Election Projection: Waiting for the Next Consensus

UPDATE 11/14: I wrote up an election prediction for fun, and it’s amusing that I did somewhat better than the professional pundits. It seemed like everyone thought Trump would pull it out, OR that there was going to be a ‘Blue Wave but I never understood either expectation. I made a few errors: I thought the polls would be wrong but not by as much as in 2016 and they were even more wrong! Also Georgia?!!!

Predictions are impossible, especially about the future, as they say. Hillary Clinton was ahead of Donald Trump in 2016 by 14 points in some polls (the same amount as Joe Biden as of this writing) but went on to lose. So this is worth what you’re paying to read it.

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 that’s for wimps. 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 Nebraska divides its votes so Democrats will get one from that which isn’t reflected in the map above. My prediction (really a guess) 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 do I guess that Trump can’t 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 wins. But the big reason is: (4) Biden is a better politician than Hillary Clinton. (I don’t mean a better person; just a better politician.) 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. (Yes Biden at times seems senile, but most people don’t follow politics closely enough to notice, and Trump making a big deal of that just lowers expectations enough for Biden to seem fine.)

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‘– named for the bundle of programs and initiatives Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed in response to the Great Depression. My ‘New Deal Consensus’ includes FDR’s general approach to government as it evolved through WWII: worker protections, high employment, social safety net, political equality, public works, pressured cooperation between management and labor, and federal economic planning and business regulation.

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

Finally Ronald Reagan‘s administration, took ideology from Barry Goldwater and political strategy from Richard Nixon, broke the New Deal Consensus when Reagan won the presidency in 1980 and created 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. (At the time people called this ‘Conservatism.’ Nowadays people often call this ‘Neoliberalism’ or ‘Movement Conservatism’.) 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 like the New Deal Consensus the Reaganite Consensus has now long passed its sell-by date. The Iraqi War, Hurricane Katrina, and finally the 2008 Great Recession destroyed the legitimacy of the Reaganite Consensus in the eyes of most people, yet here we are more than ten years later waiting for a politician with the skills and understanding to create something new. The chaos we see around us is a power vacuum.

What is a campaign?

Political campaigns are about giving people stuff and telling a story about why the gifts aren’t gifts, not really, but what the people deserve. The New Deal Consensus promised government programs. The Reaganite Consensus promised tax breaks. 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 a 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, although I think it is; I wish unjust or unfair systems were unstable, but unjust systems can be stable while more fair systems sometimes 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 during WWII and the Cold War); Or limited aboard and limited at home (The U.S. government back during 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 the upper and upper middle classes profit from the deregulation and off-shoring of jobs and opportunities, but this system doesn’t benefit enough people to provide the broad-based public support needed for broad prosperity and happiness. In the U.S. President Bush’s incompetence put the nails in the coffin of the Reaganite Consensus. (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 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 liberal version of 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, shallow, and combative temperament. Biden, if he wins, is not likely to build a new consensus. Even if he wants to, the leaders of the Democratic Party supported him to reestablish their own version of the Reaganite Consensus.

Which means, even if the Dems take the senate (and I don’t think they will), Biden will probably lose control of congress in the 2022 midterms, and of course the Dems are now heavily outnumbered in the supreme court. During his two years I don’t see him creating a new national paradigm. He certainly has promised not to. Which means the next consensus that will bring some sort of peace to our society is still many years away. There is a young quasi-socialist 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, probably some new iteration of the Alt-Right but called something else, promising gifts we cannot currently imagine. That all remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the divisiveness, hatred, frustration, stupidity, 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 very well. We blame our neighbors, ourselves, our history, but the problem lies not in ourselves but in our stars–our political stars, that is. 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 thin-skinned, ignorant, arrogant, and impulsive to accomplish more than he did when he first took office. He stirs up trouble. His family separation policy at the border was pointlessly cruel, his pigheaded defense of Brett Kavanaugh cost him the midterms, his encouragement of racism and authoritarianism is toxic, and his withdrawal from a ratified treaty with Iran should have gotten him impeached (as should his assassination of an Iranian general). Mostly, Trump’s response to Covid-19 was flailing and incompetent, and I expect that will be proverbial final straw in the election. So the swamp won’t be drained anytime soon. Not by Trump. Not by Biden. It all goes on.


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