Elizabeth Olsson | 17 November 2020
On November 3, many around the world anxiously awaited the “Blue Wave” set to sweep across the U.S., forcefully pushing out Trump and ushering a new era of hope, cooperation, and democracy. Despite the best estimates of pollsters who told us that Biden had a comfortable 10 point lead in battleground states, the Blue Wave did not occur. Yes, Biden will become the 46th president of the U.S., but he did not ride a wave of overwhelming support to an electoral victory. Nor did a Blue wave bring Congressional Democrats a clear majority. In other words, rather than a wave, the 2020 election was a wash. Now that the outcome of the presidential race is clear— albeit disputed for a slew of political rather than legal reasons— it is time to take stock. To understand what happened, we need to ask ourselves why more than 73 million voters cast their ballots for Trump and how the citizens and leaders of the U.S. can heal the deep wounds of four years of hatred, division, and strife.
In this post, I explore three issues that inspired voters to turn out in mass on behalf of Trump. After introducing and explaining each issue, I also consider why these issues were significant and how political leaders can address them in future elections.
Issue #1: Political Identity
Many outside of the U.S. saw the election as a contentious contest between Trump and Biden. However, many inside the U.S. saw the election as a contentious contest between Republicans and Democrats. A life-long commitment to a particular political party helps explain why millions of kind, empathetic, intelligent people voted for one of the world’s most self-aggrandizing, divisive, narcissistic leaders: They did not vote for him; they voted for their party. Do not get me wrong; a staggering number of people voted for Trump, but the reason why he garnered the second-highest number of votes of any presidential candidate was that he was the Republican nominee. When two major parties dominate any country’s political landscape, voters’ very identities become intertwined with their party. Their party is not theirs alone; it tends to be the party of their family and friends, the party of their region, the party of their destiny. It takes a lot of courage and strength to challenge one’s identity. Many voters did this year, but most did not.
As long as Republicans and Democrats dominate the federal government, political identity will remain a decisive issue in every election. While I see little hope in third parties challenging the two-party stranglehold at the federal level, I am optimistic in the significant roles third parties play in local politics. I believe a bottom-up approach to broadening the political spectrum is the most promising challenge to the two-party system. Providing viable alternatives to an electorate, who tend to vote a straight party ticket, will force that electorate to do some much-needed soul-searching and consider not only what they believe in but also who can best represent their political goals.
Issue #2: The Economy
Pollsters believed that the U.S. electorate would show up to the polls to either support or repudiate Trump’s handling of the COVID pandemic. A glance at exit polls, however, shows that Republicans were voting for the economy. Many Republicans voted based on the free-market fantasy long embraced by conservatives who maintain that a healthy economy is an unfettered capitalist economy where taxes are low, jobs are many, and competition is sacred.
Interestingly, a significant number of voters told pollsters that they were voting against socialism. They believed the idea peddled by Trump and conservative media outlets such as Fox News that the progressive wing of the Democratic party was also the socialist wing of the Democratic party. These voters feared that so-called socialists such as Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would pull Biden toward socialism— a tremendous logical leap considering Biden’s centrist politics. While there is considerable faulty reasoning to unpack in this claim, what is interesting is that some of these voters and their family members fled from socialist countries in Latin American and Asia. They feared that the U.S. would become a socialist nation identical to the socialist nations that made them migrants and asylum seekers. In other words, they were not voting for Trump; they were voting against Cuba, China, and Vietnam.
Messaging is the problem here. In a notable trick of logic, conservative pundits used the term “socialist” as a derogatory evaluation of particular candidates. Conversely, they hurled far fewer insults at ballot measures such as a $15 minimum wage in Florida, a tax increase in Arizona, bonds to increase affordable housing in Texas and North Carolina, and the expansion of Medicaid in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah. What is interesting about these progressive ballot measures is that they passed in so-called Red States where the majority of voters voted to re-elect Trump. The only exception is Arizona, a Republican stronghold that Biden “flipped” this year.
In other words, Republican voters supported progressive economic policies while simultaneously rejecting “socialist” candidates. If progressive candidates want to make headway with this electorate, they need to explain how capitalism can co-exist alongside a strong welfare state as it has for decades in Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden.
Issue #3: Race
When a police officer suffocated George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and Black Lives Matter resurfaced as a national movement against systemic racism, it was clear that race would be a critical issue this year. Exit polls show that racial justice inspired millions to vote for Biden, but race meant something very different to Republican voters.
Since Republicans tend to live in white, rural and suburban communities, many believed that race was not an issue because, in their estimation, it wasn’t. Why consider inequality, police brutality, and injustice as significant issues when it simply is not a part of your daily life? I’m not saying there is no such thing as racism in white rural bastions like South Dakota. Racism is an American institution, and it hurts every American citizen, albeit in strikingly different ways. What I am saying is that if you are a white person with white friends and family living in a white community, it is easy to convince yourself that race does not matter. Many of these voters cast their ballots for Trump and these voters will continue voting for Republican candidates as long as they do not understand the very real, pernicious effects of systemic racism.
It is impossible to discuss race in the U.S. without acknowledging the metaphorical elephant in the room: white supremacy. Very few Trump voters are white supremacists, but white supremacists voted for Trump. Many U.S. presidents have fanned the flames of racial discord during their tenure, but Trump started a conflagration. Through Tweets, press conferences, and rallies, Trump signaled to the world that he supported white supremacy and white supremacist organizations. These groups have been part and parcel of American politics since the country was founded and, thanks to Trump, are set to become an increasingly powerful political influence.
The U.S. has an abysmal track recording in addressing racism, but that must change if Biden is to follow through on his promise to unite the country. While I do not suggest that Biden embrace or bolster white supremacism, I hope that he will address the deprivations— both real and imagined— that draw particular white Americans into these organizations. In other words, Biden and others in the U.S. government need to tackle why so many Americans are driven to hate and, in doing so, diminish the ranks and dissolve the influence of hate-based organizations.
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. She was born and raised in the United States and studied U.S. politics at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1998-2002. Click here to access her recent lecture on the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.