NEWS & ANALYSIS

A presidential election to shatter illusions

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the Blue Wave that wasn't in the USA

JAUNDICED EYE

It appears that Joe Biden will, by the slimmest of margins, be the 46th president of the United States of America.

To be accurate, he will be history’s book-entry as such. In the light of Biden’s waning cognitive faculties, over the next four years the behind-the-scenes exercise of executive power will likely increasingly be that of the Vice President, Kamala Harris. But Biden may prove to be of some use in holding her handbag.

The world of existential pain that has been the lot of most Americans over the past four years is, however, by no means over. It may just be getting into full butt-kicking stride.

Biden’s victory, if it survives Trump’s predictable resort to the courts, reveals a reality very different from the Democratic Party-led media narrative leading up to the election. It turns out that Trump’s 2016 victory was not the momentary aberration of a nation that at its core was decent and sensible, and would recover with nothing more serious to show for its embarrassing brain fart than a blush.

The brave talk about “taking America back” and the juvenile rah-rah about the unstoppable momentum of a Blue Wave turned out not to be enough. Despite a terrain that overwhelmingly favoured the Democrats — economic uncertainty and joblessness; the administration's Third-World response to the Covid-19 pandemic; a waning US reputation internationally; and a media that shamelessly pandered to Biden — the right has not been routed.

In some ways, it is stronger than it was in 2016. Although heavily favoured to do so by the pollsters, the Democrats failed to win the Senate and they face a reduced majority in the House of Representatives.

While the right has almost certainly lost the presidency it was by a whisker. Given that Trump is as deeply loathed by many conservatives as he is by the left, that in itself is astonishing.

It shows that assumptions that Republican support is ebbing inexorably, dependent on a dying constituency of old white males, is wrong. The results indicate that there is a significant constituency of socially conservatives among black and Latino voters that is just waiting to be tapped by a future, less strident and divisive Republican presidential hopeful.

Another obvious lesson, one that the Democrats are probably incapable of learning, are the limits to wokeness as a vote catcher. Overwrought transgender sensibilities, intersectionality, white fragility, and deep thoughts on what amounts to appropriate pronoun use, are fringe issues.

Most voters, including many on the left, clearly don’t give a gender-fluid toss about much of what has dominated public discourse for the past decade. On the contrary, they find militant wokeness and relentless victimhood positively off-putting, making this is a wave that the Democrats probably have surfed as far as is possible.

The American left can learn, perish the thought, from elsewhere in the Anglophone world. Ideological pragmatism — understanding how little attraction fervently held political beliefs have for most people in a modern society— delivered to Britain’s Labour Party under Tony Blair 13 years in power. Forgetting that lesson under Jeremy Corbyn has left Labour shut out of power for the past decade.

The election may have far-reaching implications for the US judicial system.

If Trump’s last roll of the dice does reach the US Supreme Court, it will be an interesting stress test for a judiciary that has for almost two-and-a-half centuries mediated with considerable skill the competing interests of the executive, the legislature and “We the People…”.

When the US was a nation in which the two major parties shared a broadly congruent view of the country’s best interests, the sequentially partisan appointment of Supreme Court justices nudged constitutional rulings first this way, then that way, but over time in a generally progressive direction. However, Trump’s string of conservative appointments has made it possible to replace a nudge with a shove and, in so doing, may unleash a backlash that changes the entire judicial landscape.

There are positives, too. As I wrote in a recent column for CNN, a salutary effect of the Trump years has been that American assumptions of the innate superiority of their nation and their democratic structures, surely lie shattered.

Not only has the US been shown to be as structurally fallible in health and electoral arrangements as many of the “shithole” countries that Trump excoriated, but bitter social divides, successfully glossed over for many years, are now revealed to have become worse and will have to be addressed. That’s a challenge, no matter how painful, that should not be beyond the ken of one of the wealthiest, most powerful and most innovative countries on earth.

And in one important aspect, this election has been a reminder of one of the most critical factors to the health of a democracy —citizen participation. To vote is to believe that your voice matters, even though you are only one person in a nation of 330m.

Voter turnout has been the highest since 1900 and by far the biggest in the modern era. Faced with implacable opponents of opposite ideological stripe, both sides organised and campaigned and cajoled. And the individual voters turned out, often in the face of efforts to discourage them, to record their preferences.

Compare that to South Africa. As things have got steadily worse, voter turnout here has steadily dropped. We no longer appear to have any confidence in the possibility of rearranging our political landscape for the better by filling out a ballot paper.

Maybe one of the world’s oldest democracies can still teach a thing or two to one of the world’s youngest.

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