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The real America is center-left

Another popular-vote victory by a Democratic presidential candidate speaks to the country’s true political orientation. But too often, the will of the people is thwarted.

Joe Biden speaks one day after Americans voted in the presidential election, in Wilmington, Delaware.Drew Angerer/Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty

Joe Biden will be the 46th president of the United States. That’s due, above all else, to a simple yet often unrecognized fact: America is a center-left country.

That might seem far-fetched if you picture the big patches of red on election-night maps, but consider this basic fact: Biden will win the popular vote. As of Friday, when this column went to press, he led by more than 4 million votes, and that number seemed likely to rise.

That means Democrats will have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. That has never happened before in American history. And when you look more closely at the numbers, the scope of Democratic dominance becomes clearer. Since 1988, Republicans have won more than 47.9 percent of the popular vote once. Democrats have done it in every election except one — the 1992 contest, when Ross Perot received 19 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate.

In 2016, Donald Trump became the second Republican in 16 years to take the White House without winning the popular vote. His Electoral College total of 304 votes was the most won by a Republican candidate since 1988 (Trump won 306 but two electors refused to vote for him). Democrats have topped that number four times in that period, and on Friday, Biden seemed poised to match it.


In short, the Democratic Party has become the nation’s presidential party. If we lived in a country with a normal political system, where the person with the most votes became president, millions of Americans wouldn’t have spent Thursday evening and Friday morning constantly refreshing the vote totals for Georgia and Pennsylvania. And pundits would be asking Republicans why they have failed so miserably at appealing to average American voters in places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.


Of course, we don’t live in that country. We reside in one where the political system is guided by an antiquated electoral system that gives disproportionate power to small, rural states. So even though Democrats have a stranglehold on the popular vote, it is Republicans who have a stranglehold on the nation’s political agenda. GOP presidents have appointed six of the nine Supreme Court justices, even though voters have consistently chosen Democrats to have that responsibility. And it is Republicans who will continue to have a majority in the United States Senate, in large measure because of their small-state advantage.

Consider, for example, that California and New York have a combined population of 59 million people and get four votes in the Senate. That’s the same number as Wyoming and Alaska, two states with a combined population of 1.3 million people.

That seemingly unbreakable structural advantage for the GOP has taken what should have been a big election for Democrats — defeating an incumbent president — and turned it into a bittersweet moment.

Since Democrats were unable to defeat Republican Senate candidates in predominately Republican states like Montana, Iowa, and South Carolina, they will, once again, struggle to enact their policy agenda, even though it has the broad support of the American people.

While it’s easy to point the finger at Democrats for their failure to break through, it’s not as if the party didn’t recruit strong candidates and raise oodles of cash for them. In an era of intense political polarization, that simply wasn’t enough. With the exception of Susan Collins of Maine, no Senate candidate appears to have prevailed in a state won by the other party’s presidential nominee. And that works fine for Republicans.


With conservative voters holding sway in enough key states, they didn’t need to moderate their image and appeal to Democratic voters. They could simply ride on Donald Trump’s coattails and rally their base of supporters. And once a new president is inaugurated and a new Senate sworn in, they can follow the same course of action they did with President Obama — obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. The same GOP voters who wouldn’t turn on Donald Trump for his corruption, incompetence, and indecency likely aren’t going to turn on Senate Republicans for blocking Democrats.

None of this, however, stopped political pundits from suggesting that Democrats need to engage in soul-searching and think about how they can appeal to voters who pulled the lever for Republicans this year. But how exactly do Democrats appeal to those so unbothered by Trump’s tenure as president? How do they win in states where bear-hugging the president and enabling his bad behavior is rewarded?

In one sense, the pundits are right — soul-searching is in order. But not just for Democrats — for all Americans. How can any of us take pride in a democracy that is so unrepresentative and so susceptible to gridlock and dysfunction? Defeating Donald Trump was a vital accomplishment, but the work of creating a government that represents the will of the American people has only just begun.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.