By Brock Burton
Politics is America’s favorite sport. Every four years the country tunes in to watch nominees battle it out at the ballot box. It’s somewhat understandable—elections in the United States are unique, more like watching boxers brawl than a civil undertaking in democracy. During this election cycle the fighters were particularly old and worn, but no less vicious, and the fans were more rabid than usual. The final scorecards have yet to be confirmed, but it is clear that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have won. Just over half of America’s voters are breathing a collective sigh of relief, accompanied by the ally countries alienated under the Trump administration.
This does not mean the bitter political battles of the past four years are over. Trump’s premature claims of victory and the blatant lies he has spouted since election night are indications that threats to American democracy persist. It is tempting to call them unprecedented and unexpected. They are not. One should have seen them coming after four years of division and lies from the highest office in the United States. It is clear that the Republican Party has been remade in the image of Trump. There are still holdouts from the old guard like Mitt Romney who are willing to speak out against Trump’s damaging claims. But they are increasingly rare and are being pushed out by hardline right-wingers. Do not expect the attacks on the media or the false claims of rigged elections and fraud to end any time soon. More than 70 million voters either bought into that message or were willing to overlook it.
Trump’s campaigns were characterized by their divisiveness and xenophobia. Biden made it clear that the election was a battle for the soul of America and his post-victory statements emphasize unity. He claims he will be a president for all Americans, no matter their political affiliation. He will try to restore stability to the executive. The sentiment is reassuring, even necessary, given the deep schisms in American society that Ross Hutton highlighted in his “A Tale of Two Americas.” Reality is unlikely to be so easy for Biden.
Pending a surprise, control of the Senate will come down to runoffs in Georgia on 5 January. The Democrats’ success in the presidential election can be attributed to the blue coalition constructed by activists like Stacey Abrams. These grassroots organizations pushed voters to the polls in record numbers. The question for Democrats is whether they can maintain coalitional unity through January and beyond. One can be sure that the gaze of America will be turning to Georgia. Republicans will be looking for any cracks they can exploit and some are already starting to show.
Democrats underperformed in Congressional elections, narrowing their majority in the House. A post-mortem is sure to follow, but blame is already being apportioned within the party. Some Democrats claim that the messages pushed by the progressive edge of the party—defunding police, environmental reform, and support for Black Lives Matter— alienated swing voters and cost them seats. Left-leaning Democrats are vocal in their disagreement. Progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already lashed out at party officials, claiming that if the Democrats do not fill critical appointments with progressives, they will lose support from the same leftist groups that carried them to the presidency. It is clear that Biden will face opposition on two fronts: his own party’s left-wing and the expected resistance from the GOP.
Splits like this do not bode well for the Democrats’ chances at gaining control of the Senate or of maintaining the momentum needed to counteract midterm backlash. The Democratic platform could stall out in a hostile Senate if the GOP retains control. Any appointees that face such a Senate will be significantly more moderate if they are to stand any chance of being approved. Expect Republicans to drag their heels no matter the outcome in Georgia. They will hope to generate backlash against Biden and the Democrats by making their agenda stall on the Senate floor. Democrats have used the same strategy for the past four years. Republicans will be hungry for payback.
One group that is sure to be happy about the results are the United States’ allies. Biden brings a stability to Washington that will be reassuring to international partners looking to rebuild the connections and international institutions Trump attacked over his presidency. Biden has a foreign policy background and established relationships with global leaders during his terms in the Senate and as Vice President. These will serve him well as he seeks to rebuild America’s tarnished image. Expect Biden to recommit the United States to international institutions like NATO and the Paris Climate Agreement. But do not expect him to be soft abroad. He is not a dove and his experience comes from a period of American hegemony. He recognizes the challenge China represents for the United States. His policies in Asia may be more nuanced, but do not expect rapid reconciliation.
The election may be over but the battle for the soul of America is not. It looks more and more like Biden only won the first round. Both major parties will need to look inwards and decide what their narrative will be in the coming years. The Democrats must unite a divided base while appealing to moderates and swing-voters. They have to brace for the midterm backlash that is sure to come. The GOP is surer of itself. There are still small signs of disunity in the ranks, but it is clear that the majority has been seduced by the populist policies espoused by Trump. Biden may have won, but he has his work cut out for him. The challenges are numerous and the tools available to the Biden administration may end up being blunted by a Republican-controlled Senate. America is not united yet.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.
Photo from Flickr by Michael Stokes