Clifford Orwin is professor of political science and fellow of St. Michael’s College and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
Thanks to the slowness of counting all those mailed-in ballots, the current American election has proved the most tedious nail-biter ever. It appears though that neither the nation nor its two major parties have reason to bewail the outcome. The election proceeded as well as possible. Despite the strains imposed by the pandemic, every state’s voting went smoothly. Despite predicted violence, there was very little. Turnout was overwhelming. VP-elect Kamala Harris was multiply inspirational: female, Black, brown, the daughter of immigrants and schooled at Westmount High in Montreal. As for the parties, neither quite won and neither quite lost, but both lived to fight another day.
The turnout is worth emphasizing. At an estimated 67 per cent of eligible voters, it was the highest in 120 years – since William McKinley’s second victory over William Jennings Bryan. Both candidates received more votes than any had ever received before. High turnout is a sign of health in a liberal democracy. Dysfunctional systems breed apathy, from skepticism that one’s participation can make a difference. Clearly Americans suffer from no such malady. It was a stunning triumph for representative democracy at a moment when it sorely needed one.
It’s true, of course, that this vast outpouring was an angry one, expressing loathing for the other side as much as enthusiasm for one’s own. It wasn’t consensus that brought 150 million voters to the polls. Yet consensus has been elusive for most of American history. In this, the Cold War/post-New Deal era was not typical but exceptional. Yes, American voters disagree deeply as to the proper solutions for the grave problems facing them. It’s up to their elected leaders to find such common ground as they can. The departure of Donald Trump should help. While there’s no going back on the populist shift in American politics, which it was his genius to appropriate, the way is now open to more reasonable competing articulations of it.
At first it looked like a bad day for the Democrats. Having been predicted easy winners in the presidential race, they were leading in the popular vote but struggling to capture enough states to claim the Electoral College. They were failing to regain control of the Senate, and were losing seats in the House. After four years of exposure to Mr. Trump as president, more Americans (in absolute numbers) were voting for him the second time around than had done so the first.
Yet as the counting of mailed-in ballots plodded on, the Democrats emerged as the winners in the crucial battle of turnout. In state after battleground state, they eked out the required victory, leaving Mr. Trump flummoxed and crying vote fraud without offering evidence of any. Among the Democrats' narrow (but still unconfirmed) wins look to be Georgia and Arizona, both Republican for a while now. As for the Electoral College, it has returned to its usual wholesome role of bolstering the winner of the popular vote by amplifying his victory. Joe Biden is on track to win 306 electoral votes – 57 per cent of the total – on a popular vote of around 51 per cent.
You needn’t shed tears for the Republicans, who have four powerful consolations. As noted, they appear to have retained the Senate (pending two likely victories in runoff elections in Georgia in January) and have strengthened their position in the House. Third is their decisive predominance in the federal judiciary. Fourth is their gains in this election of seats in state legislatures. Together these will help offset the Democrats' capture of the presidency.
Me, I’m a glass half-full kind of person. Where others see only the gloom of gridlock, I see a chance for bipartisanship. Mr. Biden will want to accomplish something in what will likely be his only term. In two fine speeches this week, he has reiterated his intention of reaching across the aisle, as he has throughout his long career. Yet he can’t expect the Republicans to co-operate unless there is something in it for them. As for the GOP, having lost the White House, will it really see obstructionism as the best tactic for regaining it? Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has been called many things, but a fool isn’t one of them. With Mr. Trump sidelined, he will be free to deal with Mr. Biden wherever he sees it as advantageous. The obvious places to begin are the pandemic (Mr. McConnell actually wears a mask) and the perennial problem of infrastructure.
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