Following the presidential election, Former President Obama gave a 60 Minutes interview during which he opined that the results of this year’s national election showed a “very divided” country. He (and others) have doubled down on that conclusion in the weeks since. The horrifying violence at the United States Capitol offers virtually conclusive evidence of that, particularly when contrasted with the social justice protests and riots of last year. As we move forward into the Biden Administration, many Americans must be feeling hopeless.
I urge my countrymen to reject that feeling. In fact, I posit that, for the first time in several years, the country has sent a clear, unifying message to its leaders. In it, Mr. Biden will find a hidden mandate of moderation and bipartisanship, of fidelity and patriotism. If he can recognize and leverage it, I think we are in for fair winds and following seas, and it has never been needed more.
Mr. Obama’s conclusion stems from the fact that Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden each amassed over 70 million votes in the popular count. In terms of the electoral vote and among the four states that ultimately decided this election, the aggregate margin of victory teeters around a couple hundred thousand votes. Weeks of election challenges and arguments of fraud culminated with the sack of the Capitol, at the encouragement of a sitting president. At face value, you would think we are greatly divided. If you take a look at what happened down the ballot, it paints a different picture. Again, I encourage our leaders to revisit and re-orient themselves as the 117th Congress and the new administration begin their work.
First, while Mr. Biden won at the top of the ticket, Republicans and conservatives offset that victory. Recall that most media outlets and experts predicted that Republicans would lose the Senate and lose seats in the House. In reality, Republicans gained seats in the House, and came close to retaining a senate that will be narrowly divided. Progressive candidates and ballot measures were largely rejected, even in liberal strongholds like California where its affirmative action measure failed by almost 15 points. Below the presidential ticket, the overall trend of the election was toward the GOP. All things being equal, if you are a GOP operative, you ought to feel optimistic about 2022.
All of this means that, beyond primary politics, Mr. Trump and populism are as unpopular as progressivism and leftism.
I have always believed that if Mr. Trump lost his re-election bid, it would be the result of a personal referendum on him, not necessarily a critique or repudiation of his policies. If Mr. Biden won, it would not be because of the country’s endorsement of the progressive wing of his party. The election results seem to bear that out.
Many conservatives, registered Republicans, voted for Mr. Biden because they were repulsed by Mr. Trump on a personal level, but the analysis stopped there. For example, in the counties surrounding Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Trump performed well under Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012. Mr. Romney won Cobb, Gwinnett, and Henry counties, and lost Douglas and Newton counties by razor slim margins. Mr. Trump lost all five of those counties by substantial margins (Cobb—14 points, Gwinnett—18 points, Henry—20 points, Douglas—25 points, Newton—10 points). Mr. Trump also received fewer votes statewide than David Perdue. He was outpaced by Susan Collins, who Mr. Trump tried to take down for her opposition to Justice Barrett’s confirmation. Even Cory Gardner received more votes than Mr. Trump despite losing his own re-election bid. Fast forward to the Georgia run-offs, the margin was so narrow and, but for Ms. Harris’ tie-breaking vote, there is no majority in the Senate. Even as constituted, multiple moderates will have to be wooed in order for Democrats to get anything passed.
Americans did not reject the GOP or many of its policies. Had they done so, the House and Senate would look very different going into 2021 and it would be hard to explain why Republicans did so well in congressional, gubernatorial, and ballot races this past cycle. I believe many conservatives turned to Mr. Biden as a familiar figure and a potential source of moderation and normalcy in the White House while summarily rejecting his party.
There were also many people who voted for Mr. Trump who were not otherwise inclined to do so. Their inclination to do so came because of the emergence of the BLM movement. The BLM movement was co-opted by people and ideas that turned into an instrument of violence and cancel culture. Many demonstrations turned into riots and the Democrats and some in the media all but endorsed it. The destruction of cities across the country also led to the destruction of many Americans’ lives after they were already uprooted by the pandemic. The contrast of liberal leaders enabling and endorsing these demonstrations while also clamping down on church services, family gatherings, and other basic First Amendment rights did not sit well with many Americans. Polling routinely reflected America’s weariness and opposition to these protests, especially the ones that became violent. Mr. Biden and the Democrats missed many opportunities draw forceful distinctions between the purity of the BLM message and the mutated cult of violence for which some of its organizers used it. When it came time to vote, I think a lot of people were understandably fearful that Mr. Biden would concede to those in his party that supported the worst elements of the BLM movement and, perhaps begrudgingly, voted for Mr. Trump to avoid it becoming a national policy foundation.
Mr. Biden will be president with a divided government. Populism and leftism were flatly rejected in favor of principle and moderation. Surely, Mr. Biden will look to make overtures to the progressive base of his party, but the overarching theme of his presidency should be based on centrism and bipartisanship because that is exactly what the American people chose and demand.
Mr. Biden has an amazing opportunity to rekindle his longtime friendships on the Hill and work with Republicans (and moderate Democrats) to rebuild and rebrand our great institutions. Mr. Biden should recognize the fatigue of both parties and given them the top-cover they need to regroup and re-emerge in 2022 and 2024. He should restrain ideological ambition and emphasize bipartisan process, all the while applying the pressure on legislators to do their jobs and serve Americans. If he can do these things, history will remember him as a great leader. Mr. Biden has a hidden mandate; in the loudest voice in American history, the people voted for moderation. We need to work hard to see that; the votes spoke louder than the demonstrations and the riots. There is unity among the people if, as Senator Romney said, our leaders lead and, more importantly, tell them the truth. Mr. Biden must do so.
Richard Protzmann is an attorney in Newport Beach, California, and a Captain in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.