On the streets of New York on Saturday, it didn’t feel like an election victory. It felt like a revolution, America’s 1989. Busses honked their horns in solidarity; people handed out champagne; my kids claim they heard someone blow a shofar. I heard a guy smoking weed declare, “This shit’s going to be legal now!”
But it’s not a revolution. Trump lost but his Republican enablers won. In some ways, they’re stronger than ever. Biden’s agenda will likely have to go through Mitch McConnell, which could make the Senate a progressive graveyard. Democrats lost seats in the House and in state legislatures, where Republicans will now control congressional redistricting, which could empower them for years to come.
How is that possible? Why wasn’t the GOP vanquished? There are two possible explanations. And Democrats are about to go to war over which one is correct.
Explanation number one is America’s undemocratic political system. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections. They likely won a majority of the votes cast for Senators last Tuesday. Yet they can’t translate these popular majorities into decisive power in Washington. Which means that, even with Trump gone, our political system remains in crisis. A political system that cannot represent its people’s wishes cannot remain legitimate.
Expect more people on the left to start saying that what America needs—to overcome our undemocratic senate and our undemocratic electoral college—is a second reconstruction, a constitutional revolution. (If you’re cheering now you’ll love this 1994 essay by Thomas Geoghegan, one of the great senate-haters of modern times)
If this line of thinking terrifies you, you probably favor explanation number two: The problem isn’t the system. It’s the people. If Democrats can’t win seats in congress in the midst of a pandemic and a near economic-depression, the logic goes, it is because they’re pushing an agenda many Americans don’t like. In recent years the Democratic Party has become much more progressive. And it’s not clear the country is happy about that.
For Democrats, last week’s most frightening news is the (fragmentary) evidence that some Hispanics rebelled against the party’s support for Black Lives Matter. The reason that’s so frightening is that it highlights the ancient conundrum of the American left: It’s hard to build a strong welfare state in a country that is so racially divided. There’s a reason you tend to find the strongest social safety nets in the most homogenous countries. Racial division killed America’s last great era of progressive reform, which stretched from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson. When the Democratic Party supported Black demands for equality in the 1960s, many formerly Democratic immigrants and children of immigrants—Italians, Irish, Slavs—headed for the door. The prospect that a chunk of Hispanic Americans could be heading for the exits now—before our progressive era has even begun—sends chills down Democratic spines.
So which explanation is correct? It depends on your time frame. In the long term, the lefties are right: America’s political system is growing dangerously undemocratic. But, in the short term, saying so could lose the party elections. Which helps explain why Washington Democrats are already yelling at each other—and probably will be for the next four years
Sorry to be such a downer. It’s because—despite Saturday’s festivities—I decided not to write this newsletter drunk.
But rest of it will go down like champagne.
First, read this hilarious riff on how journalists would have covered the election if America were, say, Malawi.
Second, how do Trump’s fans explain why God let them down?
A few more things:
If you’re interested in American foreign policy and Israel-Palestine, subscribe to my friend Mitchell Plitnick’s newsletter: https://mitchellplitnick.substack.com/
If you’re struggling with your relationship with Israel (and perhaps your parents, they’re often related), read my friend Mira Sucharov’s memoir: https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783030537319
If you want to understand why Paul Ryan doomed Donald Trump’s chances of reelection, read my new essay in The New York Review of Books.
If you want to understand why Benjamin Netanyahu’s bromance with the dictators of the Persian Gulf is bad for freedom in the Middle East, read my response to my critics in Jewish Currents.
A reminder that one of these days we’re going to start making certain material only for paid subscribers.
Thanks to everyone who came for the chat last Friday. Expect an email about another one this Friday, maybe on Zoom this time—unless the Patriots lose on Monday night to the Jets. Then all bets are off.