The ‘In-Between’ Election, the ‘In-Between’ Year

By Kyle Wingfield

Merriam-Webster will surely pick a pandemic-related term as 2020’s “word of the year.” Coronavirus, social distancing or quarantine would be apt.

My choice is “liminal,” which that dictionary defines as “of, relating to, or being (in) an intermediate state, phase, or condition: in-between, transitional.” That not only describes the way we’ve been living since March, but – I believe – explains this election.

Vote counting was still underway as I wrote, and there will be recounts and lawsuits. But the time required to determine a winner is only part of what I mean when I call this the liminal election.

For months, we’ve occupied a transitional state: in between the old normal of going to the office or school every day, attending large gatherings, shaking hands, traveling freely, and … whatever comes next. Numerous opinion polls indicate Americans are unsure what we want in a “new normal.” But from school to work and more, it appears we don’t want to return to the old status quo.

Amid this liminal space, we held a highly consequential election. Americans voted to stay “in between” a little while longer. The results indicate voters rejected Donald Trump personally, but also the radical platform Joe Biden brokered with Bernie Sanders. Consider, as of this writing:

  • The Democrats seemed unlikely to take control of the U.S. Senate as expected, and the two runoffs in Georgia gave Republicans a chance to come out of the election with a net loss of just one seat.
  • In the U.S. House, where Democrats sought to expand their 38-seat majority, Republicans had already won 194 seats and led in 20 other races – potentially whittling the Democratic majority to seven seats.
  • With those outcomes, Biden would be the first new president since George H.W. Bush to enter the White House without his party controlling both chambers of Congress.
  • Biden’s lack of coattails extended to the state level, where his party lost a governorship to the GOP, had not gained control of a single state legislative chamber, and lost control of two.
  • Voters in Illinois rejected an income-tax increase on “the rich,” and Californians turned down such progressivist priorities as increasing taxes on businesses, lowering the voting age, establishing rent control, and forcing companies such as Uber and Lyft to treat contractors as employees.

This was an electorate that sized up both parties and didn’t want either to start shaping that “new normal.” So we’ll get at least two more years of gridlock in Washington, which isn’t a terrible thing.

There has been much speculation that Biden, about to turn 78, will only serve one term. That would present a rare scenario: Not counting presidents who died in office or resigned, the last time Americans elected a president to one term, and then elected his successor to only one term, was in 1884, 1888 and 1892. Even then, the same man, Grover Cleveland, won the first and third elections. But 1896 brought a political realignment and paved the way for the Progressive Era.

The only other time that scenario played out, the presidents were Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. The Civil War followed.

I’m not predicting war, but another realignment is due. For all the times Trump was accused of being a racist or xenophobe, preliminary exit poll data indicate he won the largest share of the nonwhite vote of any GOP nominee since 1960 – the last election before the Civil Rights Act. He won the second-largest share in 2016.

Clearly, some of the old political fault lines are giving way to new ones. For various reasons, neither Trump nor Biden could complete the realignment. After a year of living in liminal space, Americans seem unprepared to commit to a new political order just yet.

In four years, it may be a different story. By then, the country should have pulled through the pandemic and may have begun to coalesce around a new direction. After this election, both Democrats and Republicans have a chance to set that direction.


Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.

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