The dust from the electoral bomb that fell on the White House has not settled, and angry tweets of protest still echo from the West Wing. Joe Biden may have won a clear victory over Donald Trump, but the country remains as damaged and divided as ever. The ruling party was defeated, but not demolished, as so many of us hoped it would be. While the majority of Americans are joyous and relieved that a four-year occupation of the Presidency by an anti-democratic would-be tyrant will soon come to an end, nearly half of the voters wanted to keep his brutally incompetent and dangerous regime in place. How could that be?
Let’s forget for a moment that Trump and his minions lied about almost everything almost continuously, put children in cages, used the Treasury as a personal piggy bank, entreated foreign countries to meddle in our election, told the Justice Department to go easy on felonious cronies, sabotaged environmental protection and considered climate change a hoax. Maybe these and dozens of other outrages escaped the attention of—or didn’t matter to—tens of millions of voters. But how could they overlook Trump’s bungling of the worst public health crisis in a century? How could they condone Trump’s downplaying and ultimately dismissing the COVID-19 pandemic just because a public understanding of its seriousness would hurt his reelection chances. The coronavirus has claimed a quarter million American lives. Not only did Trump fail to protect the American public, he didn’t even protect himself or his own family and his own staff. Even as the White House became one of the virus’s hottest spots, Trump took the disease on the road and held huge, crowded rallies in defiance of his own government’s pandemic guidelines. He lured many of his supporters into falling ill, and at least some of them died (700 by one Stanford University estimate)—solely because of their devotion to Donald Trump. Why would anyone vote for a man who not only threatens his enemies but also endangers his allies?
Obviously, Trump voters don’t see things the way I do. Decades of intensifying political warfare have divided us into rival tribes. And while some communities are almost evenly split, most places have a dominant tribe, either blue or red. Cities, we know, tend to be blue, while smaller towns skew red. Tribal members stick together and constantly reinforce each other’s beliefs. Once you’re in a tribe, you don’t easily leave it. Your friends would call you a traitor. Your colleagues at work would look at you with scorn. You could be instantly ostracized! Human beings are stubborn creatures, and we get more and more stubborn as we get older. Our minds slowly but surely close altogether. My own views, I would readily admit, are pretty much set in stone. I can’t imagine ever voting for a Republican unless he or she surprised me by going against party orthodoxy and proposing strong measures to combat climate change. Even if our party nominates someone we don’t like or who has demonstrable defects, we are usually sure that the other party’s nominee would be much worse. As a Republican friend of mine once said of Donald Trump, “I know he’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.”
So the sad, banal truth is that most people voted for Biden or Trump out of habit and tribal loyalty. Facts and policies weren’t that much of a factor. Presidential elections in recent years have been close contests won or lost on the margins. The winner is the candidate who most effectively attracts independent (open-minded or sometimes clueless) voters and whose party most energetically gets its members out to vote and most successfully recruits brand new members to the tribe. Sure, some Republicans jumped ship to vote for Biden, but not all many. In fact, Trump, despite his shipwreck of an Administration, got more than 10 million more votes this time than he did in 2016! Fortunately, Biden got almost 13 million more votes than Hillary Clinton did. Biden’s tribe did a superior job of mobilization and recruitment. I’d nominate Stacey Abrams, who led Democratic voter registration efforts in Georgia, as the most valuable tribal member.
Republicans did better in down-ballot races. They gained seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and can retain control of the U.S. Senate if they win one or both of the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January. Republicans still control the majority of state legislatures, and that has enabled them to engage in gerrymandering—drawing district lines so that Democratic voters hold sway only in a relatively few urban districts. To maintain power, Republicans don’t have to win the most votes; they just have to keep red districts red. Wisconsin, for example, shows how corrupted and crazy the system can be. Although a majority of Wisconsinites voted for Biden over Trump, Republicans rule both chambers of the state legislature and five out of eight of Wisconsin’s members of the U.S. House are Republican. And the rules of the Electoral College give the Republicans an advantage in every Presidential race. Two Democrats, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, won the national popular vote, but lost the Presidency. Joe Biden avoided that fate only by racking up more than a 5-million vote margin and barely flipping a few states that went for Trump last time.
What is it that determines the success of a political tribe? What is it that enables the tribes to keep their members loyal and bring in new recruits? Two things: hard work and money. And of the two, money is the most powerful because it pays for the hard work. Political leaders would argue, with remarkably straight faces, that it’s not all about the money—that the motivating force behind party loyalty is an idealistic desire to make the country better. Yes, both major parties have their ideals. If I had to sum them up in one word, it would be “freedom” for the Republicans and “justice” for the Democrats.
I’m totally biased, of course, but I would contend that the Republican Party is significantly less idealistic and more mercenary than the Democrats. The Republicans are the party of Big Business, almost pure and simple. They repeatedly push for tax cuts for everyone, but businesses and wealthy businesspeople usually get a disproportionate share of the pie. They oppose climate-change legislation to protect the profits of the fossil-fuel industries, which are faithful donors to their election campaigns. They oppose gun-control legislation to guard the profits of gun manufacturers and in the process pick up a lot of votes from gun owners. “Freedom,” which sounds so idealistic, generally means freedom from government interference and the elimination of as many federal and state regulations as possible. Along with serving business, the Republicans have tailored their policies to accommodate allies of convenience. They’ve attracted white supremacists by getting tough on immigration and blocking increased welfare benefits that disproportionately go to disadvantaged minority groups. They oppose abortion to appeal to pro-lifers, who I admit are genuinely idealistic in their beliefs, and they court fundamentalist preachers by promising to guard religious freedom. They find eager partners in the Christian megachurches, which, with their prosperity gospel, qualify as Big Business themselves.
Democrats certainly have no objections to money. Liberal New York politicians do their best to protect the interests of Wall Street, and President Clinton blessed major deregulation of the financial industry, which then had to be reregulated during Obama Administration after the Great Recession of 2008. Democrats take large donations from what’s left of the labor unions and from trial lawyers who sue businesses for malfeasance, which doesn’t please corporate executives. But, on the whole, Democrats try to be business-friendly whenever possible because that’s where the biggest piles of money lie. There was a revolving door between the Obama Administration and Google’s executive suites. Democrats bill themselves as the party of working people, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Money from Big Business doesn’t just flow to politicians. It gushes to lobbyists, universities (and their scientists and economists), campaign workers, consultants, ad agencies and journalists in all forms of media. And this has been going on for decades. The power of corporations and conservatism, now at unprecedented levels, has ebbed and flowed in recent American history. It was at high tide during the Gilded Age in the late 19th Century, fell back with the reforms of the Progressive Era in the early 20th Century, and practically dried up during the Great Depression and World War II, when the New Deal greatly expanded Government programs and Washington raised taxes to new heights to pay for our armed forces.
After the war, the big modern anti-government backlash began, perhaps most notably with the formation of the John Birch Society in 1958. In what Hillary Clinton would later call “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” conservative industrialists bankrolled Republican political campaigns, right-leaning magazines, foundations and think tanks and established pro-business institutions at universities. An entire body of conservative scholarship was created to counter traditionally liberal academia. Conservatism became a major American enterprise and offered lucrative career opportunities to young people, who were heavily recruited on college campuses.
Most important, the conservatives created their own media. First it was talk radio shows, and then Australia’s Rupert Murdoch came along to launch Fox News with the help of Roger Ailes. It wasn’t so much that Murdoch was ideologically conservative, which he is, as it was that pandering to conservatives brought him enormous ratings and profits. Now the right-wing universe also includes Sinclair Broadcast Group’s chain of TV stations, Newsmax TV and the One America News Network, along with Breitbart.com and innumerable other websites and social-media groups. So conservatives live in their own bubble, which is full of lies, short on facts and impervious to inconvenient truth. Millions of people voted for Trump because they are constantly misled by conservative media and don’t know any better.
Our side has its foundations, think tanks and media as well. We have MSNBC, Nation magazine and Rolling Stone. You can get plenty of jobs as a liberal, and if you become an MSNBC prime-time anchor, you’ll make a small fortune. But I honestly believe that there is a difference between liberal foot-soldiers and conservative troops. I see idealistic progressive young people wanting to work for the environment or civil rights or voting rights, and you can make a decent living doing that. And, sure, there are idealistic conservatives who campaign against abortion and for school prayer. But there’s nothing idealistic about most of the conservative agenda. Who would lobby to get tax breaks for billionaires because it’s the right thing to do? People do that only because they are damn well paid. Who with a clear conscience can campaign against regulations to combat climate change—with utter disregard for the future of their grandchildren? Money-grubbers, that’s who. If money is the most important thing in your life, you don’t become an environmentalist. You know that you’ll earn much more as an oil-industry operative. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Do seemingly intelligent, articulate people such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham believe half of the outrageous things they say? Or did they just find an incredibly lucrative niche, saying things that guarantee them fame, notoriety, high ratings and fat salaries? In the ongoing warfare between liberals and conservatives, what we have, for the most part, is an idealistic rag-tag band of modestly paid professionals and volunteers against a well-financed, well-armed horde of mercenaries.
Big money is very hard to beat. Joe Biden can be proud of all the small donations he got through actblue.com, but I’m not sure he would have edged out Trump without a bunch of public-spirited billionaires on his side. We can hope that someday the States, Congress and the Supreme Court will see fit to take money out of politics—by dropping the pretense that political ads financed by obscenely large donations to Super PACs are “free speech” and by forcing candidates to rely on small donations and public financing. In the meantime, the right-wing money machine rolls on. No matter how loathsome Republican candidates may be, they usually have enough cash behind them to win in red and battleground states. The only way to beat them is through relentless hard work—fundraising, communicating, organizing, registering voters (especially young people) and getting them to the polls. Biden’s too-close victory is not the end of the battle. The battle is never-ending, and the current front is Georgia. So, if you believe in progressive ideals, talk to your friends and do what you can. At the very least, take out your checkbook or go to actblue.com.