After almost two years of campaigning, followed by four long days of Americans anxiously calculating electoral vote totals, Former Vice President Joe Biden was finally declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Biden will assume the presidency as the candidate who received the most votes in history, and California Sen. Kamala Harris will be the first woman, the first Asian American and the first Black American to serve as vice president of the U.S.
After four years of chaos, capped with seven months of countless tragic crises, the American people decided it was time for change. This is certainly cause for celebration. That said, there are still crucial lessons to be drawn from this election.
Democrats went into Nov. 3 hoping for a “blue wave” to decisively hand them the presidency and control of the Senate as well as increase their majority in the House of Representatives. This was not the case. They have lost seats in the House, control of the Senate is still undetermined and the presidential race came down to a few percentage points in key states which, according to current projections, will likely grant Biden the same electoral vote total with which President Donald Trump won in 2016.
The fact that Trump still received over 71 million votes and garnered more electoral votes than Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and most other unsuccessful nominees shows that Trumpist ideology is still alive and well. Biden and the Democrats will have to adapt to the reality that while Trump may leave office, the tens of millions of Americans who embraced his discriminatory and divisive rhetoric are not going anywhere.
The message of unity and “restoring the soul of the nation” may be a good start, but defeating Trumpism will require much more. Unity will be practically impossible unless we prevent the spread of misinformation, address mistrust in established institutions and resolve the decades-long injustices which led to Trump being falsely hailed as a savior who would “drain the swamp.”
Despite Trump’s relative success, Biden did an admirable job of creating a large tent of supporters. From progressive Democrats such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the never-Trump Republicans of the Lincoln Project, the Biden campaign managed to pull together a majority of the country, utilizing their common disapproval of Trump’s performance in the White House. While reaching out to as many people as possible is a great election strategy, this “big tent” approach may come to haunt the President-elect.
Every decision Biden makes from now on will inadvertently signal his loyalty to one part of his base. In selecting his Cabinet, for instance, Biden can either appoint strong progressive voices — perhaps Elizabeth Warren as Secretary of the Treasurer or Bernie Sanders as Secretary of Labor — or can give into the demands of Mitch McConnell and select former Wall Street executives and center-right Republicans to lead various departments.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons of this election is that the actual base of the Democratic Party played the most important role in electing Biden and Harris. According to an exit poll from the New York Times, 93% of Republicans and 84% of conservatives sided with Trump, while 87% of Black voters and 89% of liberals once again voted Democrat. The emphasis Biden has placed on bipartisanship is important, but it does not grant him the right to take his own base for granted for the sake of compromise. Biden must prove to Democrats and progressives alike that keeping his promise of being a president for all Americans does not mean giving up the fight for policies which matter most to his base.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s main argument for why she should be elected was that Trump was unfit to be president. In 2020, Biden’s argument was largely the same. Biden did end up winning, but that does not change the fact that he mostly failed in promoting a solid platform. His campaign centered on the failures of his opponent rather than giving people a compelling pitch for his own vision for the country. The “lesser of two evils” mindset may have been effective against one of the worst presidents in American history, but it is not a sustainable strategy.
If Democrats want to maintain power in the post-Trump era, they’ll need to build an agenda that excites people, which includes progressive policies that are also popular. The Green New Deal, Medicare for All and free public college are all approved by a majority of the American people. Last week, Florida voters chose to enact a $15 minimum wage by a 21 point margin, even though Trump won the state easily. If Biden had made this policy a centerpiece of his campaign, perhaps he could have carried Florida and had a landslide victory. While trying to work across the aisle is important, going forward, Biden and other Democrats must embrace a left-wing ideology and fight for the people who overwhelmingly put them in office.
During his four years as president, Trump tried his best to increase his power as an authoritarian leader. He labeled journalists as the “enemy of the people,” claimed a deep state conspiracy was trying to undermine his policies and continues to dispute the results of the election without a shred of evidence. At the end of the day, Trump did not succeed in becoming one of his beloved dictators. Still, he convinced thousands of people to demand that legitimate ballots not be counted, which is extremely worrisome.
The idea that were it not for his incompetence, Trump could have realistically led the U.S. further down a path of disinformation and propaganda is one of the scariest issues that must be addressed. If the U.S. wants to lead by the example of its democracy, the next president must implement an overhaul of its entire system. From abolishing the Electoral College and ending gerrymandering to ensuring every citizen can exercise their right to vote, Biden must enact real and systemic change to ensure that there will never be another President Trump.
A recent analysis of the election from Vox argued, “Historians will someday look back on the 2020 campaign and decide it was very boring — Biden led the polls virtually every day of the primary and literally every day of the general election, and then he won.”
It may be true that despite his shortcomings in the primary, Biden was the inevitable winner of this election. However, it is now up to the President-elect to learn the necessary lessons from this campaign and use them in shaping his presidency. Biden must exercise his mandate in building a Cabinet and a party platform which represents his base, and he must do virtually everything possible to defeat Trumpism and reform American democracy.
Kerim Bali is a sophomore from Istanbul, Turkey studying Political Science. He is a member of A Place to Talk.