When every legally cast vote has been counted, Joe Biden will probably have prevailed in enough states to claim victory in the presidential race, perhaps even ending up with a few more Electoral Votes than Donald Trump managed to earn four years ago. That means Trump will probably be out, defeated in his bid for re-election.
But this is not a moment for Democrats to celebrate.
In the expectations game, the Democratic Party whiffed and whiffed badly. The Biden campaign and its allies managed to drive up turnout — but so did Trump. Republicans put up a hell of a fight, and not just, or even mainly, in the battle for the White House. Democrats have almost certainly failed to win a Senate majority, and so far they have lost some ground in the House as well (while still on track to maintain control of the lower chamber of Congress).
That means that Biden is on track to be a weak, ineffectual president governing at the mercy of Mitch McConnell's Machiavellian machinations.
So much for the Democratic fantasy — the one that seemingly never dies — of unobstructed rule. Democrats didn't just want to win and govern in the name of a deeply divided nation's fractured sense of the common good. No, they wanted to lead a moral revolution, to transform the country — not only enacting a long list of new policies, but making a series of institutional changes that would entrench their power far into the future. Pack the Supreme Court. Add left-leaning states. Break up others to give the left huge margins in the Senate. Get rid of the Electoral College. Abolish the police. Rewrite the nation's history, with white supremacy and racism placed "at the very center." Ensure "equity" not just in opportunity but in outcomes. Hell, maybe they'd even establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to teach everyone who voted for or supported the 45th president just how evil they really are.
No wonder so many Republicans turned out to vote. Democrats proved to be the most effective GOTV operation for the GOP imaginable.
Yes, Trump and the Republican cheerleading section online and on cable news and talk radio harped on every extreme proposal. But this wasn't just a function of the fallacy of composition, where one loony activist says something off the wall and the GOP amplifies it far beyond reason in order to tar the opposition unfairly. These were prominent Democrats — progressive politicians, activists, and scholars and prize-winning journalists at leading cultural institutions — talking this way. Joe Biden himself usually did the smart thing and tried to distance himself from the most radical proposals. But in the end it wasn't enough to mollify fears of an ascendant left hell bent on entrenching itself in power and enacting institutional reforms that would enable it to lead a moral, political, and cultural revolution.
And therein lies a paradox that should be obvious but apparently isn't: Democrats live in a country with a large, passionate opposition. Arrogant talk of demographic inevitabilities and transformative changes to lock Republicans out of power in the name of "democracy" has the effect of inspiring that opposition to unite against them, rendering political success less assured and more tenuous.
There will be no court packing. No added states. Nothing from the toxic progressive-fantasy wishlist will come anywhere close to passing. Instead, we will have grinding, obstructive gridlock. Some will demand that Biden push through progressive priorities by executive order. But every time he does — like every incident of urban rioting and looting, every effort to placate the left-wing "Squad" in the House, every micro-targeted identity-politics box-checking display of intersectional moral preening and finger-wagging — the country will move closer to witnessing a conservative backlash that results in Republicans taking control of the House and increasing their margin in the Senate in November 2022, rendering the Biden administration even more fully dead in the water.
That's the playbook. We saw it in 1994, when Republicans leveraged opposition to Bill Clinton's effort to pass health-care reform into a successful effort to take control of the House for the first time in 40 years. We saw it again in 2010, when Republicans leveraged opposition to Barack Obama's successful push to pass the Affordable Care Act into the largest shift of seats in the House in 62 years (and far bigger than the one Democrats managed two years into the Trump administration in 2018). This time the leverage is likely to come from culture-war conflict, but the Republican strategy will be the same.
And that's probably the best-case scenario. It will be far worse if Trump somehow finds enough votes (or sympathetic judges) to enable him to hold onto power by the narrowest of margins, or if he encourages acts of militia-fueled violence in the wake of him failing to find those votes.
Those scenarios wouldn't have been possible if the race hadn't ended up as close as it did.
But it did. And that should give Democrats serious pause. For four years Donald Trump has proven himself a corrupt, mendacious ignoramus utterly unfit for the position he holds. He's led the nation through a pandemic that has left nearly a quarter million dead, is currently surging unchecked across the country, and has devastated the economy. And yet, the current tally shows him beating his showing from 2016 by 3.7 million votes. Trump may well come up short where it counts, but he still gained ground with the electorate relative to four years ago.
So please, Democrats, look in the mirror and show a little humility. You're not nearly as self-evidently wonderful or widely loved as you'd like to believe. You are not destined to prevail anywhere. You share a country with a large group of people who hate your guts, and who aren't going to submit to your rule or go along with your giddy plans to remake the nation in your image. It's time to start acting like you understand this implacable fact and all it implies about the limits of your power and the parameters of the possible.
American politics is a war of attrition right now. The sooner Democrats learn to live with that fact, the better.