If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.
—Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858
Where the hell are we?
Not somewhere great. It could be worse. But it could be a lot better. Let me try to suggest briefly some of what’s good, bad, and ugly at this moment—the day after Election Day and part way through Election Week.
The Good: The Presidency
Joe Biden will probably be our next president.
It looks likely that Joe Biden will win, and that he’ll do so in a way that will be hard for Donald Trump to dispute and in a way that will be reasonably clear by the end of this week. If his margin holds in Nevada, which looks probable and which we should know tomorrow, he’ll have 270 electoral votes (with Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nebraska’s second congressional district, along with the states called for him earlier). Biden could also end up winning Pennsylvania and/or Georgia, but you can’t count either of them one way or the other right now.
It also looks—for now—as thought Donald Trump’s mind-bogglingly irresponsible statements last night may not have too much effect, that a fair number of Republicans will decide to ignore him and move on, and that the nightmare scenarios of mass violence and/or the courts overturning the voters’ decision won’t come to pass.
None of those eventualities are out of the question, I hasten to add—but it looks less likely than one might have worried in these circumstances.
Still, every responsible voice needs to join now in saying: Let the votes be counted. No violence, no demagoguery, no delegitimizing lawful election processes.
The Bad: The Parties
The bad news is that the election results are likely to leave both parties in worse shape, from the point of view of those of us who’d like some fresh thinking of a non-Trumpy, non-Bernie variety.
Republicans look to have held the Senate, with a net loss of one or two seats, and to have picked up seats in the House. So the GOP takeaway from this election will be: Stay the course, but without the wackier personal characteristics of Donald Trump.
The receptivity among the Republican establishment to a fundamental re-thinking will be limited. The receptivity to a fundamental repudiation of Trump or Trumpism is, in the short term, minimal. The chances of Mitch McConnell working responsibly with a President Biden are not great, given the likely attitudes of most of his members and of Republican voters.
The Republican party will be geared entirely toward holding the Senate and winning the House in 2022, and that will be viewed as meaning that Republicans must fight and weaken Biden at every turn.
The Biden administration and Speaker Pelosi—assuming she’s re-elected speaker—will meanwhile be under pressure from their left, with bitter second-guessing of Biden and Pelosi’s moderate strategies for victory. The narrowness of Biden’s victory will probably weaken his ability to get the party behind him, and may constrain his ability to do much that goes against party orthodoxy.
If one wanted to be optimistic, you could hope that Biden, sensing that he’s likely a one-term president, might throw caution to the winds in an interesting, national-unity-focused way.
But there have not been a great many reasons for optimism in American politics lately.
The Ugly: Us
In 2016, 46 percent of the American people voted for Donald Trump. They were willing to take a gamble on an outsider, a businessman, a celebrity, against an unpopular Hillary Clinton. They could also tell themselves there would be constraints on his behavior, from his own party, and from Congress.
Now, after four years of seeing Donald Trump govern with results that are, I think, pretty horrifying, and faced with the choice of giving him a second term—in which he would assuredly be less constrained—the American people rewarded President Trump with an increased share of the overall vote. Having seen him in office, almost half the country wanted to give him four more years.
I don’t see any way to gild this lily.
To some very real degree, as Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”