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A country in a whole lot of trouble

There is increasingly little common ground between the two parties

Why do I feel as if we had an election that solved nothing?

The sitting president was rejected, but his party added House seats and could still control the Senate. His defeat made Donald Trump one of only a handful of incumbents in modern history to be denied a second term, but he is already talking about 2024.

While Trump now trails President-elect Joe Biden by more than 5.6 million votes, he received over 73 million votes — 10 million votes more than he did in 2016. Biden flipped five states that Trump carried in 2016, but three of them were by razor-thin margins (Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin).

Don’t let Biden’s 306 electoral votes mislead you. If Trump had won those three close states instead of narrowly losing them, both candidates would have each received 269 electoral votes, throwing the election to the House, which would have given Trump a second term.

Trump lost narrowly even though he was a vulgar, narcissistic bully who still can’t acknowledge his own defeat. He has undermined important institutions that Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, hold dear.

He fired people of good character because they wouldn’t kowtow to him, undermined experts who wouldn’t parrot his gibberish and repeatedly used language in speeches and during media events that suggested a total lack of education and a preference for authoritarianism.

Each day saw chaos, lies by the president and those close to him, and the violation of long-held norms intended to create transparency and protect against the abuse of power. And yet, more than 73 million Americans voted for him, and Trump almost won reelection. (For an excellent story on “norms,” see David Montgomery’s piece in The Washington Post.)

Somehow, millions of voters thought Biden, who ran as a moderate wanting to heal the country, was more dangerous than Trump.

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The Next America

Many have offered explanations, but I’m sticking with what Paul Taylor wrote in his revised (2016) paperback edition of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown.”

“These days Democrats and Republicans no longer stop at disagreeing with each other’s ideas. Many in each party now deny the other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources, and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood. It’s as if they belong not to rival parties but alien tribes.”

Taylor went on to talk about “stark demographic, ideological and cultural differences between the parties’ bases” before he came to the heart of our country’s problem:

“We now have one party that skews older, whiter, more religious and more conservative, with a base that’s struggling to come to grips with the new racial tapestries, gender norms and family constellations that make up the beating heart of the next America. The other party skews younger, more nonwhite, more liberal, more secular, and more immigrant- and LGBT-friendly, and its base increasingly views America’s new diversity as a prized asset.”

The America of the ’40s and ’50s is disappearing, but those who want to hang on to that era — including older whites and their (mostly male) offspring — are not letting it go without a fight.

Yes, there have been economic changes that have hurt working-class whites and their families. But it’s the cultural changes that have so polarized the country and energized right-wing populism.

More than three in four white evangelicals supported Trump, according to the 2020 exit poll, down only slightly from 80 percent four years ago. Trump won rural America, according to the Edison Research exit poll, 57 percent to 42 percent, while Biden won urban America 60 percent to 38 percent.

Biden carried whites with a college degree 51 percent to 48 percent, while Trump won whites without a college degree by 35 points, 67 percent to 32 percent.

Deepening rift

The problem is not that there is a political divide in the country. We’ve had divides before. It’s the nature and depth of the divide that is so dangerous.

Liberals and conservatives don’t merely disagree. They believe the other side is corrupt and dangerous, with an agenda that is threatening and evil.

Some of this, of course, is the result of cable TV, talk radio and the internet. To get ratings, stations and websites must rile people up. That doesn’t lead to nuance or explaining complicated relationships. Instead, those who flourish rely on demonization, name-calling and fear.

In the short term, the Democrats have a huge problem. They need to keep together a coalition of impatient progressives and nervous moderates. Maybe Biden is so skilled that he can do that, but it’s a huge challenge for him, and Republican fear-mongering about socialism, riots and the Second Amendment apparently proved effective.

In the long run, however, the Republicans need to address their problems among the educated, their weakness among voters of color and their difficulties in the suburbs. They can hang on for five or 10 years or more, but sooner or later what Taylor calls the Next America will overwhelm them.

In the meantime, the country must rely on: a president who leads a divided party, turns 78 on Nov. 20 and faces incredible challenges; a House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, promising his party will win the House in two years; and a combative, very partisan, 78-year-old Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, whose GOP colleagues are better known for confrontation than compromise.

Good luck, America. You’ll need it.

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