If Ronald Brownstein, senior political analyst at The Atlantic, is right, the results of the 2020 election hardly matter at all, at least in the long run. He concluded his most recent piece, published just before the election, with the following:
“The 2020 election has been among the most vitriolic and divisive America has ever experienced, with the prospect of further disruption and even violence still lingering in its aftermath. But all of that may be just the opening bell for a decade that tests the nation’s cohesion life few others ever have.”
Brownstein is a refreshing change of pace among those writing about politics.
How can that be, when his forecast is so gloomy?
I can’t bear reading another story about the character of the candidates running for president. Every day for months, the headlines have been screaming about Trump’s unfitness for office; other headlines make Biden sound like either an undertaker or the thing undertaken. Yes, character matters, but these are the candidates their respective parties have chosen, for better or worse.
The question now is who wins? Unsavory though the choices may be, there will be but one winner when all is said and done. History will not record 2020 as the year we elected two presidents. Count on it.
Brownstein is the best and only commentator whom I have read who understands that in politics, demographics is destiny. Yes, it’s a demeaning view of the political process – we are each reduced to our lowest common denominator, our age, gender, race, and then grouped together as though we are no more than these accidents of birth. It’s a dark view of human possibility and potential; begone, latent or direct appeals to idealism or civic virtue. In the polling place, like attracts like, and we vote as members of a herd.
But if demographics is destiny, then at least we have an explanation for the past four years, and a road map of what to expect.
“Today,” Brownstein writes, “Republicans and Democrats are divided less by class or region than by attitudes toward the propulsive demographic, cultural, and economic shifts remaking 21st-century America.” The fault line in American politics separates those wary of the emerging demographic changes and those embracing them: Older white Americans tend to look back with nostalgia to a world that once embraced them; younger Americans embrace diversity, a world in which to be white is to be not quite right, politically speaking. As we reach the tipping point at which Caucasians become a minority, a new America blossoms. The Democrats have embraced this new vision; the Republicans, at least under Trump, have not.
I’ve always viewed Trump as a canary in the mineshaft. I am less interested in the fact that he managed to win in 2016 than I am in what made a candidacy like his possible. My hunch is that he represented the last gasp of what I’ll call Caucasian dominance. Making American Great Again was not an appeal to racism or white supremacy, it was an appeal to the familiar.
Many Americans, especially in rustbelt flyover country, feel like strangers in a strange land. How else to account for the dramatic increase in white working-class suicides among middle age folks, a fact all but ignored now that Black lives matter? (I can’t recall the last time I heard anyone even mention the pathbreaking work about these suicides by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, published in 2020. If ever two authors suffered bad timing in publication of ground-breaking research, these two qualify as finalists: suicide among white middle-aged folks just isn’t click bait these days. Who cares?)
Donald Trump pitches to that demographic, and he pretends to care. That’s what makes this election so fascinating. Will enough Trump voters, sitting on the sidelines of what is fashionable on the pages of The New York Times, or on CNN, turn out on election day and confound the pollsters? Who wins this contest: folks who watch the recent unrest in Philadelphia as “mostly peaceful protests” or those who see violence and mayhem?
Brownstein’s point is that whatever the results of this election, it won’t matter, at least not in the long run. As the nation evolves away from “whiteness” a new identity is required for electoral success. Younger voters are more inclined to value diversity for diversity’s sake, oppose a border wall, support open boards, and so forth. A party looking back with nostalgia to an American that has disappeared won’t succeed at the polls.
Of course, this darker view of human possibility – that we vote identity and nothing more – may be too pessimistic. It certainly reflects a view that the works of classical Greeks and classical republicans were naïve and criminally wrong, the ruminations of “dead white men.” Hence the importance of the ongoing cultural wars. As I read Brownstein, I recall my unease at the rising tide of behaviorism in the social sciences in the 1970s. Aren’t we more than what fits in one of B.F. Skinner’s boxes?
Maybe we aren’t. That seems to be the emerging consensus in the world of big tech, where predictive analytics and big data scours our every move, the better to predict, and control, us. Maybe Brownstein is right. Maybe all we are is our identity.
But that’s not much a sales pitch to an aging white male. What’s the solution? Surely not suicide. If politics is all about identity then Donald Trump becomes comprehensible. Sure, he’s a buffoon, but he’s white like me.
That won’t play much longer in electoral politics. It may not play this year. Brownstein may be right, but I’m still hoping for something better.
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