In a charged and partisan election, the people decisively chose – divided government. Sometimes, American democracy can have you weeping with joy and laughing at the same time.
At the time of writing, much could still happen. President Trump is down but not quite out yet, and he has nothing to lose from election litigation. While the lack of compelling evidence of ballot fraud suggests it’s unlikely to succeed, it might just serve a useful purpose in ripping the band-aid off the still-painful wound of Bush v. Gore (well worth reading). It might also bring out of the shadows some skullduggery in the clandestine war between Republicans (wanting strict and demanding registration and polling requirements) and Democrats (wanting easy registration, lightly supervised voting and lots of counting discretion for local officials), both believing that it makes all the difference in tight elections.
But there was no blue wave. Republicans seem likely to retain control of the Senate and improve their position in the House of Representatives. If it stays like this, it will pose challenges for a new President Biden.
There would be little chance of his passing legislation to implement the most partisan and job-sapping bits of the Democratic policy platform (read here for a scary assessment – from Republican-leaning economists). That might be quite a good thing. He will need Senate approval to confirm his appointments to the government and the federal bench. And if he tries to govern by regulation (as President Obama did for most of his eight years), the Supreme Court has a newly-minted majority with a deep dislike of federal overreach.
Indeed the best policy might be to follow Donald Trump and not do very much at all. Ditching the Democratic platform would certainly enhance Biden’s reputation as a centrist and perhaps even guarantee his re-election. As this would horrify the professional Democrats who will staff up his administration, it looks like the ideal opportunity to find out what Joe Biden really wants to get done and how smart he can be in working with his opponents to do it.
Given the clear partisan division in this election, Democrat strategists ought to be a little worried by the tepid endorsement.
Taking the long view, the Democrats can now reasonably be regarded as the party of orthodoxy: of government solving problems and in a characteristic way. Yet for thirty years, they have mostly failed to convince the public to increase the state’s tax take. This means they have no easy and acceptable answer to the long-term demand for more state help with growing medical costs. In education, schools have got a bit better, while universities are fixated with politically-appropriate orthodoxy. The media and public bodies seem to be moving closely behind. And flagship policies for the future appear to have the government specifying in mind-numbing and expensive detail how large sectors of the economy will be run: how buildings are constructed, cars are made, power is generated, stored, transmitted and used.
Well – you must agree that there is a consistency to it. And Trump has not articulated a counter-programme to match. But perhaps that doesn’t matter right now. Because while other right of centre political leaders around the world have jibbed at details or offered to do this stuff better, only Trump has wholeheartedly declared war on orthodoxy.
For sure, America’s Republicans will eventually have to come up with a position which can more effectively reconcile the public demand for state action with their mistrust of effective market mechanisms. But in the meantime, the Trumpian no has a lot of power. It’s hard to see who would stop him if he wants to be the party’s nominee for a rematch in 2024.
And until the policy battle is resolved, do nothing doesn’t look a bad choice. Because when you look at the repetitive trend of orthodox public policy, you might think that Messrs Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg and their imitators are the folk doing the the stuff with the greatest potential to change society through innovation, technology and growth.