“Is this he you want now to make a god? … God! Who will worship this god, who will believe in him? While you make gods of such as he, no one will believe you to be gods.”
Seneca, “Apocolocyntosis: The Pumpkinification of Claudius”
Watching the 2020 US presidential election wind down to its conclusion and farcical aftermath brought ancient satire to mind. President Donald Trump, who tweeted his way through a full presidential term, getting himself impeached along the way, descended into childish self-caricature as he refused for weeks to acknowledge defeat.
Challenger Joe Biden, after eight years as Barack Obama’s sidekick, and known, as recently as last year, more for his “senior moments” and embarrassing gaffes, has now been declared the “wise statesman” whose calm and rational leadership will rescue the US from the morass that it finds itself in. The entire scenario reads like something out of Juvenal, but such is the stuff that comprises current American politics.
In the end, Joe Biden did win the 2020 US presidential election, but just barely. So, after a four-year interlude, the US political extravaganza appears to be returning to its “regularly scheduled programming.” Trump remains in command until Jan. 20, when Biden is inaugurated, but he is now a lame duck.
Trump always had difficulty getting the career bureaucrats (to whom he misapplied the term “deep state”) to follow his orders, and they now have no incentive to carry out any of his bidding. Most likely he will not accomplish anything that falls outside his political appointees’ limited powers.
For now, Democratic Party supporters are celebrating, and triumphalist rhetoric falls thickly over its half of US media. American democracy, no matter how hobbled by Trump’s excesses, still operates, and the system continues to chug along. As I guessed four years ago , Trump did extensive damage to both America’s system and its image, but he did not bring about its final ruin. Biden supporters claim they will now “build back better” American society and its political system.
Trump is only a symptom, not the disease
Once Trump’s defeat became clear, the tendency in the (pro-Democratic Party) US media was to cast the Trump era as an aberration in US political history, implying that once Biden took office, life would go back to normal. This is self-delusion. Trump is only a symptom of a malady that afflicts the Republican Party specifically, and US politics more generally.
The Republican Party has not had strong socio-political planks in its platform since the Democrats stole essentially all of the important social issues from them in the 1930s and 1940s. From that time on, the Republicans depended on charismatic personalities, culture wars, and missteps by Democratic presidents (such as Lyndon Johnson’s inept handling of Vietnam or Jimmy Carter’s inability to stifle inflation) to win presidential elections.
Even though the Democratic Party maintained a focus on traditional socio-political questions during the intervening decades, US politics in general began to revolve around image and identity rather than the search for reasonable and democratically-legitimate solutions to the problems facing the society. Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president cemented the triumph of image over content.
The Reagan years also undermined the Democrats’ commitment to traditional socio-political issues. Bill Clinton’s winning 1992 platform even adopted fiscal and economic policy stances that were nearly indistinguishable from the Republican Party’s. The rise of 24-hour cable news and social media have been identified as factors driving the US political narrative towards the lowest common denominator, but the intellectual decline of public US dialogue was manifest well before the 1990s. Trump is only the most recent result of that long-term deterioration.
Despite the Democrats’ celebratory mood, the fundamental trends in US society and politics that led to Trump’s presidency have not disappeared. The already abysmal state of US public dialogue continues to erode. Racism is still a dominant, if not THE dominant problem plaguing US society.
Deepening inequality, poverty, anemic economic growth, limited education and job opportunities, disintegrating, obsolete, or insufficient infrastructure, and the lack of a truly national health care system all continue to blight American lives and are the fundamental reasons for the US’ immense COVID-19 death toll.
The Electoral College remains an archaic, anti-democratic institution that prevents the true direct election of US presidents. Congress most likely will remain dysfunctional with the Senate under Republican Party control and the House of Representatives under Democratic Party control.
Imagining that Joe Biden, whose bland moderateness was the main factor that won him the Democratic Party candidacy and who will become an octogenarian half way through his term as president, can somehow revitalize American society should seem fantastical to any calm observer.
Trump greatly increased his vote count
Trump, despite losing the Electoral College, and despite the past four years’ craziness, garnered 10 million more votes than in 2016, a 15% increase. Voter turnout, on the other hand, was the highest in more than a century: 66%. That turnout is paltry in comparison to Turkish elections, but we should remember that US elections take place on a weekday when many people have to work. That surge in voter turnout, motivated by the political tension and facilitated by mail-in voting, seems to have enabled Biden’s victory.
The extremely slow and problematic vote count continued the recent US presidential election trend of final results remaining unknown for gradually increasing periods of time. When I was a teenager, the results of presidential elections were clear by the late evening hours on the same day.
Now, the tabulation goes on for days; in several states, for more than a week. In the 1980s and 1990s, electronic vote tabulation machines were introduced to US elections with the claim that vote counting would become cheaper and faster. Clearly, no such result has emerged.
In essence, the reluctance of US society to move elections to a weekend (Sunday) and devote the necessary resources (i.e. people and money) to organizing elections that can take place and be finalized on the same day continues to burden US elections, to the overall detriment of the system and society. The Electoral College did eventually swing in Biden’s favor, but its final tally will obscure how truly close the vote was in the swing states.
Egg on pollsters’ faces…
At the same time, US pollsters’ reputations took another beating, which commenced as soon as the results began to roll in on Election Day. After their 2016 debacle, prominent US polling companies and figures loudly promised to identify where their models had failed in order to provide more accurate forecasts in the future.
Only a week before this election, most polls showed Biden with a wide lead over Trump nationwide. The result, once again, made a mockery of almost all those polls. Apparently, the 2016 presidential election did not motivate American pollsters to rethink their statistical models thoroughly or creatively enough. Something, somewhere, is flawed, and remained flawed despite the last presidential election.
However, instead of admitting error, well-known statistics site 538.com, for example, spent plenty of energy on Nov. 4 defending their statistical models, and downplaying the clear evidence that the models utilized by many of the pollsters are faulty. Magical thinking seems to have settled in among the pollsters.
And given that all of the claims about Russian, Chinese, or Iranian election interference disappeared as soon as it became clear that Biden would win, no one will be looking in that direction to provide excuses for the polling failures.
… and more cognitive dissonance for Democrats
The election’s results also threw the Democratic Party into confusion. Although Biden did win, his party expected to emerge with an even stronger grip on the House of Representatives and a possible majority in the Senate. But the results dramatically weakened the party’s House majority, and their hopes for the Senate hang on two runoff contests set for late January. The 2022 midterm elections already look ominous for the Democrats’ control over the House.
The poor results inflamed the party’s internecine sparring between its moderate and progressive wings, which blame each other for the losses. The friction is also generational, with younger members growing impatient with Nancy Pelosi’s House leadership. Overall, the Democrats do not present the picture of a party happy to have just regained control over the executive branch.
Instead, bickering and finger-pointing dominate the party’s internal dynamics even as Biden moves to appoint long-time Democratic Party functionaries to political positions. That means the party’s in-house strife does not look to be on the wane any time soon.
Harris v. Trump in 2024?
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris appears to be the one exception to the otherwise dreary Democratic Party picture. I predicted last year that Harris would have a long career on the national political stage, but I certainly did not foresee how quickly that would be realized. Harris now becomes not only the first woman US vice president, but also will enjoy an inside track towards the presidency itself.
Biden will be, by a wide margin, the oldest person to assume the presidency in US history, which means that he may opt to not run for a second term in 2024. As a consequence, the Democratic Party will most likely work to heighten Harris’ profile over the next four years in preparation for a 2024 candidacy.
Many observers, believing that the US political trajectory will continue towards more diversity, also see Harris’s personality – female, black, Caribbean, South Asian, and relatively young – as assets for the Democratic Party. They discern a trend away from the white, male patriarchs that (Barack Obama notwithstanding) have dominated US politics up to this point.
Nonetheless, the large numbers of and fervent support provided by Trump’s supporters should urge caution while making broad statements about America’s political future. Clearly, tens of millions of Americans, and not only white Americans, have a different vision of America’s future or are frustrated with the political options that the Democratic Party offers to them. Trump’s supporters have already begun discussing another run for the Presidency in 2024.
Bitter irony for Turkish observers
For those aware of recent Turkish political history, the coverage of this election and its aftermath provided plenty of bitterly ironic scenery. The US media rightly portrayed Trump’s reluctance to concede and his insistence on repeating baseless voting fraud claims as anti-democratic. Little, if any, self-awareness was evident amongst all the sanctimonious posturing.
The New York Times, for example, displayed outrageous myopia while criticizing Trump. The “newspaper of record,” abandoning any pretense of objectivity, led the anti-Trump media campaign for the past four years. Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies are the Times’ justification for such partisanship, but the same publication has, for the past decade, done everything in its power to trumpet the same sort of election fraud accusations against the Turkish government.
In election after election, the Times was the prime international conduit for claims, advanced falsely by the Turkish political opposition or other sources, of vote rigging or manipulated vote tabulation. The claims were every bit as malicious and anti-democratic as Trump’s assertions, and were disproved just as easily, but that made not an iota of difference to the NYT’s coverage.
What about Biden’s foreign policy?
As Biden’s victory became more definite, and the first rigorously tested COVID-19 vaccines were announced as ready for distribution, the global mood brightened considerably. Stock markets began to rise in anticipation of more stable US policy-making. This optimism will undoubtedly continue well past Biden’s January inauguration and into the spring months. The world anxiously awaits signs of Biden’s foreign policy preferences as he prepares to anoint Antony Blinken as his choice for secretary of state.
A week after the election, Biden tweeted, “When I’m speaking to foreign leaders, I’m telling them: America is going to be back. We’re going to be back in the game.” That sentiment mirrors the attitude that Jake Sullivan, a long-time Biden helpmate and Biden’s ostensible choice for national security advisor, recommended in his lengthy essay in The Atlantic magazine early last year.
Unfortunately, Sullivan’s approach overestimates both the world’s need for a leviathan and the level of global willingness to follow the US lead. The world is now overtly multipolar, international issues and interactions have grown far more complex, and the US can no longer assert its will as freely as it did twenty years ago. More to the point is the question of whether a “world-system caretaker” is even necessary. Britain played that role in the 19th century: a generally held view is that Britain’s decline and the US’ refusal to fill Britain’s shoes after World War I led to multipolarity, revisionist powers, and eventually World War II.
During World War II, the US finally shouldered the role formerly filled by Britain, and has asserted its presence as the “indispensable nation” since. But is it possible that multipolarity is the “new normal” for the world system? Have nuclear weapons and the intricate multinational industrial production chains made “Great Powers” war too risky and economically devastating for potential participants?
No matter what, the world is weary of American attitudes, mistakes, and double standards. The success of Biden’s foreign policies will depend on his (and Blinken’s) ability to recognize in what ways the world has changed, to reevaluate America’s interests, to respect the interests of its partners, and to formulate policy accordingly. America can no longer depend on overawing the global community; America’s mortality is evident to all, and successful foreign policy will depend more on negotiation and, especially, compromise than ever before. If Biden and Blinken insist on “American exceptionalism,” the next four years will prove to be a rocky journey indeed.