Even In Victory, Both Parties Can Look Forward to a Post-Election Internal Reckoning

Election Day is here. So far, none of the doomsday scenarios that either side worried about has happened: no mass shootings at the polls, no riots, no three-way brawls between Antifa, Proud Boys, and police. Of course, the day is not over, and all hypotheticals are still on the table for this evening and tomorrow. After all, whichever candidate comes out on top today (assuming one of the two has a clear margin of victory, which very well may not happen), the supporters of the other side will likely hit the streets tomorrow and in the coming days. With so much tension in the air and so many people primed for confrontation, Americans are paying very little attention to mid-to-long term concerns about how each Party will handle their internal politics depending on the bimodal outcomes. If Biden wins, how will the Democrats handle an ascendant Progressive movement within its ranks over the next 4 years? And if Trump wins, will GOP politicians who have demonstrated a willingness to break with Trump be welcomed back into the Trumpian fold or get kicked to the curb? These are the sorts of questions that will dominate news cycles in the coming months, so to prepare, let’s preview how each Party may respond to victory.

Perhaps the more complicated of the two scenarios is the future timeline in which Biden wins decisively tonight. Such an outcome would signal the start of a new round of internal reckoning for the Democrats as progressive leaders like AOC and Ilhan Omar lead the charge to push Biden’s administration to the Left on a range of issues over the coming years. Biden has already attempted to head off this fight on the presidential campaign trail by signaling his willingness to consider transitioning the economy away from fossil fuels. Of course, he has demurred from AOC’s Green New Deal. That in itself is not so unusual: even Bernie Sanders has been critical of the Green New Deal in its current form, which is notoriously packed with populist rhetoric and light on details. But where Biden will get into real trouble with the Left is his unwillingness to ban fracking. Many Leftists rightly point out that it is hypocritical for Biden, Pelosi, and the Party leadership to acknowledge the science behind climate change while also refusing to ban all fossil fuels. Biden is clever though and has answered this critique with a fairly reasonable argument. His expectation is that, under his administration, fracking will slowly die out just like coal has due to market forces that are driving the cost of solar power down. In Biden’s view, a fracking ban would be unnecessary, as would a blanket ban on fossil fuels in general. It is a classic neoliberal argument: let the market do the job itself. In response, the Left points out that this gradual phasing out could take a long time, possibly decades without stronger government intervention. The Earth, meanwhile, does not have decades. At most, radical action must be taken within 10 years if we are to avoid the worst climate change forecasts, and such a slow phasing out of fossil fuels will amount to a tacit acceptance of the vast amount of pollution and environmental degradation that attends the discovery, extraction, shipment, refinement, and consumption of another decade or more of oil and natural gas. The Democratic Party leadership has so far offered no strong moral response to this critique, opting instead to fall back on the tired liberal line that more drastic action is politically untenable. The Left will always look at this sort of response with disdain since it is based on the continuous lack of political willpower and unwillingness to lead that the Democratic Party has become famous for. Democrats must find a better answer for the Left than “but we’ll lose elections in Pennsylvania if we ban fracking” if they want to avoid a more radical split within the party.

The other fault line that Democratic Leaders must immediately address is the Party’s incrementalist approach to Health Care. As the Left rightly points out, America is one of the only developed nations that does not offer some form of public universal health care to its citizenry. That is a mind-boggling fact given the vast wealth of this nation, and the newly energized Left has successfully pushed the issue to the forefront of Democratic policy discussions. The Democrats, for their part, have historically supported a public option and universal health care. But the Biden administration plans to simply expand Obamacare, which will fall far short of the international standard. In that sense, AOC, Sanders, and the rest of the Left are closer to the historical and international roots of liberal politics than the DNC. The DNC, meanwhile, aligns more closely with center-right parties across the world on this issue. That being said, even conservatives in other countries with universal health care would never dream of opposing the universal health care programs they already have in place, which means that the Dems are even farther to right on this issue than even many conservatives. It is an uncomfortable place to be as a party, and if Biden wins, it is an open wound that the Left will likely seek to exploit in future local and regional elections after 2020.

Of course, Biden may lose, so now let's look at what the Republican Party will do if Trump wins a second term. One of the more fascinating sideshows of the 2020 election cycle has been the trials and tribulations of down-ballot GOP candidates who have been affected by the negative tailwinds of the Trump campaign. Many GOP leaders have shown more willingness to criticize Trump as they attempt to hold onto their seats in 2020. These disloyal GOP leaders include not just Mitt Romney but also Ted Cruz and, most notably, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Here is what Sasse had to say just two weeks ago as it became clear that Trump was heading into the home stretch of the 2020 campaign with no clear way of recovering from his disastrous missteps earlier in October, when he turned off many voters with his blustering debate performance and then, in an epic self-own, came down with COVID-19 after months of mismanaging the pandemic: “The way [Trump] kisses dictators' butts. I mean, the way he ignores that the Uyghurs are in literal concentration camps in Xinjiang right now. He hasn't lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong Kongers. The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership. The way he treats women and spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticized President (Barack) Obama for that kind of spending I've criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He's flirted with White supremacists."

These are the sorts of statements that would have ended the career of any GOP candidate just a year ago. If Trump wins today, Sasse and his cohort of disloyal GOP leaders will likely find themselves eating their words faster than a professional hot dog eater at a country fair hot dog eating contest. However, even if Sasse and friends do walk back their comments, they are not likely to last long in Trump’s second term. If there is one thing everyone knows about Trump’s management style by now, it is that he demands unwavering loyalty, and he is quick to purge anyone who displays even a hint of disloyalty. At the same time, one thing that the 2020 senate races has also shown is that loyalty to the president is not enough to win the hearts of voters. Case in point: Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most loyal sycophants (his moment of frustration with the president’s abandonment of the Kurds last year notwithstanding) has gone into Election Day with approval ratings in South Carolina that are even lower than Trump’s approval ratings. With that reality in mind, Sasse and others like him who are looking to break away from Trump may have nothing to lose if Trump wins again, and instead opt to leave the GOP and run as independents in the same vein as Representative Justin Amash. Granted, this is highly unlikely to happen in the Senate, but it is possible that the GOP could split further along pro-trump/anti-trump lines in Trump’s second term. Predictably, however, if that split were to materialize, the likely outcome would be another round of purging of anti-Trump GOP politicians during the next midterm cycle, which, as happened following the 2018 midterm purge, would have the effect of concentrating Trump loyalists with the GOP and removing any politicians who would be unwilling to go down with the Trump ship.

No matter what happens today, each Party can look forward to a tumultuous post-2020 internal political reckoning. Should Biden win, the Democrats would have to figure out how to maintain party unity in the face of an ascendant progressive Left. Without internal cohesion, which is always a problem for the Left-wing, Democrats could sabotage their own chances to enact changes they want while they have control of the Presidency. The consequences of such a failure to maintain unity would inflict generation-defining damage to the Party, and potentially send much of the liberal base of the Democratic Party back into an apathetic slumber. The Republicans, meanwhile, would have to figure out how to come to terms with the solidification of Trump’s dominance over the Party should he win again. Many Republican leaders who have felt that the party they once knew and loved has been transformed into a Trumpian nightmare would either have to reconcile their differences with the Party in order to stay in power or concede defeat and head for greener pastures in the private sector or early retirement. Either way, the politics of victory are complicated for both sides. Of course, victory is better than losing, but victory alone is not enough. Indeed, victory would be just the beginning of the next chapter of political struggle within each party. The repercussions of today’s vote will define both parties for a generation. 

With that in mind, dear reader, please do not miss your chance to vote today. As the late great John Lewis once said, “My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.” Heed his words today, and tomorrow, the next chapter of American political history will begin.

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