Election Projection: Waiting for the Next Consensus

I don’t know who will win the presidential election. Things can happen between now and then that change the outcome. Hillary Clinton was ahead of Donald Trump in 2016 by 14 points in some polls (the same amount as Joe Biden now) but went on to lose.

But since I’ve been writing about fascism and many people fear that this election could bring about fascism (either because Trump wins or because he loses), I thought I’d weigh in.

I used the website 270towin.com to create the map above. Go to the website yourself and have fun switching state colors to create your own predictions. Most projections have various shades of blue and red for degrees of certainty but I thought I’d go big. The states I’m purely guessing on are Iowa, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Nevada and Iowa don’t have a lot of electoral votes, but Arizona and Pennsylvania will have a huge impact. Also Nevada divides its votes so Democrats will get one from that which isn’t reflected in the map above. My prediction is that Trump will eventually close the gap against Biden as he did against Clinton, but it won’t be enough. Biden wins with 279.

Why Trump Won’t Quite Close the Gap

Why can’t Trump close the gap as he did with Clinton? There are a lot of small reasons: (1) Pollsters base their sampling models on the previous election. This means when the world changes their models are dead wrong (as they were in 2016) but when things don’t change much, the models tend to catch up. I think Trump will do better than the surveys predict but not as much better as in 2016 because the country hasn’t changed that much since 2016. (2) Wisconsin and Michigan have democrats controlling the ballots this time. (3) Biden is just over 50% in most places, so even if Trump wins undecideds 5 to 1 (as I expect him to) that won’t get him there. But the big reason is: (4) Biden is a better politician that Hillary Clinton. Like Obama and Bill Clinton, Biden enjoys the politics part of politics. Going out and asking people for their votes. Hillary Clinton, like Kerry and Gore, never seemed to enjoy the politics part of politics. Since the politics part of politics is what politics is named after, it’s a big deal. People doing things they like doing are more likeable.

In any case Trump will contest the election if he loses, as the Democrats will if they lose. To see how it plays out let’s see how this election fits in a broader sweep of history.

2 Cycles of Consensus

From the election of 1932 until the 1970s U.S. politics were dominated by what I will call the ‘New Deal Consensus‘. This is named after the New Deal which was what Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the bundle of programs and initiatives his administration proposed to respond to the Great Depression. My ‘New Deal Consensus’ includes the general approach to government of both the New Deal itself and the administration approach to WWII: worker protections, high employment, social safety net, equality, public works, public planning, business regulation, and more.

Not everyone supported this consensus, and there were plenty of arguments over priorities and details, but this framework set the parameters of political battles for the next forty years, even by opposition parties. By then the New Deal Consensus had split over the Vietnam War, stagflation, and the high crime rates and social upheavals of what is usually called ‘The Sixties’ but mostly happened during the Seventies. The systems no longer seemed to work as people expected it to, the worldview didn’t seem to match the world people were viewing, the certainties no longer seemed certain. The consensus had long teetered on the edge of oblivion.

Finally Ronald Reagan, borrowing ideology from Barry Goldwater and political strategy from Richard Nixon, broke the New Deal Consensus when he won the presidency in 1980 and built what I will call the Reaganite Consensus. This was low taxes. low inflation, free trade, libertarian deregulation and union busting, equality of opportunity, market-based economics, and the War on Drugs. (Nowadays people often call this ‘Neoliberalism’ or ‘Movement Conservatism’, but we’ll leave those terms for a future post.) Not everyone supported the Reaganite Consensus, and there were lots of arguments over priorities and details, but these ideas set the framework for most arguments and elections even by the opposition until the present day. But even more than the New Deal Consensus the Reaganite Consensus has long exceeded its sell-by date. The Iraqi War, Hurricane Katrina, and finally the 2008 Great Recession destroyed the legitimacy of the Reaganite Consensus, yet here we are more than ten years later waiting for a politician with the skills and vision to create something new. We’re in a power vacuum.

What is a campaign?

Political campaigns are about giving people stuff. A candidate tells people what stuff he or she will give them while telling a new story about the world that explains what’s wrong and right, and why the stuff the politician promises to give isn’t a gift at all, not really, but what the people deserve, which will make things better in the long run for everyone. Meanwhile the candidate has to tell a story about themselves that explains who they are and how they came to want to give people what they deserve. The story has to be new but familiar, hopeful about the future but built on the past. For example under the New Deal Consensus politicians promised government programs because that’s what people deserved and that’s what would make the world better (according to the stories of that consensus). Then under the Reaganite Consensus politicians promised tax breaks because that’s what people deserved and that’s what would make the world better (according to the stories of that consensus). The reason neither Biden nor Trump can create a new governing consensus is that they don’t have anything convincing to really give people to mark philosophical break from the Reaganite way of doing things.

All consensuses eventually fail but the Reaganite Consensus is especially unstable. (Not because it’s unjust or unfair–I wish unjust or unfair systems were unstable, but unjust systems can be stable while sometimes just systems are not.) We have a government today that is very expansive abroad (with treaties and bases and military interventions everywhere) while attempting to be very limited at home (scant social safety net, little public investment, little redistribution). Put another way, we live in an empire that doesn’t take care of its people at home. Such systems historically are fragile. Strong systems can be limited abroad and expansive at home (like the original New Deal); Expansive abroad and expansive at home (which is what the New Deal Consensus morphed into after WWII); Or limited aboard and limited at home (The U.S. government throughout the Gilded Age). But elites in the U.s. and abroad since the time of Reagan have tried to keep an expansive global system abroad, while making it more limited and austere at home. That works for awhile because enough powerful people profit from the deregulation and off-shoring of jobs and opportunities, plus the world becomes a theater for public entertainment of sorts, but this system doesn’t benefit enough people to provide the broad-based public support needed for stability. In the U.S. the well was dry by President Bush’s term. (Similar approaches to government have been similarly unstable in the UK and Europe.)

Waiting for the Next Consensus

Obama won the presidency in 2008 running on the banner of ‘change’, and for two years the democrats controlled all the branches of the government and did a couple of new things (The ACA particularly and Iran treaty), but mostly he repaired, refurbished, and propped up the old system. He never really tried to create a new consensus I think because he genuinely believed in the Reaganite one. Trump won the presidency in 2016 as the very embodiment of change, and for two years the republicans controlled all the branches of the government, and it seemed like he might really change the paradigm (for better or worse). He withdrew and reworked free trade agreements and harshly enforced immigration laws, but soon he resorted to a Reaganite-style government, except without the friendly public persona. Mostly, I think because of Trump’s feckless and combative temperament. Biden, if he wins, is not likely to build a new consensus. Even if he wants to, the democratic party leaders supported him to reestablish their own version of the Reaganite Consensus.

Which means, even if the dems take the sentate, Biden will probably lose control of congress in the midterms, and of course the dems are now heavily outnumbered in the supreme court. Which means the next consensus that will bring some sort of peace to our society is still many years away. There is a young left in Democratic Party that is energized and wants to give people stuff again (Medicare for All, free college, Green New Deal). It’s likely they eventually carry the day and establish a new consensus. Or maybe some new consensus emerges from the Republicans promising gifts we cannot currently imagine. That all remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the divisiveness, hatred, frustration, stupidity, magical thinking, and conspiracy thinking all around us will intensify because it is rooted in the actual powerlessness we all experience in a system that doesn’t work. We blame our neighbors, ourselves, our history, but the problem lies in our rulers. Until someone comes up with new stuff to give people and a new story to justify it, there won’t be a stable governing coalition. If Biden loses there will be accusations of mail fraud, Russian interference, and betrayal by the left. If Trump loses there will be militia violence and reactionary organizing. Still a Biden election slows the bleeding, even if it doesn’t get us anywhere closer to fine. Trump is too chaotic, thin-skinned, ignorant, bigoted, and impulsive to accomplish anything. He stirs up trouble. His response to Covid-19 was utterly incompetent, and I expect Americans will reject him that in November. So the swamp won’t be drained anytime soon. Not by Trump. Not by Biden. It all goes on.

When Biden wins, how far will the militia violence and reactionary organizing go? For guesses to that, we return again to our regularly scheduled essay sequence.

Next: Unite the Wrongs and the Antisocial Contract.

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