-civil-rights Republican senators and representatives to enact a series of ever more extensive civil rights laws. The crest to this wave of reform came during and with the support of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. As a result, most African Americans credited these victories to the Democratic Party.
Particularly after Ronald Reagan began to pull Catholic and southern white Protestant Democrat voters to him and his party, Democrat candidates became increasingly dependent on turning out the now solidly African American vote on Election Day. Their problem was that, for reasons entirely independent of race, many African Americans were disinclined to vote. Their solution (that Republicans considered baseless and demagogic) became a stoking of fear.
The one appeal that proved sure to bring more African Americans to the polls was a reminder of the Civil Rights struggle and the civil-rights generation’s fear of losing those gains. Election year after election year Democrat candidates fabricated successively more outrageous claims, suggesting that the Republican candidates and presidential candidates in particular, no matter who might be running, wanted to take away African American rights.
Here is where Mr Biden and Democrat Party top brass may be as much dinosaurs as my speechwriting colleagues from administrations past (OK, yes, maybe myself too). They do not grasp that the African American vote of 2020 is not the African American vote of 2008. Thanks to educational and occupational success, as well as the symbolic value of the Obama presidency, more African Americans are more confident of their place and prospects in more parts of American society today than even a decade ago. More own small businesses or professional practices. More occupy high rank and command commensurate incomes in whatever field they work. So more do not fear losing the gains of decades past. Correctly confident that the best of the past will not be undone, their focus is on maximising the future.
When the rioting broke out and for three months that followed, what little Mr Biden said about it seemed to support the rioters and their “defund the police” mantra. Numerous Democrat governors and mayors acted in what seemed like support of the violence, or at least they would not stop it. Setting aside leftist ideology, many seemed to see the rioters as part of their voting base and did not want to offend them. When President Trump offered to send in Federal forces, they used the norms and rules of American federalism to block him.
They did not take seriously or perhaps even consider that many of the stores that burned down had African American owners or employees. They ignored that the very institutions the rioters denounced, including police departments, now have many African Americans in their ranks and senior leadership. When Mr Biden and Democrat governors and mayors saw the unrest, they remembered the urban riots of the 1960s and thought of the African American population of decades past. They did not see that population as it is today.
From this blindness came many Biden stumbles. When Democrat mayors, city councils and their media friends supported pulling police from neighbourhoods, the Biden campaign did not notice that the protesters were often the very predators and hooligans the neighbourhoods feared. They did not notice that large numbers of rioters – often majorities, judging from television coverage – were not African American. And they were caught by surprise when the Gallup polling organisation found that 81 per cent of African Americans supported not fewer but the same or additional police officers walking the streets in their communities.5
Mr Biden and other leading Democrats had spent decades treating the blowhard radical Reverend Al Sharpton and those like him as the authentic spokespeople for all African American voters. Setting aside whether this perception was ever true, it was true enough that histrionics helped motivate African Americans to vote. Now that same rhetoric may be driving a significant portion of the same voters away from the Democrats and to the one American political figure who appears to have understood the enormous change. According to a recent survey from the Rasmussen organisation, 20 per cent of African Americans say they will vote for the President.6
To grasp the importance of that number, consider this: by some knowledgeable estimates, if 25 per cent of African Americans vote Republican, Democrats cannot win the presidency. Whether that number is precise or not, the fact remains that the modern Democratic Party is not a viable national entity without an overwhelmingly unified African American vote. This year, even a replay of 2016, when many African Americans who voted for President Obama in 2012 simply stayed home, could be devastating to Mr Biden’s aspirations.
I have focused on African Americans. But the same poll that found surprisingly strong African American support for Mr Trump also found majority support for him among those who categorised their ethnicity as “other”, which would be largely Hispanics and Asians, also long-time strongholds of Democrat Party support.So, Mr Biden and his team may have made a major miscalculation about the changes in their voting base. But African Americans and other ethnic minorities are not the only story in this year’s US election or in the unrest around America. If the rioting is less about race than the global media portrays, what is going on?
In June, the NBC television network’s local news station in New York City reported that, speaking of New York’s riots, the city’s “Deputy [Police] Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller said there is a high level of confidence within the NYPD [New York Police Department] that … unnamed groups had organised scouts, medics and supply routes of rocks, bottles and accelerants for breakaway groups [of demonstrators] to commit vandalism and violence. There are strong indicators they planned for the violence in advance using at times encrypted communications, he said.”7
A month earlier, Deputy Commissioner Miller had reported that at least 20 per cent of the rioters arrested came from out of town, as far away as “Iowa, Nevada, Texas and a number of other states”.8 Since then, many whose mugshots have turned up in newspapers have not been African American at all but Caucasian youth from affluent families.9 From Los Angeles to New York, a surprising number worked in public schools.10
Elsewhere in the country, police have reported high levels of coordination and military-like tactics among the rioters. Ads have appeared on various websites offering hourly pay for those who sign up to demonstrate.11 Some of those paid-to-protest demonstrations have turned ugly.12
In early September the US Attorney General’s office announced that investigations of who was organising and funding the violence had begun.13 Rumours abounded about funding sources, credibly ranging from George Soros to Vladimir Putin. As the wave built, Internet solicitations and misguided corporate philanthropy were equally likely culprits. It is a fair bet that the corporate donations opened their givers to criminal and civil liability.
Rather than distancing themselves from the message of social breakdown, Mr Biden and his party seem to have decided to build on it. They have doubled down on their call for changes in American voting practices, changes that to many non-Democrats look like attempts to open the voting system to unprecedented fraud.
They have coupled this push with threats of not accepting a Donald Trump victory, in former candidate Hillary Clinton’s words, “under any circumstances”.14
Having fielded a candidate who does not seem to have the stamina or attention span to conduct a normal campaign, they seem to be preparing to win through lawsuits coupled with the newly legal (in some jurisdictions) practice of “ballot harvesting”.
Ballot harvesting is when party operatives collect ballots from voters in the voters’ homes and either mail them or deliver them personally to local boards of elections. It creates unchecked and unlimited opportunities for fraud and intimidation. To Republicans it looks like a return to the big city Democrat machine politics of the 19th to mid-20th centuries.
In the 1960 presidential contest, for example, Chicago mayor and local party boss Richard Daley held back reporting of his city’s election returns until the Republican parts of the state (Illinois) had reported theirs. Then, according to widely accepted accounts, he made sure that Chicago reported a large enough Democrat margin for John F. Kennedy to win Illinois. Victory in Illinois gave Mr Kennedy the presidency. Republicans fear a repeat of 1960 on a vastly larger scale, and for good reason. In more than half of American states ballot harvesting is in practice this year, thanks to a prolonged Democrat campaign in recent years to change voting rules.15
It is widely accepted now that the election could take weeks or months to resolve, with the outcome turning on who fields the fiercest attorneys. As Hillary Clinton’s no concession “under any circumstances” remark reflects, the Democrats have taken to talking in menacingly anti-democratic terms. Only a landslide for one party or the other could save us from that. But in this 49 per cent nation, as of this mid-September writing, of all possible results, least likely is “no contest”. More likely and more disturbing is “to be determined”.
Fasten your seatbelt. It is going to be a bumpy election night – and beyond.
POSTSCRIPT: Written early on Saturday morning following Election Day
09:29 a.m. EST, 7 November 2020.
In the aftermath of the 2020 elections, is the United States a nation in total turmoil or total stasis? The answer is, both.
As I write, at least two and possibly three state legislatures – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – are mounting investigations into voting and counting irregularities within their borders. A Supreme Court justice has imposed restrictions on the handling of ballots in the most pivotal city, Philadelphia, in what may prove to be the state, Pennsylvania, most pivotal to the presidential outcome. In two of the three states that have not finished their first counting of ballots, both President Trump and Joe Biden have 49 per cent plus a little with 99 per cent of votes tallied. A recount is certain in Wisconsin, where the margin for Biden is also under one per cent. And that is just the presidency.
Control of the Senate hangs on the outcome of two runoff elections because a vacancy had to be filled; both are in Georgia. The House of Representatives could yet change hands, depending on the outcome of 26 as-yet-undecided seats. But even if, as expected, the Democrats remain the majority, their margin will narrow.
So, turmoil? Yes. Stasis? That too.
For what we see here is that the United States remains, as it has been for two decades, an almost perfectly divided country, the “49 per cent nation”, as the country’s most respected political analyst, Michael Barone, termed it in 2001.
The 2020 election will also go down in the annals of American democracy as Chicago 1960 redux, another old feature of our politics that this year became new again. In the 1960 presidential election, the leader of the Chicago Democratic Party’s political machine, Mayor Richard Daley, held back his city’s results until the Republican-dominated “downstate” announced its vote. Then he “found” just enough extra ballots to deliver his state, Illinois, to John F. Kennedy. The electoral votes of Illinois gave Kennedy the presidency.
This year, the reason for the intervention of all those state legislatures and of a justice of the United States Supreme Court is that there appears to have been, shall we say, creative accounting or even fabulous inventing in arriving at the current tabulations of a number of so-called battleground states, those that could go either way and are essential to both sides. The magnitude of irregularities remains in dispute.
Democrats and their media friends dismiss the irregularities as unproven and inconsequential. Then again, they would say that. But on the Thursday after the voting, state Republican Party officials in Michigan, a battleground, were puzzled at the large Democrat vote coming out of one especially Republican section of a county. Investigating, they found that the county’s election software had a “glitch”. If you voted for President Trump, it awarded the vote to Mr Biden. It turned out that the same software package was used this year in 47 Michigan counties. Nationally, according to media reports, the package is used in 2000 jurisdictions in 33 states. The company involved claimed the problem was isolated to that one jurisdiction. A consequence of errors by local officials, it was not actually with how the machine tabulated but in the transfer of data. Then again, they would say something like that.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin – both battlegrounds – Republican poll watchers have been denied their legally guaranteed oversight of ballot counting. More significantly, in Philadelphia, before the voting, a local judge – always a suspect official in election disputes, as so many local judges are products of the local political machines – set aside a recently enacted state law that said all mail-in ballots had to be received by 8 p.m. on election night to be valid. The Supreme Court justice who issued an order suspending that order is from the Philadelphia area and, as a result of his service as an assistant US attorney and federal judge in the region, is widely understood to be savvy to the shenanigans of the legendarily corrupt Philadelphia Democratic Party. Pennsylvania’s Democrat officials insist that the counting is going forward smoothly and honestly. But, of course, that is exactly what you would expect them to say.
Republican officials have filed a dozen or more suits in four states (Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia) charging election fraud. Before taking cases, the courts will want to see that the alleged violations are large enough to change the outcome of the election in the state in question. It is widely assumed that numerous cases, not just the one in Philadelphia, will reach the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts is widely understood to want to get the High Court out of the business of settling disputes that he feels the political branches (the two houses of Congress and the president) should work out among themselves. It is a noble and understandable desire – and this year almost certainly a futile one.
So that is where America is this early Saturday morning, four days after our presidential election: in turmoil, and not. But is it also Chicago 1960 on an industrial scale that is now being uncovered and overturned? Perhaps yes, or perhaps not. Stay tuned!