What the 2020 results say about America’s future
Months of frantic electioneering, $13.9bn of campaign spending, a raging pandemic and mass protests over race: in spite of all the sweat and tears, America was still determining as we went to press if its next president really would be Joe Biden or whether Donald Trump might somehow wrangle a second term. Congress is likely to be split between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate—though even that result may remain in doubt until a run-off in January.
In the coming days politicians should take their cue from voters, who turned out in greater force than in any year since 1900 and who made their choice without violence. Vote-counting must run its course and disputes between the two campaigns be settled within the spirit of the law. The biggest threat to that comes from Mr Trump, who used his election-night party to claim falsely that he had already won, and to fire up his supporters by warning that victory was being stolen from him. Coming from a man sworn to safeguard America’s constitution, such incitement was a reminder why many, including this newspaper, had called for voters to repudiate Mr Trump wholesale.
With Mr Biden’s victory they would take a crucial first step in that direction. Only once in the past 40 years has a president been denied a second term. Mr Trump will lose the popular vote by, we reckon, 52% to 47%—only the electoral college’s bias towards rural voters saved him from a crushing defeat. That is a repudiation of sorts.
A Biden White House would also set a wholly new tone. The all-caps tweets and the constant needling of partisan divisions would go. So would the self-dealing, the habitual lying and the use of government departments to pursue personal vendettas. Mr Biden is a decent man who, after the polls closed, vowed to govern as a unifier. His victory would change American policy in areas from climate to immigration. That is a form of repudiation, too.
And yet the unexpected closeness of the vote also means populism will live on in America. With this election it has become clear that Mr Trump’s astonishing victory in 2016 was not an aberration but the start of a profound ideological shift in his party (see Lexington). Defying expectations and covid-19, he has won millions more votes in the huge turnout of 2020 than he did in 2016’s moderate one. Far from being swept away in a blue wave, Republicans have gained seats in the House and seem set to keep control of the Senate. The Republican Party, which fell under Mr Trump’s spell while he was in office, is not about to shake itself out of the trance now. It is even conceivable that Mr Trump, or a member of his family, could run for the White House in 2024.
The outside world, which has been watching this contest with rapt attention, will draw two conclusions from America’s failure to reject Trumpism more decisively. The first will be among populist nationalists who look to Mr Trump for inspiration and who will now reckon that their brand of politics has a brighter future outside America, too. An abject defeat for Mr Trump may have spelled trouble for politicians like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Marine Le Pen in France. Instead Nigel Farage, formerly the leader of the Brexit Party, is busy planning his comeback (see article). The persistence of Mr Trump’s support suggests that the rejection of immigration, urban elites and globalisation, which gathered pace after the financial crisis of 2008-09, still has further to run.
The second conclusion is to be wary of relying on America. Mr Trump has been a disruptive, transactional force in foreign affairs, contemptuous of alliances and multilateralism. Mr Biden, by contrast, is steeped in the traditional values of American diplomacy from his time in the Senate. He would doubtless seek to restore close ties with allies and to strengthen global governance, by for instance, remaining in the World Health Organisation and rejoining the Paris agreement on climate change. But after this election result, everyone will know that it could all revert again in 2024.
At home the picture is more complicated, but it contains lessons for both parties—and for their stewardship of America. The hardest message is for the Democrats. Their failure to take the Senate means that Mr Biden will struggle to pass bills or appoint judges. An infrastructure bill, health-care reform and environmental laws could all be blocked by Congress.
That failure partly reflects the Democrats’ inability to attract white, non-college-educated voters, especially in rural America. They also fared less well than expected among young African-American men and Hispanic voters in Florida and Texas. These losses undermine the Democrats’ assumption that, just because America is becoming less white and more suburban, they are destined to win elections. Rather, they will need to earn support by countering Republican claims that they are against free enterprise and that fringe obsessions with identity politics are becoming an oppressive Democratic orthodoxy.
Republicans face lessons, too. Trumpism has its limits. If they block all legislation in the Senate so as to discredit Mr Biden, it will mark yet another electoral cycle in which the gridlock and the zero-sum logic of partisanship prevent America from grappling with its problems. Republicans will tell themselves that discrediting the Washington machine helps the party that claims to stand for limited government—however swampy the Trump administration proved. That view is as short-sighted as it is cynical.
Those black and Hispanic voters who came over to their side this week suggest that Republicans can win minority support and that ethnic groups are not monoliths. Republicans are seduced by a dangerous identity politics of their own, which stirs up white fears of a multiracial country. How much better if they made a positive case for their party, seeking to expand their base by earning their share of the credit for, say, bills to reform criminal justice or upgrade America’s creaking infrastructure.
This election has once again shown that America is a divided nation. Many of its politicians set out to feed the divisions, and none has divided more than Mr Trump. We hope that his defeat will stand as a lesson that it doesn’t always work.