As Joe Biden is declared winner of the presidential race, there is a long road ahead to reconstructing American democracy, economy and society.
Fortunately for the Democrats, winning the US election proved easier than in managing expectations around it. The results were far closer than many dared to fear – but this time the Democratic candidate finished just on the right side. For all the proximity of the swing states, Joe Biden received record support across the nation.
But while the election may be over, Biden now faces the challenge of unifying a country fraught with division. The election shows Americans are still no longer simply competing tribes: they exist in alternative universes to one another. And there are deep structural reasons for these divisions that go beyond Donald Trump.
How did we get here? Three transfers of power
Over the course of the last century the US has been through three different transfers of power.
The first was a mass transfer of wealth. Capital has taken an increasing slice of the economic pie since the 1970s onwards. Alongside this, there has been the spread of insecure work, low pay, and worsening conditions. The super-rich have afforded themselves luxury while buying political influence to further embed their wealth and power.
Places that relied on the more equitable model of late-stage industrial capitalism saw well-paid work decline and their economic landscape blighted. This demoralised people and places alike. Humiliation and insecurity are an explosive political mix. In some ways, there was obvious psychological appeal from an outsider billionaire who didn’t play along with the polite melodies of respectable America.
Entwined with this was the second shift, of geopolitical and economic power to China and East Asia. No sooner was the Cold War won, it was lost as the same places experienced a ‘China shock’ upon the Asian power’s entry to the World Trade Organisation. Fed easy lines of resentment by rabble-rousing politicians, personal and local humiliation seemed to be mirrored in national humiliation – the North American Free Trade Agreement never had the same explosive impact. However, immigration from countries to the south certainly did. That wall is in construction.
From the personal to the local and the national, a desire for esteem and self-respect created an allure around wanting to see greatness once again. Strangely, in 2020 this intoxicating notion of macho authority seems to have attracted some small numbers in groups previously more resistant to Trump’s appeal, including some Latinos and African Americans. Conversely, some white working class men seemed to be bored of Trump, facing Covid-related unemployment and deep insecurity once again. The picture is more complex this time around than in 2016.
No political story in America is complete without at least one chapter, and perhaps a driving narrative, on race. Nixon was the first candidate to see the potential for using race as a motivator for white working-class Americans to reach for the Republicans. When cornered, Republican candidates reach for race as did George H.W. Bush with the Willie Horton ads in 1988. In the case of Donald Trump, it was first instinct rather than last resort.
Many will be surprised at the inclusion of race as a third transfer of power. Certainly, the pace of change is glacial and deep injustices persist in a society that had formally institutionalised slavery, segregation and racial inequality of economic, political and civil rights. And indeed, despite the small progress in culture, aggregate economic life and politics, African Americans and other people of colour still are fearful for their lives, and have diminished access to justice and opportunity. Yet a significant transfer of power is perceived amongst those attracted to Trump. And they have been persuaded by the likes of the outgoing President that this is a transfer, a zero sum, when it should be anything but.
So, after half a century of economic and psychological loss, real and perceived, the logical end point was a Trump presidency – even if few foresaw it. These transfers of power are also interconnected. The wealthy have protected their privilege by investing in a politics that has torn America asunder, while setting it increasingly on a collision course with international adversary and ally alike.
And this is where we are today: wealth and privilege protected by demoralised citizens set against each other in mutual incomprehension.
The long road ahead
Joe Biden’s victory resolves none of this immediately. At least, though, it forms a backstop. Goodness only knows where a second Trump term would have ended – further decay of checks and balances, increased President-motivated violence on the streets, belligerence overseas, and the further shredding of the social safety net all seem both possible and likely. Trump won’t go quietly, and the likes of Proud Boys, Wolverine Watchmen, and Boogaloo wait to do their pathetic worst. But now at least they won’t be egged on by the occupant of White House.
This new presidency will be about the real art of the deal. Joe Biden will have to work with the Senate, and there are a small number of Republican senators he can do business with. He will have to think through how the nation’s parallel universes can be persuaded to intersect and he will have to name the reality of what has happened to America, and how it has arrived at this point. When Obama wanted a deal done on Capitol Hill, it was Biden he sent over there. More often than not, he came back with the goods. And already, on the day that the US formally withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, Joe Biden committed to re-join immediately upon inauguration.
Trumpism hasn’t gone. But at least America now has a chance to pull away; to begin a democratic, economic and societal reconstruction, albeit slowly. There’s a job to be done across American society – and the road ahead is as fraught as it long. Yet, change is gonna come.