Reflections on the US Election

08.11.20 Publication:

After all the arguments about Russian interference in 2016, the US presidential and
congressional elections of 2020 feel like a rather majestic democratic achievement.
Emotionally, yes, that is partly because Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump restores
one’s faith that justice can be done and truth can prevail. But also because it was so
impressive in technical as well as political terms: the highest turnout in any presidential
election since 1900, in an election conducted in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, and yet
without any apparent problems, either of violence or procedural breakdown.

This places the 2020 election well ahead of the previous disputed election, that of
2000, when a very close race between George W Bush and Al Gore came down to a few
hundred damaged paper ballots in Florida, where voters still then used 1950s-era machines
to cast their votes. At that time, American democracy looked antiquated, and it famously
required a decision from the Supreme Court to choose the next president. In 2020,
American democracy looks much healthier, modern and efficient.

After offering such praise, it is necessary to reflect on some other realities, however.
The first is that the result of the election is not one capable of giving hope about decisive,
reforming or transformative action by the new Biden administration. This is because Joe
Biden’s Democratic Party lost seats in the House of Representatives where it now has quite
a small majority, and unless it pulls off a miracle in two run-off votes for Senate seats in
Georgia in early January it will not win control of the Senate.

This will allow the Republican Party to block major legislation that it does not like,
especially legislation that requires funding. The way is set for a war of attrition in Congress,
designed to ensure, from a Republican point of view, that the 2022 mid-term congressional
elections stand a chance of strengthening that party’s position and giving it a better chance
of winning back the White House in 2024. In America, elections never end. They just hit the
‘pause’ button.

The second reality is that although it is undoubtedly very positive that Donald Trump
was defeated, quite clearly defeated in the popular vote and fairly clearly in the electoral
college, it would be a terrible mistake to assume that Trump is finished. All Italians will know
that Silvio Berlusconi has never considered any defeat or setback to be conclusive. Like
Berlusconi, the billionaire media-creature that is Donald Trump can thrive only when he is in
the spotlight. So unless health or legal cases intervene, Trump will do everything that he can
to continue to command public attention.

Once he has accepted the result of the 2020 election, it is most likely that Trump will
immediately start planning how he can make a comeback and run again as a candidate for
the presidency in 2024. Having gained 70 million votes and having become America’s top
political celebrity, he must stand a fairly good chance of again winning the Republican
Party’s nomination. This is not a certainty and many in the Republican Party will be very
keen to get rid of him. But it must be taken seriously as a prospect.

Trump will seek to set himself up as leader of the opposition. As such, the Democrats
and anti-Trump Republicans must learn another lesson from Berlusconi: it is a terrible
mistake to try to compromise with men like them, as Massimo d’Alema did, for example, in                                                    the 1990s over conflict of interest laws and hoped-for constitutional change. Trump, like
Berlusconi, will take any deal offered and then renege on whatever promises he has made.
The right approach will be to seek to marginalise him, not to do deals with him.

But let us not make this analysis all about Trump, even if he will remain an important
force in American, and therefore world, politics. The new Biden administration, even
without winning control in the Senate, can be expected to bring the following big changes
compared with the past four years of Trump.

Change number one is the restoration of competence and expertise at the centre of
policy-making. Trump’s Cabinet was largely filled by loyalists regardless of competence, with
the sole exception of his highly effective US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer. The
Biden Cabinet and other federal appointments will bring back personnel who have
experience and skills, especially in facing up to the most immediate crisis, namely the
coronavirus pandemic and the economic emergency.

Change number two is that the Biden administration is likely to try to be as
bipartisan as possible, both to symbolise its claimed objective of re-uniting a divided country
but also as a way to increase its chances of passing legislation through a hostile Senate.
Having spent 47 years as a Senator, President-elect Biden is particularly well suited to
negotiating bipartisan deals in Congress. He may be the likeliest president to succeed in this
way since Lyndon B Johnson in the 1960s, who was similarly an experienced Senator.

Change number three is that the Biden administration will seek to work with
America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia, rather than attacking and insulting them as if
they were enemies, as Trump tended to do. America is in a weakened position thanks to the
pandemic and yet the world is going to face crises in the coming couple of years that will
require US leadership, such as a new sovereign debt crisis in the developing countries. Biden
will have the will to lead in such crises, but he will only be able to craft solutions by working
with allies, through multilateral institutions. At least for the next four years, we will no
longer see “America First” or “America Alone”, as under Trump, but rather an America that
again tries to be the leader of the West.

This, however, also brings on change number four, which is that in order to exercise
that leadership the United States will have to find a way of engaging with and co-operating
with the country that Trump has most clearly cast as its enemy: China. Biden will not be soft
on China, but he will understand that if the world is to make any progress on common
problems then some sort of agreement between the two superpowers will be essential.

What President-elect Biden and the first female vice-president, Kamala Harris, will
not have at their disposal is a magic wand. They will inherit a high public debt, a huge
federal deficit and a vast domestic crisis surrounding the pandemic. Hopefully, they may
have a crucial ingredient of politics, namely luck: the luck to arrive in office just at the time
when the first effective vaccines against covid-19 become available. If so, the task of federal
and state authorities will be to manage the logistics of a mass vaccine programme, which is
an easier challenge than that of guiding social behaviour during a time of mass infections.

So they could arrive just when there is light appearing at the end of the pandemic
tunnel. This might make it easier for them to persuade Congress to pass an American
version of the European Union’s Next Generation Fund, in other words a large programme
of public investment to rebuild infrastructure and to re-set America’s economy and society
for the future. There is a big danger that the Republican Party may try to block this. But
some sort of reconstruction effort is going to be needed.

We must all hope that they succeed in creating some kind of bipartisan consensus
around this. For all of us, in Europe as in the rest of the world, need a stronger, stabler,
more socially cohesive America. We need to find solutions to our own social and economic
ailments while we are waiting to see whether Biden and Harris can solve America’s. But our
success will nevertheless be made likelier if America can succeed to. And all of us must hope
that Trump does not return to the White House after the 2024 election.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay