One way to interpret the results of the 2020 election is that voters want their political leaders to keep fighting with one another.
By that theory, voters appear to have narrowly replaced Donald Trump with Joe Biden, left the Senate with a slim Republican majority, and kept the House under slightly diminished Democratic control because they crave more dysfunction and mutual recrimination. They hope that Bernie Sanders, the Squad, and their allies will lean hard on Biden to be "the most progressive president in American history," that the most Trumpian members of the GOP caucus will obstruct Biden on everything, and that the resulting ideological warfare will generate maximum anger and minimal achievement.
The hypothesis fits the election results. But does any rational person believe it's what most Americans want?
Here's a contrary premise: Americans voted for less drama and strife, not more. They endorsed no sweeping transformation, and would like Washington to govern accordingly. They want the next president not to repeat the mistake that Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush made — claiming that the election supplied a mandate for an ambitious legislative agenda and a green light to pursue it by any means necessary. Most Americans, I suggest, would rather get through the next four years without major bills being passed on rigid party-line votes, without sharp policy shifts for which there is no consensus, without the Senate refusing to confirm White House nominees, and without the president resorting to rule by executive order.
There are hotheads and bellicose ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum. But that doesn't describe most voters, and it doesn't describe Biden. He entered the presidential race talking about his long training in the importance of making compromises to get things done, and to the dismay of some Democratic progressives, it remained a consistent theme of his bid for the White House. He sounded it again on Wednesday, saying that once the vote-counting is finished, Americans must make it a priority "to put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us, to lower the temperature, . . . to listen to one another."
Needless to say, that isn't the way Trump speaks. The 45th president proved better at burning bridges than building them. Some of his most significant accomplishments on Capitol Hill — the 2017 tax cuts, the confirmation of three Supreme Court justices, his acquittal by the Senate in the impeachment trial — relied almost wholly on one-party support.
To be fair, the scourge of no-compromise voting antedates Trump. The Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, two of Obama's most significant successes, were passed largely along party lines. Conversely, Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare were also passed by the House or the Senate with unipartisan backing. The measures went nowhere, but they reflected the inflexibility that has become such a part of Washington culture.
Just as bad is the accelerating trend of presidents imposing controversial policies through executive orders — what Obama called his "pen and phone" approach. Bush unilaterally ordered the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the war on terror, flouting the prohibition of torture under US law. Obama acknowledged that he had no authority to waive the deportation of the undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, but then did so anyway in 2012. After Congress refused funding for a massive wall on the Mexican border, Trump declared that an "emergency" empowered him to spend the money without authorization.
All this has taken place against a background of rising partisan flak, the demonizing of moderates as sellouts or shills, and a steady decline in the public's faith that the government can solve major problems.
A new administration genuinely offers a chance to "lower the temperature," but it means that the new president cannot claim a bold mandate or decree top-down "reforms" that half the country will resent. With Congress still divided, court-packing, D.C. statehood, and the Green New Deal are off the table anyway. For Biden, that's a blessing: It frees him to govern from the center and show that he was serious about being the healer-in-chief. It will let him focus on measures for which there is bipartisan support: more humane detention policies at the border, an end to unpopular trade wars, a non-politicized pandemic relief bill.
Republicans must do their part, too. Senator Mitch McConnell needs to emphasize not that he wants to make Biden a one-term president — as he infamously said about Obama in 2010 — but that he is ready and willing to work with Biden on reducing the country's partisan fever. With a longtime Senate colleague in the White House, McConnell ought to relish the chance to craft legislation that both Democrats and Republicans can support. Many Democrats regard McConnell as an implacable Machiavellian foe determined to strangle the Biden administration in its cradle. I would argue instead that he is as much an institutionalist as Biden is, and that the two old warhorses have it within them to shape a consensus that straddles party lines and drains some of the toxicity from our political culture.
At the end of an apocalyptic campaign, Americans voted, it appears, to change their president but not much else. To the firebrands, that may be an excuse to keep fighting. For the next president and Congress, it's an invitation to make things better.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.