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Column: Joe Biden’s hollow victory

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • President-elect Joe Biden speaks Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) AP — Carolyn Kaster

For the Valley News
Published: 12/12/2020 10:10:18 PM
Modified: 12/12/2020 10:10:16 PM

Many viewed Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump as a victory for democracy and an end to the policies Republicans put in place during Trump’s four years in office. A closer look at the election results indicates otherwise.

As Ralph Nader noted immediately after the election in an article on the Common Dreams website, Democrats may have won the White House, and may have a slim chance to gain control of the Senate, but they lost where it counts the most in a census year: in state legislatures and governors’ mansions.

This is a problem for the Democrats because the party in control at the state level will draw the boundaries for both congressional and state legislative districts, boundaries that will remain in place for at least the coming decade.

According to Ballotpedia, as we begin 2021, the GOP will hold the majority in 61 of the 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature). Republicans also hold the governorship in 27 states, and control both the legislature and governor’s office in 24 states — including New Hampshire, where the GOP last month flipped both the House and the Senate.

Because this is a census year, and given the GOP’s proven willingness to hold onto power at any cost, we will likely witness the kind of gerrymandering that took place after the 2010 election, when bizarre district boundaries concocted by GOP operatives assured a disproportionate number of “safe” seats for Republicans.

As a result, over the past decade, we witnessed fewer competitive races and more polarization. Ballotpedia reported that over the past 10 years, 38% of the even-year races at the state level had only one party running, and in 2020, only 9% of the races for the U.S. House of Representatives were viewed as “battleground” (that is, closely competitive) races.

This lack of competition in state elections reinforces the notion that individual votes make no difference — and when voters believe they have no voice, democracy itself suffers.

“Safe” seats also increase polarization. When a state or federal voting district is safe, for either party, it increases the chances that a moderate incumbent might face a primary challenge by a hard-line candidate who advocates the extreme view of the party and who deems any form of compromise weak and detrimental to core beliefs.

In an effort to avoid such a challenge, incumbents tend to avoid seeking a middle ground on contentious issues.

In the GOP, for example, the Tea Party defined the “hard-line” from 2010 through 2016. But since his election in 2016, Donald Trump’s favored candidates have set the tone.

In the Democratic Party, the hard-line agenda is defined by progressives like Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. In recent elections, incumbents in “safe” Democratic and Republican districts have lost to candidates who hold extreme positions. This pulls the parties further away from the ability to compromise, which is the lifeblood of democratic decision-making.

The 2020 election of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a GOP House candidate in Georgia, is an example of the worst possible consequence of this situation.

Greene’s incendiary online videos express racist views and support for QAnon, the conspiracy theory movement that has sparked real violence and had been determined by the FBI to be a potential domestic terrorism threat. Greene, who received the full-throated support of the president, emerged as the GOP nominee when she won a runoff in a “safe” district against a conservative candidate who characterized her as deserving of a YouTube channel but not a seat in Congress. She won the general election easily because the Democrats didn’t field a viable opponent, effectively ceding the seat. It was one of the 90% of House elections that had no real competition.

The Democratic Party’s losses at the state level were surprising given the margin of victory at the top of the ticket — Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes and his 306-232 Electoral College victory is expected to be confirmed on Monday. In addition to setting the stage for more gerrymandering in the coming decade, Republican control of legislatures and governorships means the GOP agenda will prevail at the state level, especially in the 24 states where the GOP has a “trifecta” — control of the House, Senate and governor’s mansion. Those states, which include New Hampshire, will likely see legislative agendas that mirror those of the outgoing Trump administration.

As the Valley News reported last week, New Hampshire Republican legislators have called for a doubling of charter schools, the redirection of public funds to private institutions and the introduction of a constitutional amendment to allow taxpayer money to underwrite religious schools — all echoes of the “choice” mantra of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

And education is not the only area where the GOP agenda will be implemented. I expect to see the New Hampshire Legislature pass bills that compromise the environment under the guise of deregulation, make more guns available in an effort to “defend” the Second Amendment, and compromise worker safety and rights in the name of attracting more businesses to the state. Meanwhile the Biden administration will support legislation and adopt and enforce regulations that do the opposite.

Biden won the battle for the White House over Trump. But with 24 states now pulling in the same direction as the outgoing Trump administration, any “victory” for the Democrats seems hollow. And if gerrymandering at the state level by both parties persists, our democracy will lose.

Wayne Gersen lives in Etna.

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