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Americans didn’t vote for change. For many, it wasn’t on the ballot

Despite Biden’s likely win, the Democratic establishment was crushed. Why?

Mary Fitzgerald Aaron White
5 November 2020, 3.03pm
Hoping for a better future
Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard/USA Today Network/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

“When I see these people I think of Nazi Germany. The group they called the useful idiots: the ones who didn’t bother to educate themselves. It makes me sick.”

That’s what Marsha told us as we watched the massive queue of voters in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, on Monday.

For her, the high turnout was terrible news: a sign the city and state would turn blue. “People will leave this county if the Democrats win here and I don’t blame them. Defunding the police? Sanctuary cities? We’ll have violent thugs roaming our streets.”

Marsha needn’t have worried. Despite the optimism of Democratic canvassers we met that day, Ohio once again voted decisively for Trump – and in Cincinnati the Republican Congressional incumbent, Steve Chabot, saw off a challenge by Democrat Kate Schroder.

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It was a pattern repeated across the country. Biden may well be sworn in as the next president, but the results are otherwise crushing for the Democratic Party establishment.

They threw extraordinary amounts of money at big Senate races: $108 million in South Carolina, $88 million in Kentucky, $69 million in Maine, $43 million in Montana. It was an unmitigated failure. Not only did Democrats fail in all of these bids, they are also on track to lose up to ten seats in the House of Representatives.

“Here’s the real story of what happened last night: I’m going to give you some positive news.” Charlie Kirk, co-founder of the right-wing youth organisation Turning Point USA, addressed voters across the airwaves in Pennsylvania yesterday morning, as votes were still being counted.

“You wouldn’t know any of this if you were just watching the activist media, but there’s a lot of good news for us today. We prevented Chuck Schumer [the Democratic Senate minority leader] and his multi-billion dollar onslaught to try to purchase your government. You stopped that: God bless you for it.”

Kirk is not wrong. Much of Biden’s domestic policy platform is meaningless without a strong Congressional majority. Everything the new president tries to deliver – even a badly needed coronavirus stimulus package – will be stymied. Should he actually manage to get some legislation through an obstructionist Senate, much of it will then be doomed by Trump’s signature legacy: a Supreme Court with a 6-3 Conservative majority.

For the rest of the world, of course, Biden’s narrow win, if it comes, will be far more consequential. Millions of women will once again be able to access US-funded family planning and other health services. Religious conservatives will continue to push their extremist agendas abroad (see the film below), but they will have lost easy access to the White House. The ending of the infamous ‘global gag’ rule – which blocks federal funding for organisations that provide or promote abortion services or rights – will also aid the global treatment of HIV and many other major health issues.

The US will rejoin the Paris climate accords. Right-wing autocrats like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Victor Orbán and others no longer have a powerful backer in the UN. Israel’s hawkish prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lost a staunch ally. The list could go on.

But at home, there’s no clear mandate for change. Strikingly, too, Trump looks set to lose by only a slim margin. Millions more Americans backed him than did in 2016 – despite a pandemic which has already claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

How has this happened?

No justice, no peace

We’ve been travelling through the key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Republican heartland of Kentucky, and speaking to voters across the country for weeks. If you spend long enough talking to anyone, they’ll say things you might not expect.

In fracking country, western Pennsylvania, we met a young Romanian immigrant who voted for Trump but backs Canada-style lockdowns to contain COVID-19.

A Black Biden-supporting woman in her sixties told us “all lives matter” because “we all bleed the same colour: red”.

We met a registered Democrat in a crucial swing county who voted for Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen because she’s a feminist who will legalise marijuana.

And a convicted felon on the New Jersey border told us he’d have backed Trump if he was allowed to vote – even though he wants universal healthcare.

But a defining feature of countless conversations has been the largest and most ambitious racial justice movement this country has seen in generations.

Black Lives Matter has birthed a new generation of civic leaders and inspired and activated voters across all fifty states. In the city of Louisville, we met women who rose up in March when Breonna Taylor was killed by police, and who have been organising, protesting and building “love, passion and community” for more than 160 days since.

Yet the movement has also sparked a backlash.

“I don't support what we've seen of Black Lives Matter… The looting, the destruction, those aren't protests. That's not Black Lives Matter. That's people going out and destroying their communities and hurting and killing each other,” Aaron Johnson, a former police officer, told us in our recent podcast episode.

Like so many Trump supporters we met, he claims he supports racial equality but says “structural racism” is just media hype.

“People take the idea that there is a problem with racism in this country, and they blow it out of proportion. They make it so much worse than it really is. Is there racism? Yes. Is there systemic racism? No.”

Others write off the whole movement as “radically left driven” – and claim Biden is just a “puppet” for what they see as this more extreme, hidden agenda.

The irony is that – far from being their puppet – Biden failed to win support among many of the Black Lives Matter activists we spoke to.

Despite running on a Democratic ticket, Jecorey Arthur, the youngest person ever to be elected to the Louisville City Council, refused to vote for or publicly back Biden (he gives his reasons in the film below).

Milly Martin, who knew Breonna Taylor, also put it bluntly: “I do not like him at all.”

Change was not on the ballot

Plenty of people we spoke to were voting against Donald Trump, but not necessarily for Joe Biden. This is borne out in national polls: as Fox News reported, many Biden voters were motivated primarily by the desire to get Trump out of the Oval Office, rather than to see Biden in it.

Meanwhile, across the spectrum, people derided the Washington establishment.

“I despise Mitch McConnell,” Craig, a registered voter in Florida, said of the Republican Senate majority leader who was easily re-elected in Kentucky. “He’s been in politics so long he’s completely blind and insulated from reality. So is Nancy Pelosi [Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives]. They are both career politicians whose only thought in any situation is ‘What’s best for my party right now?’ – the normal rules of law and morality are out the window.”

“I would say Mitch McConnell is one and the same with Amy McGrath [his Democratic challenger],” Jecorey Arthur in Louisville told us. Despite the party pumping $88 million into her campaign, McGrath was crushed by a decisive 58-38% margin.

“Biden, we know what he’s about. He said he’s going to do a lot of things, but he’s been in office for 43 years, and he hasn’t done it,” Anthony in western Pennsylvania, a former Obama-turned-Trump supporter, told us.

And despite far higher voter turnouts, there were many who were unimpressed with the choices on offer, or who opted out. As one of the regulars at Snow Bar on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, put it: “The reason I don’t vote is because it doesn’t affect me.”

The real ‘silent majority’

Many Trump voters we spoke to claimed they were the ‘silent majority’ and that Trump would prevail on election day.

They seem to have been wrong – just. The silent majority we found across the country were not the Marshas, cursing the ignorance of those long lines of voters in Cincinnati, but the bartenders wearily closing up shop at 8pm on polling day because they expected trouble either way.

They were the woman in Washington, Pennsylvania, who told us “it doesn’t matter if you’re Black, White, purple, orange – we are all Americans and we are all one nation under God.” She was backing Joe Biden, she told us, because she wants the next president to bring the country together and “make America great again”.

Voters everywhere told us they want peace, stability – and decisive action on jobs, the pandemic, the economy. Sadly, these results are unlikely to deliver these things any time soon.

Citizens across most of the world will breathe a sigh of relief if they see Donald Trump leave office. But, as Craig from Florida put it a few weeks ago when he decided not to cast a ballot: "I don't know who will win on 3 November. But I do know it won't be the American people."

Follow us on Twitter @maryftz and @aaronwolfwhite to get live updates on the continuing US election results, challenges and recounts – and from voices on the ground.

Subscribe to the ourVoices podcast, and read all openDemocracy's election coverage here.

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