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American dilemmas in a post-Trump World : old and new political identities in the turmoil of the culture wars
If anyone needed remembering that the US is still the world’s leading superpower, Election Night proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Not because it constituted a grand, majestic projection of power and international aplomb.

Alexis CHAPELAN

28/11/2020 Region: Global Topic: Various

Source: https://corat.mx/

Is America’s future (still) the world’s?

If anyone needed remembering that the US is still the world’s leading superpower, Election Night proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Not because it constituted a grand, majestic projection of power and international aplomb. On the contrary, the 3rd of November and its aftermath does not appear to be a high-water mark for American democracy: the long, drawn-out counting resulted in a confusing battle of words and victory proclamations which saw the incumbent president – the man still embodying America on the international stage – claim total victory in a race that was still undecided, then proceed to launch baseless fraud claims and demand that the counting process is halted. Twitter and Facebook took steps to limit a series of false claims emanating from the Trump’s campaign[1], and, in an unprecedented gesture of defiance, broadcasters cut away from Donald Trump’s live speech to check-fact his declarations[2]. Much more worryingly, the FBI arrested two heavily armed men in Pennsylvania, having been tipped off they were planning a violent action against a ballot-counting site[3]. In the meanwhile, crowds gathered outside ballot-counting facilities in many of the most contested states, to protest alleged – and until now baseless – fraud accusations. The Trump campaign amplified the accusations and fueled conspiracy theories of forged ballots and faulty bleed-through pens given to Republican voters by malignant Deep State officials[4]. The situation on the ground was tense enough for the police to grant election workers an escort at the end of the night[5]. Election Night was thought to be the political Oscar of the nation, its Thanksgiving Parade, an exercise which, regardless of whether red or blue wins out in the end, served to renew (at least for a while) the democratic pact between American citizens. But this time, there was no spectacle of triumphant democracy, but rather one of a nation bitterly polarized and divided, searching for its ontological core beneath all the noise.

But this is not the most important. The greatest powers are not necessarily the healthiest powers. For almost one week, the world was holding his breath to find out who will be “the most powerful person on the planet”[6]. Few other political events have such an iconic resonance, transcending national boundaries. An international audience watched with the same mixture of apprehension, hope and frustration as American voters the election gridlock, split alongside partisan fault lines that mirror closely those in America itself. Liberal-leaning leaders and organizations expressed shock at Donald Trump’s premature victory cry[7], while populists rallied around the incumbent hoping for a “Trump miracle”[8]. The US’ heated internet battles echoed and were intensely experienced – thanks to the near instantaneous interactivity and virality provided by the new social media – everywhere in the world; from Eastern Europe to Iran and China[9], a flurry of gleeful memes have brought Nevada’s protracted ballot-counting, the intricacies of the US electoral system or Donald Trump’s “stop-the-count” temper tantrums into the new global pop vernacular: this is a powerful testimony not only to the political significance of the America election, but to its immense cultural reach as well. But behind the irreverent playfulness, there was a genuine anxiety, an inescapable sense that the future of America is – still – the future of the world. From a geopolitical standpoint, a Biden-Harris administration will undoubtedly mean more than a shift in the general symbolic decorum of the American foreign policy approach. While the “America First” narrative is set to be quite drastically repudiated, it is however unclear what will replace it. “The power of America’s example”, the motto featuring on the Foreign Policy section of the Biden campaign official webpage[10], seems to be a strong contender. Joe Biden has heavily invested into the idea of American moral leadership, writing in an op-ed piece in Foreign Affairs that “as a nation, we have to prove to the world that the United States is prepared to lead again – not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example.[11]” But such an agenda – grounded mostly in a desire to break with Trump’s unapologetically transactional and disruptive approach – is deliberately vague. The fuzzy contours of the actual policies of a Biden-Harris administration (fuzziness which echoes the equally inchoated populism of the “America First” formula in 2016) leave room for ample questioning. Certain issues – such as the Euro-Atlantic relationship, the Paris Agreement commitments of the USA or the WHO membership – constitute clear campaign promises, embedded into Biden’s central pledge to “heal” the multilateral liberal paradigm roughed up by Trump’s heterodox views. But other aspects of the previous administration’s legacy are much thornier. Three of them, in particular, stand out. Iran, weakened by an economic downturn exacerbated by a particularly virulent coronavirus outbreak, was quick to express a desire to rebuild a relationship with the USA on condition that international sanctions are lifted[12]. Israel, still buoyant after the normalization of relations with the UAE and Bahrein, will accept with difficulty the loss of their best ally in decades and the abrupt demotion that is probably looming[13]. It’s not just Israel which was a winner of Trump’s approach to the Middle East: the Gulf states had built a strong relationship with the Trump administration, grounded in a common hostility to Iran. In the last years of the Obama administration, the US-Saudi relationships, for example, saw a dramatic cooling, so it should come as no surprise that some of the US’s most trusted allies in the region can hardly mask a bitter disappointment with Biden’s victory[14]. But if the Middle East quagmire is concerning, the most pressing issue, with the most global ramifications, remains the future of the relationship with China. Trump’s fraught record created a series of constraints that limit – both materially and symbolically, both externally and internally – Biden’s leeway. The president slash-and-burn rhetoric have done little to thwart China’s rising assertiveness, but succeeded beyond all expectations in one crucial way: being seen as “soft on China” is now a mortal sin in US politics, and no administration will risk paying the electoral price of a conciliatory stance that might appear timorous. Joe Biden – who was repeatedly attacked during the campaign as being unassertive, hesitant or downright servile towards China[15] – will probably don, too, the Nessus tunic that Trump created and maintain a hard line on issues like technology, trade and geopolitics. There is indeed a wide bipartisan consensus that China is a growing menace, for reasons that range from human rights violations and authoritarianism to unfair trade practices and economic espionage[16]. In his piece in Foreign Affairs, Biden expressed a desire to continue to combatively engage China on fronts like trade, democracy and intellectual property: “The United States does need to get tough with China.[17]” The difference is that the new administration seems more keen on building an “united front” against such foe, bringing in European and Asian allies (the later being threatened not only economically but also politically by the Chinese behemoth).

Beyond the realm of geopolitics and trade, the United States also have an unrivalled symbolic clout; it continues to set the tone for the narrative around the globe. Trump’s victory propelled to a large extent the illiberal narrative, electrifying a form of political contestation that was long brewing around the world. Much more so than Brexit (a diffuse outburst which was only partly “populist” in nature and ironically ended up devouring its own populist champions, by effectively allowing Conservatives to absorb the thorn on their side that was the UKIP and then the Brexit Party), Donald Trump unleashed the pent-up energies of a certain type of liberal disillusionment. Trump moreover has a face, a face so internationally and instantly recognizable that all around the world mini-Trumps started popping up: Bolsonaro is a “Trump of the Tropics[18]”, Modi an “Indian Trump[19]”, Duterte a “Philippine Trump[20]”, Salvini an “Italian Trump[21]”. Trump became a shorthand for the populist backlash worldwide. His defeat might likewise signal that the engines of illiberalism are running out of gas. Can populism keep his momentum? And if not, what will replace it?

But it would be naïve to consider such questions settled by the victory of Joe Biden, belatedly announced on the 8th of November. To paraphrase one illustrious Churchill quote, this is only the end of the beginning. The true answers are not going to be provided by who sits in the Oval Office, but by what he does and by who he is surrounded, in his administration but also in other decisional forums such as the Chamber of Representatives or the Senate. It is therefore important to look beyond the name of the victor of the melee, to the larger political and ideological dynamics that produced this result – and can shed light on future developments on the medium term.  

An unstoppable force meets an (almost) unmovable object

Source: http://moronmajority.com/

While it is undoubtedly of significance that Joe Biden won, how he won is even more important. The first key parameter is electoral turnout race. The 2020 election is set to achieve the highest turnout since at least 1908 (when the population was much smaller and women – and most African-Americans – didn’t benefited from the franchise)[22]. Compared to turnout rates hovering around 55-60% of voting-eligible population (VEP) between 2000 and 2016[23], the 2020 race witness particularly high turnout rates. While the final numbers won’t be official until each state has certified all ballots and sorted out disputes (probably by early December), the count now stands at over 66% of VEP[24]. In absolute volume, the projected number of voters is set to reach 160 million[25], up from 138 in 2016[26]. Biden will most likely reach the 80 million votes high-water mark, becoming the presidential candidate with the most votes in US history. Donald Trump, on the other hand, received roughly 74 million votes, the highest total for a losing candidate. Both the Democratic and the Republican candidates dramatically increased their vote volume since the previous elections. This is particularly remarkable for an incumbent president, and showcases the resilience of the Trump vote despite the mismanagement of the pandemic and the abrupt economic downturn. Barack Obama lost more than 3 million voters between 2008 and 2012, while Trump added an astonishing 10 million votes to his tally[27]. He is the Republican candidate with the most votes in history, and second only to Joe Biden as the candidate (irrespective of party affiliation) with most votes. He thus improved significantly on the scores of unsuccessful candidates such as Mitt Romney or John McCain, but also of successful Republicans such as George Bush (see figure below).

 

2000

2004

2008

2012

2016

2020

Republican candidate

50,456,002

62,040,610

59,948,323

60,933,504

62,984,828

≥73,668,449

Democratic candidate

50,999,897

59,028,444

69,498,516

65,915,795

65,853,514

≥79,633,744

 

The political geography of the vote remained relatively stable, with a few surprises. The hinterland – the so-called “fly-over America” – confirmed its robust preference for Republicans, but Biden rebuilt the “blue wall” of West-coast and North-East states. In 2016, Trump had been able to shatter the blue wall of states that had voted democratic since at least 1992, taking Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; Iowa, which was integrated into the blue wall by Obama in 2008, switched back to Republicans too[28]. Biden owes his victory to his capacity to reclaim these 3 states, and chip away at Republican bastions in Arizona and Georgia.

 

In terms of race breakdowns, there seems to be no dramatic shifts, but rather marginal adjustments. Latinos, who constitute the largest ethnic minority in the electorate (roughly 32 million eligible voters), received heightened media attention. Surveys consistently showcased that a robust majority (70%) of Latinos favor Biden over Trump, irrespective of age, gender or socio-economic characteristics – with one notable exception: Cuban-Americans are much more evenly split than any other Latino group, with 52% supporting Trump[29]. There is no systematic survey of voting preference of Venezuelan-born Americans, but anecdotal evidence points to the existence of a robust Trump preference[30]. The move away from Democrats of swaths of the Latino electorate, steeped in anti-communism and Catholic dogma, is an interesting story that is been unfolding since the late 1990s and loomed large in states like Florida, which Trump retained in 2020. Another key demographic, whose overwhelming support already played a pivotal role in Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders in the primaries, is African-Americans. According to The American Election Eve Poll, Biden is credited with almost 90% of the “Black vote”. These numbers are, however, not a novelty: the democratic candidate over the last five presidential elections has averaged 91% of the Black vote, with 8% going to the Republicans[31]. The Trump-Biden contest has not upset this asymmetric distribution, but neither did Trump’s radicalism erode the (modest) base of Black Republican supporters. While Black turnout data is still unavailable, in key battleground states like Georgia signs point to a dramatic improvement from 2016, when 60% of the Black eligible population cast a ballot[32]. This might mean that the Black vote might rebound to the high watermarks of 2008 and 2012 (65% and 67% respectively[33]), an increase which undoubtedly gave a new impetus to the Biden vote. Unsurprisingly, the white vote leaned towards Trump (56%[34], down from 57% in 2016[35]); rural whites were the most likely to back the republican candidate (64%), while women (53%) and college educated (53%) are slightly less inclined to cast a ballot for Donald Trump. Biden over-performed Clinton among white men, both college-educated and non, but overall, the white vote remained also stable, much like all other ethnic votes.

This deconstruction of the Biden and Trump vote yields two main political lessons. First of all, that there was little variation from historical patterns: blue wall against red wall, two familiar voting blocs aggregated around a political geography strongly shaped by both ethnic factors and the rural/urban divide. The “referendum on Trump” didn’t have the expected disruptive effect on the US voter demographic, which remains split along traditional fault lines that precede and are likely to survive Trump’s rambunctious brand of populism because they are embedded into relatively stable political cultures. Secondly, the “blue wave” polls predicted never fully got to crest; it submerged Donald Trump, but failed to produce a clear Democratic victory in the Senate (a race set to be resolved in run-off elections in December) and barely retained a weakened majority in the House of Representative[36]. Biden, riding the wave of an exceptional turnout (especially among minorities and young voters), was indeed an unstoppable force; but Trump nonetheless sturdily hold onto his base, and added millions of voters to his tally despite a lackluster record and a catastrophic last year marred by scandals and the worst health crisis in recent American history. In the wake of this fraught, impassioned and puzzling election, both parties are set to engage in a soul-searching exercise for which there will be no easy answers. 

The feet of clay of the Biden big-tent coalition

The Republican resilience should not obscure the momentum of the Biden campaign; few now question his personal efficiency as an “anti-Trump”. Joe Biden is a staunch moderate: a calm, soothing figure, conveying, in these distressing times, a reassuring sense of stability and empathy. His own grief-stricken personal story, marked by the loss of a spouse and two children, molded his public persona. The president-elect appears almost tailor-made for a political moment dominated first and foremost by a desire to heal trauma. But the “mourner-in-chief” persona of Biden contributed in no small measure to the loss of his political edge. His unofficial campaign slogan – “Make America kind again” – was a stinging jab at Trump’s offensive political style, but was devoid of a precise political content. Kindness and civility are moral values, not political projects. Biden himself is an almost apolitical candidate, chosen as an antidote to an increasingly tribal brand of politics. Biden is a consensus-builder, chameleonic and slow-moving, which translated into exceptional coalition-building capacities. Benefiting from a lassitude with Trump’s polarizing, hyper-energetic style, his own deliberate “depolarization” counter-strategy has been effective but risky. The president-elect will now have to navigating the perils and pitfalls not only of a country still bitterly divided, but also of his own patchwork coalition.

The Democratic party has been, historically, a party at odds with itself. Its multiple ideological realignments – on the role of the State or on the Civil Rights agenda – only deepened the rifts and accentuated the soul-searching. Now it is split between a centrist wing and a progressive wing, both embodying two distinct political philosophies and two incompatible narratives on what is America about. The centrist wing aggregated around the heritage of the New Deal, updated by Bill Clinton’s market- and globalization-friendly corpus of doctrine. The socio-liberal synthesis (known in the Anglo-Saxon world under the label “Third Way”) formed the basis of the Clinton and Obama presidencies; sociologically, it veered the Democratic party away from its workers electoral base towards a resolutely middle-class, college-educated constituency[37]. Although arguably more liberal than Clinton, Barak Obama was happy to continue the legacy of Clintonism, despite using his identity as an African-American to propel his campaign on a promise of change. In a very similar way, Hilary Clinton tried to frame her candidacy less as a continuation of the Third Way social-liberal politics but rather as a new hope for American politics. Both Obama and Clinton stood for a certain centrist vision of the American Dream – an open, meritocratic society in which formerly disenfranchised groups like ethnic minorities or women could at last shatter the glass ceiling and ascend to the highest responsibilities. Obama in particularly was a congenial figure who could drape itself in one of the most powerful political myths of the American Left: the Civil Rights combat. Started outside the Democratic party (and against a fraction of it, the Southern Democrats known as Dixiecrats[38]), the fight for racial justice was progressively weaved into the Democratic ethos, and Obama was then seen as the crowning achievement of a truly dramatic political redemption arc: from the party of slavery and Jim Crow to the party of the first Black president. This powerful narrative often obscured the real contours of the Obama presidency: it was in fact Clintonism-with-a-twist (or Clintonism-with-a-human-face), pragmatically and prudently charting a path between neoliberal orthodoxy and social-democracy. On foreign policy, the Obama administration was moderately offensive, continuing about 80% of the policies of the second Bush term[39], but has grown less and less “hawkish” with time. The radical progressive wing was born of the left-wing critique of the American model. In the cusp of the growing counter-cultural malaise of the Sixities, academics such as Noam Chomsky articulated a radical rebuttal of the capitalist development model and of the American party system – arguing for example that the US is a de facto one-party state, with the Republican Party and Democratic Party as manifestations of a single all-powerful "Business Party"[40]. Chomsky’s line of thought was echoed by other hyper-critical voices. The director Michael Moore became quickly the mediatic face of a new brand of left-wing political activism which almost completely skirted the institutional partisan circuits of the Democratic Party. Occupy Wall Street was the uncontestable high-water mark of this nebulous and inchoate demand, and its failure probably played a role for the eventual “homecoming” of far-left activism within the Democratic big-tent. This transition was nevertheless far from smooth. Many radical progressives (Moore included[41]) had endorsed Obama with cautious enthusiasm, only to later express bitter disappointment[42]. But most threw their weight behind Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders is a formally independent who has close ties to the Democratic Party, having caucused with House and Senate Democrats for most of his congressional career. The Democratic Party was taken almost by storm by a crop of new progressive figures who drove the “blue wave” of the 2018 mid-term elections which allowed Democrats to regain a majority in the House of Representatives. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (14th congressional district of New York), Ilhan Omar (Minneapolis), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) – all women of color under 50 – embody not only the demographic diversity of a younger generation of Democratic voters, but also its robustly left-leaning penchant. Once a buzz at the distant periphery of the Democratic Party, what has been dubbed “left-wing populism”[43] is now a fully constituted faction inside the party and a force to be reckoned with.

Biden is not a mere continuator of the Obama legacy. Biden is the Obama legacy: as a vice-president for eight years, he helped shape the political line of the Obama administration to a large extent. This veteran of American politics embodies perfectly the post-Clinton Democratic establishment, and his past record sometimes brings back memories of the worst features of Clintonism (such as the draconic anti-crime legislation which disproportionately impacted Black Americans[44]). After a quasi-collapse during the primaries, Joe Biden’s nomination was received coldly by the progressive wing of the party. Their champion Bernie Sanders gracefully accepted the democratic game, but some supporters nurtured, in their bitterness, accusations of unfair bias or even conspiracy theories that Donald Trump was only too happy to circulate[45]. By leaning into unproven ideas of a corporate conspiracy to stymie the progressive élan, many Sanders supporters deepened already profound rifts and delegitimized the Democratic candidate. In 2016, some of Sanders’ supporters went on to back Trump in the general elections, creating the proletarian coalition which was instrumental to the Republican victory[46].

In this light, Biden’s success in maintaining the unity of the party during the campaign was a tour de force. He made a series of concessions to progressives. His agenda is surprisingly left-leaning, and he used the Covid-19 crisis and America’s newfound tolerance for governmental intervention to push for a more active role of the State, especially though the expansion of the Welfare State. The overhaul of the healthcare system, in particular, has been ambitiously drafted by a joint Biden-Sanders task force[47]. A former “tough on crime” hawk, Biden also favorably views police immunity reform (but stops short of any “defund the police” initiative) and the decriminalization of certain drug offenses. Another success of the joint Biden-Sanders task force was its climate action package, who draws on many of the measures of the progressives’ flagship Green New Deal pitch[48]. Biden is a realistic and a consensus-builder at heart, who willingly compromised on issues where he observed a clear popular dynamic in favor of progressives (healthcare, police reform, climate change) while de-emphasizing issues on which radicals are at odds with the public opinion (such as defunding the police). The president-elect is stepping into the sweet spot of the Overton window, keeping both factions relatively satisfied. His choice of a younger, combative running mate from a minority group is also a strategic move. Kamala Harris is everything Biden is not: her biracial (Black and Indian) roots mean she can symbolically engage with America’s melting pot of overlapping identities; her upbringing steeped in activism reenergizes an Obama-style uplifting narrative which Biden needs in order to win the battle over hearts and minds. Harris is far from a radical progressive, but has all the assets to make progressive forget (or at least forgive) it.

However, keeping this temporary unity will be a battle that the Biden-Harris duo will have to fight anew every day. Distrust with the Democratic establishment runs deep. Jacobin Magazine had an anti-Biden outburst in a piece transparently titled “The Third Way Is the Past. Socialism Is the Future”: “Meanwhile, Joe Biden, the heir apparent of the US Third Way, is running a campaign based solely on restoring Obama’s ancien régime, a pitch not one whit less backward-looking and nostalgic than Trump’s atavistic appeal to “Make America Great Again.[49]” Once the honeymoon is over, the only thing that might save this convenience, loveless marriage is the promise it will be a short one: ironically, Biden’s age is his secret weapon for keeping his coalition alive. Left-wing progressives need a respite to gather strength after the probable departure from the political scene of their champion Bernie Sanders; they are willing to sit out 4 years of a Biden presidency because they know there won’t be 8. Biden openly views himself as a transitional candidate acting as a “bridge” towards a new generation of Democratic candidates[50]. Whether this new generation will be Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris’ or Alexandria Osario-Cortez or Ilham Omar’s remains to be seen. A progressive DemExit[51] (exit from the Democratic Party) seems implausible…for now.

The ghost of Trumpism and the future of the Grand Old Party