The Year in Moderation

How did 2020 play out in terms of moderate politics? I’d say it started out bad, got much worse and then finished in positive, even hopeful, territory.

You could divide the year into three parts. There was most of the first quarter when the economy looked strong, Donald Trump’s prospects for reelection were real and the nation was just as dug in as ever into their tribal trenches. The middle of the year was filled with dashed hopes and even deeper divisions. But by November, despite his endless protests to the contrary, we had voted out the Divider-in-Chief and were set to replace him with a sensible left-center moderate. Let’s review.

In March the pandemic hit with its first wave. For a brief period there seemed to be a flicker of hope that this crisis might bring the country together. After all, the enemy wasn’t ideological or even human. It was a virus. Couldn’t humanity unite to defeat a virus?

Guess not. COVID-19 only served to deepen our divisions. Those who followed science-based public health advice to avoid gatherings and to social distance were reviled by those who said it was “just the flu.” Common sense public health advice was cast as a threat to fundamental freedoms. Masks became political symbols. Fist fights broke out over wearing them or not wearing them.

Then in May, George Floyd was killed at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The initial reaction was justified anger and the hope that this murder, so clearly wrong and so well-documented, might be the thing that led to real, positive change on a range of social issues. Early polls showed strong support for the various Black Lives Matter movements.

Then, like the pandemic fight, things turned sour. An entire Seattle neighborhood was taken over by activists, providing awful optics for the movement. Portland erupted into nightly protests, some violent. In late June, here in Madison protesters tore down a statue of a Civil War hero, Hans Christian Heg, who had been a lifelong abolitionist and who had lost his life fighting to end slavery. Just for good measure, they also ripped down Forward, a statue of a young woman that symbolized Wisconsin’s progressive tradition and had been a rallying point for gender equality marches and other events. On the same night a liberal state senator was beaten up just for daring to take a picture of the protesters. (Disdain for any recording of protests and even for the working press has become an unfortunate hallmark of the movement.)

And through it all protesters everywhere took up the chant to “defund the police.” If there was ever a slogan calculated to alienate people who would otherwise be on your side this is it.

Not surprisingly, support for the protests and for the BLM movement associated with it plummeted. According to a September Pew Research report, support for BLM fell from 67% in June to 55% and strong support went from 38% to 29%.

A few months later in Kenosha a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot six times in the back by police, leaving him paralyzed. More justified anger and protests ensued. And now it was the far right that went way too far. Armed thugs (there’s no other way to describe them; they don’t deserve to be called even a militia) showed up to counter the racial justice protesters. One of their number, a seventeen year-old from Illinois, shot and killed two protesters with a semi-automatic rifle he had been carrying illegally.

Incredibly (although we shouldn’t be surprised by anything by now) a national movement sprung up to support the shooter. Over two million dollars was raised in a short period to pay his cash bail. His family even went so far as to sell hats and other gear to support his defense. (The vendor has since dropped the project.)

So, for those of us who want to see the country less polarized, the middle of the year was disastrous. Horrible events that might have brought us together only tore us more deeply apart.

Then came the November elections. I was among those who was hoping for a robust repudiation of Donald Trump and everything he stood for. That didn’t happen. Republicans — now thoroughly the party of Trump — picked up seats in the House when they were expected to lose some. Democrats, who had a real chance of taking back the Senate, now find themselves counting on long shot victories in Georgia. And Republicans did well in state house and governors’ races, setting up another round of extreme political gerrymandering.

In fact, the Democrats lost every state legislative chamber they had targeted. It’s not unlikely that slogans like “defund the police” further tarnished the Democratic brand so that voters we were disgusted with Trump were willing to choose Biden but not Democrats they knew less about down the ticket. They voted for Biden, but against his party.

Yet the main task was accomplished. Trump was defeated and defeated easily by a Democratic moderate. Since his election, Joe Biden has performed just as we would expect. Where Trump was bitter even in his 2016 victory, Biden has been magnanimous. Where Trump elevated cronies, Biden has filled his administration with competent, experienced people. Where Trump made wild assertions untethered to reality, Biden is careful with his facts. Where Trump fanned the flames, Biden seeks to lower the temperature.

On policy, Biden is moving the country left-center, just as we should expect. He takes global climate change for the existential threat that it is, but he won’t tilt at windmills with the Green New Deal. He will work to build on Obamacare, not beat his head against a wall trying in vain to win Medicare for all. He understands that something has to be done about the costs of attending college, but he won’t go for free tuition at public universities — I never understood why families earning $500,000 should get the same break as families earning $50,000 in the first place. Instead he’ll move to expand the means-based Pell Grants.

And he’s already reestablishing common sense and support for classical liberal values in our foreign policy instead of cozying up to ruthless dictators.

So, for all the disappointments of 2020, the year finished strong. For four years we’ve been led by a man who drove wedges (pardon the golf pun) ever deeper between us. Appealing to people’s very worst instincts was what Donald Trump did; it was at the very center or his political brand. Now, in Joe Biden, we will have a president who will, at the very least, try to appeal to our better angels.

Happy New Year.

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