On January 20, 2021, at high noon, Joe Biden will take the oath of office as President of the United States. This is of enormous import, marking the end of a deeply destructive presidency. It is a moment to celebrate. Otherwise, the 2020 elections were mostly bitterly disappointing for Democrats.

While it’s true that a Democrat won a plurality of the vote for the seventh time in the past eight presidential elections, and with all due caveats about how American political structures give Republicans a minoritarian advantage, America is deadlocked. This is especially bad news for liberals. Yes, progressive legislation will continue to pass in places like California. And the Biden administration will certainly use aggressive executive action to advance some progressive goals. But hopes for a major overhaul of our national health care system, sustainable action on climate change, D.C. statehood, and even a new infusion of liberal federal judges are, for the foreseeable future, DOA.

For years now, many liberals, including myself, have believed/hoped that demography is destiny—that, as America becomes more non-white and as liberal Gen-Zers and late millennials account for a bigger share of the electorate, Republicans are doomed. And that may still be true— eventually! But life, as they say, is complicated. Republicans are becoming ever more extreme and overtly intolerant in a country that is only becoming more diverse. It’s also the case that a majority of Americans never liked Trump; they recoil, for example, at the disgraceful and baseless efforts of the Trumpian GOP to overturn Biden’s victory.

But a Golden Age of liberal ascendancy does not automatically follow from that reality.

Why not?

For one thing, many more Americans consider themselves “conservative” than they do “liberal.” And about as many Americans call themselves moderate as they do conservative. Political scientists talk about operational and symbolic ideology. The former refers to specific policy goals and preferences people might have, while the latter captures people’s larger sense of worldview. Ballot measures like a $15 minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, and drug decriminalization and legalization continue to enjoy consistent success at the polls. In Florida, for example, such a measure won overwhelmingly on election night, even as Trump was carrying the state. What explains that seeming contradiction? Many Americans are operationally liberal but symbolically conservative. The result is often good news on referenda, but bad news in the corridors of power. 

What about those demographic changes? There’s been much discussion of how Hispanic/Latinx voters tilted slightly more toward Trump than was the case in 2016, though two-thirds still voted against him, according to exit polls. Likewise, there was an uptick in support for Trump among Black men, though Biden still won that group by more than 60 points. All of which contributed to the widely reported and somewhat shocking fact that Trump won a larger (if still abysmal) share of the non-white vote than any Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1960. In other words, while the electorate is becoming less white, which is good for Democrats, it’s also changing in complex ways, with non-white voters perhaps a tad more up for grabs than Democrats wished. 

But the nub of the problem, frankly, remains white voters. They still make up two-thirds of the electorate. Though college-educated white people have shifted toward the Democrats, many are not necessarily progressive and may dislike Trump more than they like Democrats. White people without a college education, meanwhile, have become even more reliably conservative.

So, though Biden did slightly better among white voters than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, he still lost that group by 20 points. What about voters aged 18-29, considered the most liberal cohort in American history? It turns out that a key explanation for that cohort’s liberalism is that it’s the least white in American history. Among white voters in that age range, according to one exit poll, Trump still prevailed by nearly ten points.

In sum, at least in the near term, demography is not destiny for Democrats—and nor is it for the progressive agenda, since the Democratic Party remains the only viable conduit for that agenda. Instead, America’s future is an ugly, muddy slog. Which means it will require an ongoing struggle to achieve even some of the goals we believe in.

JONATHAN WEILER is a teaching professor in global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Comment on this column at backtalk@indyweek.com

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