The Day After?


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November 9, 2020

The Day After?

We have much work yet to do

By Jeffrey C. Isaac

  • 2020 Election
  • Democracy
  • Democratic Party
  • U.S. Presidential Election

The mainstream media—very cautious, very authoritative in such things—have now called it.  

The votes have been counted, and Joe Biden is now the President-elect. On Saturday night, he gave a Victory Speech, following a speech by his running-mate, Kamala Harris.

I have been very cautious, very concerned that Trump might obstruct the electoral process and cling to power. I remain concerned, about the possibility of “resistance” by the Republican-controlled state legislature of Pennsylvania who might name its own Electors, or about possible rogue Electors, or about the slim possibility that somehow—I know it’s very implausible now—that the Supreme Court might become involved. Concerned also about a possible outbreak of civil violence by some Trump supporters. My concern lessens by the hour. But nothing is beneath Trump and his most ardent supporters. And so it is important to pay attention, and to keep the pressure on.

Further, even if Trump eventually relents (surely without conceding), I am certain that Trump will execute his retreat with scorched earth tactics. There is much contention to come, before Inauguration, and beyond it.

But I am now also certain that the fair counting of the votes has conferred “victory” on Joe Biden; that his victory is likely to become ever more politically solid in the coming days and weeks; and that, barring some catastrophe, on January 20, 2021 he will become the 46th President of the United States, and Kamala Harris will become the first woman, and the first person of color, to serve as Vice President of the U.S.

And I celebrate this. With relief and with genuine satisfaction and even a certain hopefulness.


At the same time, there is much more to say and do, now and as the political process continues to unfold in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Back on November 9, 2016, I published a piece at Public Seminar entitled “The Day After.” A demoralized and hopefully sober reflection on what Trump’s victory meant, it concluded by noting that “this is a time for hard questioning and serious dialogue among those who will be politically humbled and opposed and often defeated under a Trump administration. There is hard work ahead. This is no time for foolish recriminations among people who really have only two choices: to work together or to hang separately.”

It can now be said, with some satisfaction, that a great many people have done this work, and that together they have succeeded, first in November 2018 and now in November 2020, in reclaiming some lost political ground and in defeating Donald Trump at the polls. This is an enormous achievement and it should provoke real relief and also inspire some measure of confidence.

At the same time, there remains so much work ahead. And at some point, sooner or later, it is inevitable that those who came together to elect the Biden-Harris ticket will drift or pull apart, as unity in difference becomes difference in unity. This is a natural evolution in a pluralistic society riven by sometimes fractious divisions, and it is a common experience among democratic oppositions to authoritarianism. Continuing to work together to move the country forward, and the Democratic party forward—there is little daylight now between these tasks!–is the hard work of coalitional politics, and there cannot be too much of this work in the days ahead.

The most powerful and effective dimension of the Biden-Harris campaign was the message that in a liberal, constitutional democracy political opponents should not be regarded as enemies, and that all citizens ought to negotiate, work, and fight out their differences of opinion through legal means and democratic processes. The defining feature of Trumpism is its rejection of this idea—call it “civic nationalism” or “constitutional patriotism” or simply “democratic citizenship”—and its replacement by a Schmittean vision of a war against “enemies of the people” that is suffused with white supremacy, xenophobia, toxic masculinity, and anti-intellectualism. 

Trumpism is not dead. It lives, in the pathological Trump family “brand,” in a range of perhaps more dangerous leaders such as Tom Cotton, and in the hearts and minds of a great many of the seventy million people who voted for Trump this year. Detoxifying our politics in the wake of Trump’s presidency will be an enormous challenge. The first step is to recognize that the politics of the next four years at its best will be a politics of healthy differences among the winning Biden coalition, pitted against McConnell-style Republican legislative obstructionism and enduring Trumpist resentment and hostility. And that the way forward is through a broad agenda of democratic renewal that consistently underscores the importance of civic inclusion, even if it sometimes may also involve controversial positions or policies.

If the Biden-Harris administration and the Democratic party are to move the country forward, it will be by recognizing the dangerous road ahead and understanding that there are different roles to be played by different elements of the Democratic coalition, and that the lesson of 2016 remains the lesson of 2020: There is hard work ahead. This is no time for foolish recriminations among people who really have only two choices: to work together or to hang separately.

This will be challenging. If the Democrats do not manage this effectively, then there is a good chance that there will be losses in the 2022 midterm election and possibly greater losses in 2024. The Atlantic’s Zeynep Tufekci is not wrong to warn us that “America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent.” Danger still looms. Biden’s roughly 5 million popular vote margin is enormous by conventional standards. But it should never be forgotten that while Biden’s 75 million votes is the largest total in U.S. history, Trump’s 70 million is the second largest total. There is a huge reservoir of resentment out there that Trumpists will surely intensify and tap.

It will take a great deal of political savvy for the leaders of the Democratic coalition to navigate these troubled waters.

I believe that Joe Biden has consistently risen to the occasion over the past year. He may well be the person best suited to exercise the kind of Presidential leadership this country needs right now. In any case, he is the person called upon to do this work—with Kamala and many others of course– and his performance thus far should inspire confidence.

He should not be expected to govern from the left. It is not his style; it is not the way his campaign was able to win; and it is also not what the current balance of forces demands. Serious leftists know this.

Biden will articulate a rhetoric of conciliation, and this is probably a good thing. The country is clearly very divided. The “losers” in this election are angry and many of them are armed. It will be a good thing to lower the temperature at least during a transitional period.

Biden will also clearly try to “work across the aisle” to pass legislation. He will probably have no choice if he wishes to pass any legislation. He might have some success with COVID-19 relief and a more serious public health policy response. COVID-19 will be his administration’s first priority and, with Trump gone, it may be the best place—and perhaps even the only place– to actually achieve a legislative victory. There can be no doubt that the Biden-Harris administration will move immediately to do what it can to address the pandemic, and that whatever is done will be an improvement on Trump’s malign neglect.

Biden is no leftist or “progressive,” but he did run on the most progressive Democratic party platform since FDR and this should hearten Democrats on the left. There is real public support for a seriously-expanded Obamacare with a public option, a “Green” jobs/infrastructure program, and policing and immigration reform, and there may be ways of moving legislation forward on these issues. Biden understands that it is important for him to seriously address social, economic, and racial injustice. He also understands that recent events have highlighted the need for voting rights reform, and for broader democratization of our campaign and election system. At the same time, there is every reason to be prepared for massive Republican obstructionism of such efforts, by the legislative Dark Artist McConnell, but also by even more vicious, and dangerous, Republican leaders, like Cotton, Matt Graetz, Ted Cruz, and even Nikki Haley. Moving any agenda forward is not likely to be easy, and the Biden-Harris administration might be forced to rely heavily on executive orders and on the vigorous work of the federal bureaucracy.

What will be the role of the progressive left during the next few years?

The future of the Democratic party remains an open question, and it is to be expected that House and Senate Democrats on the left will continue to press their policy agenda in their caucuses, on the legislative floor, and in “the court of public opinion.” It is to be hoped that Biden is respectful of and even responsive to this agenda, as he was in the aftermath of his primary victory. It is understandable that while Trump was yelling “crazy socialist!” at Biden, Biden was insisting “that’s not me, I beat that guy in the primary.” That was perhaps necessary in order to win the election—it was also true, Biden is no socialist!–and Bernie Sanders clearly understood this. At the same time, the Democratic party’s broad left is a very important part of the party. It played an important role in the vigorous opposition to Trumpism, the vigorous primary debate and contest, and the Biden-Harris victory. And so now that Biden is in office, he needs to make clear that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pramila Jayapal, and even “The Squad” are as much his allies and colleagues as Chris Coons, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Jim Clyburn.

This will require deftness and understanding on both “sides.”

The Biden-Harris “Build Back Better” and “Soul of America” agenda is a necessary antidote to Trumpism that has indeed generated real electoral support. Most savvy progressive Democrats, including “The Squad 2.0,” must understand this. At the same time, a more future-oriented agenda must eventually come to the fore within the Democratic party if it is to retain and grow its political power, and if it is to forestall and eventually defeat not simply Trump but Trumpism. This will necessarily involve serious policy debate and contention. Such contention should not be viewed as something bad. For it is both necessary, and healthy, so long as it is enacted within a broader context of agonistic respect: a willingness to be critical without being destructive and hostile, and to receive the criticism of others without being defensive and angry or at least while keeping one’s anger in check. Such political debate, if it is really to engage the pressing issues at stake, will sometimes be chafing, bruising, and painful. That is agonism. What makes agonism respectful is a willingness to endure some discomfort, to develop thick skin, and to fight back with a sense of proportion. 

This does not come naturally. It requires leadership at every level. In the past six months the Democratic party brought forward such leadership to register and mobilize an unprecedented number of voters, to defeat Trump, and to elect the Biden-Harris team. The task of governing, and party-building, in a post-Trump era will be no less challenging.

Everyone who opposed Trump and supported Biden ought to be relieved, proud, and hopeful.

And everyone ought to recognize that there is much hard work yet to be done.

Today will be a moment to celebrate.

And tomorrow the work of defending, supporting, and promoting a Democratic and a democratic agenda will continue. It will not be easy.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009-2017. Author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018), Professor Isaac has published in a range of public intellectual venues, including Public Seminar, Common Dreams, Dissent, the Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Guardian.

Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem.


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