Elections are complex. Voting choices are dictated by a range of factors. And to read meaning into a mandate when official results have still not been declared is premature. This is particularly so when an election throws up a situation where the challenger has won but not won as decisively as he would have hoped, and the incumbent has lost, but neither lost as resoundingly as expected nor acknowledged his loss.
Yet, despite the uncertainty, in what was probably the most consequential election in the recent history of the United States (US), key political, social and economic trends have become more apparent. And this matters because what happens within the US has such a profound impact on the rest of the world. There are three takeaways from the polling and the likely result.
One, US capitalism is in crisis and inter-class relations are broken. Over the past century and more, the economic model in the country has evolved — from a rather laissez faire climate to, broadly speaking, a system which also took into account the question of welfare. The combination of entrepreneurial energy, a State-backed military-industrial complex, geopolitical dominance, a reasonable degree of employment creation, elements of social security, and a fierce commitment to individual rights and scepticism of the State worked in ensuring a certain kind of class compact.
But the weak regulatory environment of the last three decades, trading arrangements which eroded employment in key sectors in the US (while benefiting its industry and consumers in many other ways), the shock of the 2008 financial crisis, the obvious structures of inequality even as basic services became more expensive, and the emergence of a political and economic elite — seen in conjunction with each other and seemingly disconnected from the rest of the country — broke the class compact in the country sharply.
It is deeply ironical that it was the Left — both in the US and globally — which alerted us to the dangers of this economic model and its rising inequities, but it has been the Right — once again, both in the US and elsewhere — which has ended up benefiting from the emerging class wars of the 21st century. Despite being at the forefront of precisely the economic model that led to the disenchantment and anger, it is these forces which have become the voice of that disenchantment and anger. Donald Trump has been able to tap this resentment. And while 2016 provided an early indication of this, 2020 has provided evidence that this anger is here to stay.
Two, the cultural compact in the US is broken. Make no mistake. The country has been home to one of the most oppressive forms of identity-based discrimination ever witnessed anywhere in the world.
Race competes with caste in how an entire people have been systematically humiliated over centuries. But the US, substantively only after the civil rights movement in the last five decades, has made efforts to create a more inclusive society. It has also prided itself on being a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of cultures, where specific and distinct forms of cultural and religious identity of individuals can coexist within a larger framework of constitutional patriotism.
But both race relations and broader ethnic relations are turbulent today. For those who believe in racial justice, the continued hegemony of White Americans across spheres, and the embedded discriminatory attitudes within law enforcement, which often result in the victimisation and killing of Blacks, is a matter of distress. But large sections of White America, falsely, associate African-Americans with crime, conjure up the threat to order and peace, and rally around a leader who promises them security publicly but, in effect, dominance. There is also the discomfort with immigrants, with bigots systematically stoking fears about how outsiders steal opportunities, drain resources, and then even control politics. The proliferation of fake news, enabled by big tech platforms, allows this narrative to deepen.
This resentment, or to put it bluntly, bigotry has manifested itself in support for Trump — and is a partial explanation for why he has still got the votes he did despite his staggering incompetence. It is, however, a remarkable testament to Trump’s political skills that he still managed to get a larger segment of immigrant and minority vote this time than in 2016. At the same time, an even larger majority of these minority groups — particularly African-Americans — have recognised that this was a battle for their very survival, dignity and rights and turned out in large numbers propelling Biden in key swing states. Like the economic wars, the culture wars are getting more entrenched.
Three, while both the class and cultural compact in the US is broken, and despite Trump’s remarkable performance, the fact is that Democrats are set to win the presidency. And in that lies an insight — US democracy has been in crisis but has deep strengths too, and therefore, this democracy — like any democracy — needs 24/7 work.
The Democratic Party learnt lessons from its 2016 defeat. It choose Joe Biden, a moderate white politician who is not high on charisma, but who brought a degree of solidity to the candidacy, given his record. The party knew it needed its loyal voters, including of minority groups, to come out in large numbers — and worked on the ground to prod them on to send mail-in ballots early or vote in person. It did so without adopting rhetoric which could have alienated dominant groups. It focused on the map, retaining the blue states while chipping away at key swing states. And while the result may still be too close for Biden’s comfort, if he does win Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, he will have more than 300 electoral college votes — which is more than a respectable win.
But Trump’s obstinacy and threat of legal challenges puts at risk the process of transfer of power from one elected government to another — a sacred democratic principle — showing persistent threats to the democratic compact. The fact that the US media has risen strongly against it, states are not allowing for subversion of norms, Biden himself has shown maturity in the face of provocation, and no one quite believes Trump can just take over the White House is a good sign for democracy in the US.
While Joe Biden will have a difficult challenge in navigating the competing impulses within his party, managing a Senate where his party does not have a majority, handling the pandemic and the economy and repairing the US’s image globally, his core challenge is healing the broken class, cultural and democratic compact at home.