By Richard Saull
Although Trump and his legal enforcers and social media enablers have been doing their best to overturn the democratic decision of American voters in recent days, there is little doubt that Joe Biden will become US president next January. Biden’s wide margin of victory in the electoral college and by five million votes in the overall vote share, brings to an end the Trump presidency, but not Trumpism.
Given the context of the pandemic and the infection and death rate in the US, and notwithstanding the racist outbursts and Trump’s malfeasance and contempt for constitutional probity and democratic norms, it is staggering that Trump secured more votes than in 2016. Indeed, Trump’s telegraphing he would not recognize a Biden victory once polls had closed, and questioning the validity and legitimacy of postal votes in the weeks prior to the election, make the increase in his democratic mandate all the more disturbing. Trump is not a fascist – even if he flirts with fascist currents – but his behaviour and its indulgence by senior Republicans demonstrate that we can no longer take for granted that US politics will conform to basic constitutional and democratic processes.
That Trump secured more votes after four years in office and when confronted with a centrist and establishment candidate such as Joe Biden suggests that the populist and white nationalist shift in US politics is here to stay. Whether or not Bernie Saunders would have blunted and nullified Trump’s appeal is an open question. In Florida, for example, Trump’s COVID-driven loss of support from older voters was compensated by strong support from the Latinx community buoyed by the attack ads that depicted Biden as a radical-socialist ‘Trojan horse’. That Biden’s campaign was modest and policy-lite, mainly focusing on competence and stability (and not being Trump) rather than major policy pledges that could be seen as ‘socialist’, was beside the point in the context of US politics.
Initial poll data suggests that Biden did better than Clinton amongst white men and suburban women while the ‘Bernie bros’ appeared to have voted for Biden, in contrast to their wavering support for Clinton in 2016. Trump appears to have done better – from 2016 – amongst Latinx voters and, perhaps also, though less significantly, amongst African-American men. Of course, the peculiar workings of US system – the election is, in effect, a set of 50 individual state-wide polls each with their own rules on voter registration/eligibility and voting arrangements – mean this overall picture is insufficient to explain who voted and why in determining the outcome of particular states. Consequently, Biden’s victories across the rust-belt – not just Pennsylvania – were crucial, especially in the wake of Trump taking Florida. That Biden only won these states by relatively small margins suggests – alongside the failure to flip Senate seats and increase its majority in the House – his was a narrow victory.
The vote distribution reinforces the longer term trend of Democratic support being concentrated and increasing in the big cities on the coasts, where the working class is culturally diverse and politically the most dynamic, whereas Trump voters tend to be in smaller towns and rural communities where the working class is whiter, older and more culturally conservative. And this is a general trend across most liberal democracies including in Britain, as revealed in the Brexit votes and recent General Elections. The sociology of the 2020 vote and the significance of these rust-belt states in determining the outcome is not going to change anytime soon – and this matters as much as the increase in Trump’s overall vote share.
However, the significance of this particular election and Trumpism more broadly extends into the legitimacy of the democratic process as evidenced in the widespread view among Republican voters that the election was not fair or that it was ‘stolen’. The pictures of armed white men around vote-counting centres – fired up by Trump’s tweets – also fits into a broader set of longer-term concerns over voter suppression likely to be bolstered by the recent addition of a new conservative judge to the Supreme Court. In short, the US political system is more polarized than it has ever been. This reflects enduring socio-economic cleavages that were super-charged by the global financial crisis – now compounded by a widespread suspicion of the existing democratic process – and a rampant indulgence of conspiracy theorists embedded within social media platforms.
Relating developments in the US to the UK, what lessons can Labour learn from Biden’s successful formula, going forward? A campaign framed around competence and a modest policy platform – to ensure the widest appeal to ‘independents’ – may work in the context of a raging pandemic and when the opposing candidate is someone as dangerous as Trump. However, it is far from evident that this is a viable longer term strategy in the US for addressing the serious problems afflicting American workers, let alone in the UK when both the context is unlikely to be so dominated by a pandemic and where the opponent may not be Johnson – someone who does not quite fit the description of a mini-Trump anyway. The assumption then that what works in the US can work here needs to be treated with some scepticism.
One lesson should be clear, however: Biden succeeded, in part, because of the groundswell of support assisted by localized voter-mobilization campaigns – especially so in Georgia – that involved groups and individuals outside of the party mainstream such as the Bernie bros and BLM activists. Labour mustn’t neglect this going forward and as it tries to position itself, rightly, as both competent and transformative.
Richard Saull teaches International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London.
Image: Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden walking with supporters at a pre-Wing Ding march from Molly McGowan Park in Clear Lake, Iowa. Source: Joe Biden. Author: Gage Skidmore, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.