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One America, two nations

Nov 07,2020 - Last updated at Nov 07,2020

NEW YORK — As I write this, officials across the United States continue to count votes in the 2020 US presidential election. When tallies are finalised, recounts and legal challenges are sure to follow. This is to be expected in a hotly contested election that generated record turnout.

Only citizens may vote for the US president, but the choice affects people everywhere. If it is too soon to be certain of the results, it is not premature to explore what the election reveals about the world’s most powerful country.

On the positive side, the United States remains a robust democracy. Voter participation was high, despite the physical constraints linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The process appears to be unfolding as designed. Violence has been minimal. Courts are investigating what seem to have been politically motivated decisions by the US Postal Service to impede the delivery of ballots from areas expected to vote mostly Democratic. President Donald Trump’s unwarranted declaration of victory Tuesday evening gained little traction, while his calls to stop the counting, at least in those states where he leads, appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

What is concerning, however, is that the US electorate remains so deeply divided. Voters were near-equally split between the two candidates. Not surprisingly, this division is likely to lead to divided government. If current trends continue, Democrats will win the White House and retain control of the House of Representatives, while Republicans will keep control of the Senate. Governorships and state legislatures are near evenly split between the two parties (Republicans hold a slight advantage).

The “blue wave” anticipated by Democrats did not materialise. Joe Biden will probably win the popular vote by a wide margin, some four or five million out of nearly 160 million votes cast. But Republicans held onto seats in the Senate that many predicted would flip to the Democrats, who actually lost seats in the House. There was no firm mandate, no political realignment.

Trump polled extremely well, receiving five million more votes than he did in 2016, the second-most votes of any presidential candidate in US history, and more than any previous winner. What makes this particularly noteworthy is that it occurred against the backdrop of a record-high 100,000 new daily COVID-19 cases and more than 1,000 deaths. Just when the consequences of his administration’s mishandling of the pandemic had become most severe, nearly half the electorate turned out to support him.

Even if Trump loses, which seems likely, he will continue to have a powerful voice, especially if he remains in the public eye, which also seems likely. Even if he himself does not run, he will probably have considerable influence in choosing the Republican Party’s nominee in the next presidential election in 2024. The GOP will be a far cry from the party of presidents George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Trumpism, a modern-day American populism, will remain a powerful force.

Trump, no surprise, has done his best to salt the earth and delegitimise the election results, charging fraud despite his inability to produce any evidence. Many of his supporters will refuse to accept the legitimacy of a Biden presidency. It is quite possible that Trump will never concede the race, much less attend the swearing in of his successor. To paraphrase Will Rogers, Trump has never encountered a norm he did not break.

Americans increasingly dwell in separate worlds. They have sorted themselves into communities and regions with those of similar views. Each world tends to watch its own cable television channels, listen to its own radio stations and podcasts, and visit its own websites. And the absence of a national civics curriculum facilitates sorting across generations.

What is worth highlighting is that the country’s division is not for the most part along economic lines. People of all classes voted for both candidates, and demographic, gender and racial voting patterns were not as one-sided as many predicted. Where they differed mainly concerned remedies.

Educational levels are clearly an indicator of political orientation, as is geography, with Republican voters more likely to live in outer suburbs and rural regions and Democrats in metropolitan areas. Culture, though, may account for more in American politics than anything else. For the record, foreign policy did not seem to have mattered much in the campaign, except to mobilise specific constituencies, such as south Florida’s large Cuban and Venezuelan communities.

Against this backdrop, it will be difficult to build support for significant change to how presidents are elected or how the government operates. The situation resembles nothing so much as the United Nations Security Council. Many agree the current system is deeply flawed and unrepresentative, but it is impossible to reach consensus on reform, because any potential fix would benefit some and hurt others. Not surprisingly, those who stand to lose from change resist it.

This will make governing difficult. Much will depend on the calculations of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and his ability and willingness to work with a president Biden. Working together would also require Biden to compromise, something sure to be resisted by the more ideological members of his own party.

Democrats were hoping for a stinging repudiation of Trump and everything he embodies. They did not get it. Republicans sought an election that validated Trump. That, too, did not happen. Instead, what the election revealed is one country and two nations. They will have to coexist; whether they can work together remains to be seen.


Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The World: A Brief Introduction” (Penguin Press, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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