Archive | 2020 U.S. Elections RSS feed for this section

Interpreting the U.S. Election Results: Preliminary Observations

9 Nov

The victory by the Biden/Harris ticket in the 2020 American National Elections are basically good news for the country and the world, although not as good as expected (by pollsters or enthusiasts) or nearly as decisive as desirable given the dreadfully regressive behavior of Trump and the Republican Party over the past four years. And there is some bad news, as well, lurking just beneath the surface. Not only the strength of Trumpism in America, but the likely drift toward the center-right of the Biden presidency

Why Good News?

Above all, Trump’s reelection would have meant a tighter embrace of an American version of fascisim with constitutionalism, the rule of law, and human rights repudiated, and an autocratic/plutocratic style of leadership consolidated around an ideology of chauvinistic or nativist nationalism. 

The vote was not as one-sided as anti-fascists might have hoped, but the Biden ticket did prevail in the popular vote by an almost 5 million margin, and won the electoral college by a comfortable margin. This achievement is even greater than the statistical results if account is taken of the various Republican voter suppression efforts.

In policy terms, the result seems clearly beneficial with respect to the short-term domestic agenda. The CORONA pandemic is likely to be immediately handled in accord with guidelines by health specialists rather than by the macho whims of the Trump White House, which means that the virus is likely to be brought under control as rapidly and humanely as possible, assuming that the inauguration of Biden occurs on January 20th. Beyond this, presuming some Congressional flexibility, a stimulus package beneficial to the poor and unemployed, as well as to small businesses is likely to be quickly forthcoming. Such policies should pave the way to a broader, more sustainable and fairer economic recovery, although the second wave COVID spike in Europe warrants caution as to what the future will bring.

Looking beyond these immediate challenges, it would seem reasonable to expect improvements in health care, public education, judicial appointments, racial and gender equality from the Biden presidency, with a realistic prospect of progress toward realizing such goals, especially if the two Georgia runoff elections on January 5th go the Democratic Party way, which seems possible, but not yet probable.

Internationally, the Biden victory will be greeted by world leaders around the world with a huge sigh of relief. It will have, additionally, some positive impacts on global problem-solving, giving rise overall to a more cooperative atmosphere. A revived posture of U.S. global activism is certain to be welcomed at first raising hopes of crafting  compromise solutions to common problems. It seems also like to produce some increased appreciation of the role of the United Nations and international law, highlighted by reactivating membership in and refunding of the WHO. This kind of participation by the United States is likely to a partial renewal of the global leadership role that the U.S. played in the decades after the end of World War II, although in a more muted manner, due to preoccupations with domestic challenges, and in a spirit more related to functional concerns, above all, climate change and health, than to ideologically adversary geopolitical relations.

Now, the Bad News

While the referendum on Trump as leader and fascism as ideology were formally repudiated, the threats posed remain existentially viral, likely to become entrenched in some kind of organizational Trumpist format that will stalk the future of governance and quality of political life in the United States during the years ahead. It is chastening to acknowledge that if the pandemic had not struck the country so hard or Trump had handled it more prudently, he likely would have been reelected. The stock market would have attained a record high, while unemployment would have remained at record lows. As it was, as Republicans gleefully point out, their party won the 2020 elections except for the presidency—so far holding their Senate majority, even picking up several seats in the House of Representatives, gaining in Federal contexts, meaning greater influence among the legislatures and leadership in the 50 states. I can only imagine the dire morning after had there been no health crisis, no economic downturn, and no crazy leader in the White House!

Less obvious, but no less serious, the Biden victory is also a victory for the American deep state, which has presided over the implementation of an evolving bipartisan consensus that has shaped American foreign policy ever since the wartime unity governments of 1941-1945. This foreign policy consensus can be identified with four overlapping dimensions: (1) a global military security system consisting of hundreds of overseas military bases, all-oceans naval presences, operational intelligence capabilities in every strategically important country in the world, and a hegemonic control of nuclear weaponry; (2) a string of formal and informal alliances and special relationships that connect U.S. diplomacy and geopolitical muscle with strategic priorities such as the defense of Europe, Taiwan, and Israel; (3) a shifting continuing need to identify sufficient global security threats and interest to satisfy private sector arms sales interests and to ensure Congressional support for high defense budgets; the promotion of such goals tend to magnify security threats and induce geopolitical confrontations; (4) a support structure for a market-driven world economy premised on ‘Neoliberal Globalization,’ premised on facilitating transnational capital investments and beneficial trading frameworks, and backed up by international economic institutions (World Bank, IMF, World Trade Organization), and supplemented as necessary by various hostile responses by the U.S. Government in reaction to displays of foreign economic nationalism, including reliance on sanctions, covert interventions, and coercive diplomacy.

It is notable that the bureaucratic managers of the deep state, retirees from the CIA and Pentagon, were not comfortable with the Trump presidency because its leadership lacked a disciplined adherence to these four dimensions of the deep state consensus that had managed the transitions from World War II to the Cold War, from the Cold War to the War of Terror, and hopes perhaps for a new transition that generates tensions with Russia and/or China. It is not that Trump defied the consensus at the level of policy, but that he led with an unsteady hand less responsive to the nuances of geopolitical management of an increasingly complex global setting. With Biden the deep state has a reliable veteran adherent of the deep state consensus, someone who can be trusted to follow its signals as to policy initiatives, especially in the domains of foreign economic and security policy. In the present setting, Biden has almost total freedom to opt for the center-right on foreign policy as the political mood is currently dominated by how he delivers on the home front.

Finally, on the domestic scene, there is now a probable surfacing of post-Trump strife among the Democratic winners in the recent elections. The issue is one of policy influence as reflected by high profile appointments, policy priorities, and presidential tone. Will the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that preferred Bernie Sanders over Joe Biden as the anti-Trump candidate be given its due or will it be boxed in by the center-right leadership that blames the center-left for its setbacks in the 2020 elections? These self-styled Democratic moderates insist that progressive advocacy of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, debt forgiveness for student loans were ‘socialist’ or hard left proposals that drove many Independents to vote Republican except for Biden/Harris. It seems doubtful that ‘the center will hold’ as Democrats on the left and right vie for influence, and it is quite possible that The Squad will go it alone, championing movement politics, while almost giving up on the two-party approach to American politics. We already finding the two wings each claiming credit for the Biden victory. The center-right contending that only a candidate of Biden’s conservative record could have won, and all other Democrat alternatives would have gone down to defeat. The center-left counters with the claim that without the progressive ground game and mobilization of voter turnout among minorities and youth, Biden/Harris would have been beaten by Trump/Pence.

Leading Where?

Too many uncertainties exist to support any confident assessment as to how these clashing tendencies will play out. What seems clear is that there were two outcomes of the American elections: Trump was beaten, but Trumpism was not, garnering the support under the most unfavorable circumstances of over 70 million voters and a heightened sense of militancy under circumstances of higher political stakess. Will Trumpists, and the Republican leadership, interpret the election as a defeat because Trump lost or as a mandate because Republican conservative policy positions despite the adverse presidential tide made gains at the Congressional and federal levels of government. 

One unknowable issue is whether Trumpism can flourish without Trump in the White House, and closely related, whether Trump after returning to private life will seek to lead the movement he inspired or resume his life as freewheeling business magnate.

Another area of uncertainty is whether the deep state will opt for a geopolitical confrontation with China or will be content to promote economic growth and political stability at least for an interim period during which the U.S. recovers its geopolitical composure. It seems safe to assume that Biden will govern in light of a new articulation of a deep state consensus responsive to its reading of the global scene, but how that will be weighted is far from clear at this time. 

Biden’s clarion call has been to bring civility, if not a spirit of unity, back to the ebb and flow of American politics. This is an understandable response to the slash and burn presidency of Trump, but if it persists, it could lead to some discrediting compromises, with respect to stimulus, health care, immigration, unlikely to appease Trumpists or even non-Trump Republicans, and foster an image of the Biden presidency as out of touch with the harsh realities of American politics in their present configuration. Obama made this mistake, and was outmaneuvered by Republicans who took all they could get without giving away anything in return. It will be important to watch closely Biden’s attempts to induce a more cooperative atmosphere and, especially, how he handles a non-responsive Republican Senate. Indications remain strong that the last thing Trump-oriented Republicans want is compromise. Forgetting that it takes two to tango could quickly alter the welcome image of Biden the unifier into that of Biden the dangerous fool who fails to understand the ethics and politics of polarization. Unless a presently unseen and almost unimaginable will emerges on the political right to seek some level of reconciliation with the Democratic establishment, wasting energy on finding common ground is like looking for sunlight deep inside a cave.    

Can U.S. Democracy Be Fixed?

4 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This essay appeared in its original form as an editorial in TRANSCEND Media Service, #654, on 31 August 2020. The text below is enlarged and somewhat modified.

I regard TMS as the best curated online weekly gathering of worthwhile writing from a progressive standpoint. It is inspired by the remarkable scholarship and leadership of Johan Galtung that has stimulated peace researchers and public intellectuals for more than six decades. TMS is brilliantly edited each week by Antonio C.S. Rosa, working from Porto, Portugal.]

 

 

Can U.S. Democracy Be Fixed?

 

The 2020 Election and its Aftermath

I share the view that the 2020 election in the United States is above all a referendum on fascism, and for this and many other reasons I hope it produces a Biden landslide, including control of the U.S. Congress by the Democratic Party. As well, it is my fervent wish that this outcome will be followed by a smooth transfer of political power.

From the perspective of the present, this kind of benign political scenario seems unlikely to materialize. Instead, we can more realistically expect a close election, which means that if Trump wins the fascist threat grows beyond control, while if he loses, he seems poised to refuse the result, charging voting fraud, and clinging to the presidency despite being rejected by the voting public. This prospect would provoke an unprecedented constitutional crisis and could be resolved by the first coup in American history, an unthinkable scenario until Trump came alone. Even if Trump is coercively removed from the White House, the fascist cause is likely to flourish as his more ardent followers seem ready to incite civil war rather than accept a political defeat, however warranted.

And even should these horrors be avoided, or dealt with in a responsible manner, the aftermath is likely to be deeply unpleasant, raising the question, above all, whether Donald Trump’s multiple crimes shall be shielded from prosecution, and a massive gift of impunity bestowed. If accountability and the rule of law are chosen, there would be myriad trials and calls of political martyrdom. Maybe the best solution would be asylum for Trump in Putin’s Russia. This kind of ‘retirement’ arrangement would have the delicious irony of having Trump share his place of refuge with Edward Snowden. There is a kind of political poetry present as Snowden told the world damning secrets about the U.S. surveillance regime while Trump is trying his hardest to keep his nefarious doings as secret as possible for as long as he can.

Deeper Structural Concerns (1) Reimagining U.S. Federalism

Even in the unlikely event that all goes well procedurally, it is no time to gloat about the vindication of the American version of constitutional democracy. Should Trump upset present expectations, and win in November, he will almost certainly again have the perverse, and now anachronistic, peculiarities of the Electoral College to thank. Trump will have little trouble putting out of mind the awkward fact that he prevailed although he once again as in 2016 won fewer votes than his defeated opponent. In 2020 there is no sufficient justification for counting a vote in Idaho or Montana as more valuable than a vote in California or New York. Since the winner in each state gets the whole of its Electoral College vote whether the margin of victory is one vote or one million votes. Democracy as a political system loses legitimacy whenever it cannot dislodge such anachronistic quirks of its electoral system, and the real mandate of a voting majority of the citizenry is denied the fruits of victory.

Of course, there is an important riposte to the effect that the large populations of the two coastal states, with it greater attachment to liberal values, would dominate the electoral process, and do not reflect the country as a whole. It is also claimed that this kind of direct citizen voting framework would further marginalize the relevance of the ‘flyover’ states, and in this sense undermine the federalist character of the republic, which was integral to the envisioned constitutional balance between unity and decentralization that informed the vision of the founders. As such what is put in relief are two distinct questions: was the electoral college a clever solution to this challenge of empowering and protecting diversity while creating a desirable level of unity when the United States was established as a mega-state in the late 18th century? Has this ‘solution’ become in recent decades an outmoded model of federalism given digitized re-framings of people, ideas, and consciousness that has so far occurred in the 21st century. Such re-framings exhibit a variety of tendencies toward localism and centralism, with diminished relevance to the units constituting the sovereign state as political actor? Put differently, is not the country at a stage of political development that federalism needs to be reimagined from ecological, cyber, temporal, humanist, and cosmopolitan perspectives? Reimagining would lead to a deemphasis on the spatial compartmentalization of 50 distinct political entities in the context of national elections as well as acknowledge the deterritorialization of sovereign states, and  especially the United States, as the sole ‘global state.’

A further concern is with the impact of federalist arrangements on the wellbeing of peoples is its dual character. Federalism has given a safe harbor to the ugliest forms of racism and bigotry, but it has also given space for sanctuary and humane values when the central government turns against vulnerable parts of society in a regressive direction. The Trump phenomenon has confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that all political arrangements are fragile, subject to lethal manipulation when the self-restraint and decency of ruling elites is replaced by narcissism, greed, criminality, and demagoguery.

(2) Rigging the Results

As others have observed, Joe Biden will need much more than a simple majority to win the election. He will need a landslide that overcomes not just the impacts of the Electoral College, but also that neutralizes the distorting effects of Republican gerrymandering and widespread voter suppression practices designed to keep persons of color, the poor, and those living in progressive urban neighborhoods from voting. Because Republicans are so focused on winning and upholding privilege whatever the consequences, they have been using their extensive control of state legislatures and governorships throughout the country to disenfranchise their adversaries while organizing their bases of support to participate in vital elections.

Again, the Democratic Party has its own inglorious past, which includes a past shameless reliance on machine politics featuring city hall political manipulations of voting patterns and electoral results. The great game of American politics has always been to varying degrees a game played by unscrupulous actors with many dirty tricks up their soiled sleeves. Political parties are formed to protect interests and win elections, which means that principles tend to be put aside, and the truly virtuous potential leaders tend to be repulsed by the game or excluded by the party leadership. Bernie Sanders is a perfect case in point, being too virtuous, too principled, and too independent to represent the Democratic Party, and this despite showing his relative popularity with the citizenry, surely greater than the candidate chosen by the gatekeepers. In this illuminating respect, there are certain considerations that outweigh winning elections. Concretely, the Democratic Party establishment would rather go with the weaker candidate than go with a stronger alternative who would threaten the donor-driven consensus.

(3) The Erosion and Debasement of Choice: Breaking the ‘Bipartisan Consensus’

There are further related reasons for humility about the functioning of democracy in the United States that extend beyond the electoral system and the disturbing behavior of political parties. The most glaring shortcomings are associated with the absence of alternative approaches made available to the voting public on the most crucial issues confronting society. It relates to the failure of the two-party system when neither party possesses a willingness to support candidates who are willing to advocate overcoming the distortions on the quality of life and governance being wrought by plutocracy, global militarism, predatory capitalism, climate change, and systemic racism.

The current American version of two-party democracy has steadily decayed due to the embedded bipartisan consensus that was originally a functional feature of the political landscape during World War II when the country was productively united in support of an anti-fascist war. This consensus became substantially and more dubiously reconstituted as the ideological foundation of an anti-Communist global crusade that set boundaries on political diversity during the long Cold War. Among the harmful effects of this two-party consensus was curtailing mainstream political debate, discrediting socialist thought, making the outcome of national elections count for far less, making a war economy and militarized state permanent fixtures of governance, generating ‘a deep state’ entrusted with sustaining the consensus, and instrumentalizing respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

It might have been hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Soviet collapse a few years later would have encouraged taking stock, a national turn toward peace, and a greater openness to progressive political ideas. Nothing of the sort occurred during the 1990s, a wasted decade of world order opportunity. The West won the Cold War, but lost the peace by its embrace of consumerism and an economy guided by efficiencies of capital rather than the wellbeing of peoples.

First, attention was redirected to the plutocratic benefits accruing from the absence of an ideological alternative to market-driven economic policy, which meant that the ethics of greed could be practiced without adverse political consequences. Accordingly, with the support of both political parties, the U.S. Government focused its attention on making the world safe for predatory capitalism, a set of policy priorities reflecting what became known as either ‘the Washington consensus’ or more politely, ‘neoliberal globalization.’  This economistic orientation, in effect, a capitalist version of Marxist materialism, encouraged consumerist orgies and environmental irresponsibility. This reflected civilian and most private sector priorities. It was not satisfactory for the militarists and arms dealers who also wanted, and maybe required, an enemy to make the case for continuing with wartime scale military budgets and for restoring their self-esteem as guardians of national and global security.

The first candidate to be a post-Communist enemy was Japan, with its disciplined work force and booming economy that was seen as a growing threat to American ascendancy, at least in the Pacific. This candidate to be the new enemy seemed rather implausible as Japan was the principal U.S. ally in the Pacific region since its defeat in World War II, and was impossible to cast as a security threat to Americn geopolitical primacy.

The next enemy candidate was a resurgent anti-Western Islam. Samuel Huntington’s thesis of ‘the clash of civilizations’ attracted political attention but it still was not plausible as a threat, given Western military dominance. The clash thesis did come to enjoy a dysfunctional credibility after the 9/11 attacks. These attacks produced ‘the war on terror,’ and did have the desired galvanizing effect of re-securitizing American foreign policy with a special emphasis on the Middle East where the energy future of the world seemed to be at risk. What ensued were several disastrous military interventions that resulted in geopolitical setbacks, while causing the devastation of a series of countries subjected to strife and chaos as in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Next comes China, which seems to be a more familiar and plausible geopolitical adversary, but on further examination its role as ‘enemy’ is problematic. China has not attempted to challenge the West militarily or ideologically, but seems to be winning the competition for markets, economic expansionism, and technological innovativeness, and is now being cast by both wings of the American political establishment as a geopolitical adversary worth confronting. Not surprisingly, the Biden people seem as ready as the Trump autocracy to confront China and Iran, and even readier when it comes to Russia, although maybe in a more measured manner, but also one that may be more disposed to invite serious long-term engagements reinforced by a hypocritical solidarity with Hong Kong protesters and Uyghur struggles for human rights.

An America disgraced at home and abroad by its terrible performance in response to the COVID-19 challenge, is a wounded animal that has never been more at odds with the wellbeing of humanity, which urgently requires refocusing on human security, which needs to be concretized by reference to climate change, nuclear weaponry, global migration, food and worker security, demilitarization, global health, and strengthened procedures for global cooperation. This can only happen if the militarist/plutocratic consensus is challenged from outside the party framework, by a movement rather than a political party.

The persistence of this dysfunctional bipartisan consensus represents an unauthorized redrafting of the social contract that continuously reshapes state/society relations to retain its status as a legitimate democracy. It is a political and moral scandal that a considerable fraction of the citizenry lacks health care, affordable higher education and housing, and the society as a whole endures acute inequalities, unjust taxation, infrastructure decay, and climate change without mounting a serious challenge within the two-party framework. Bernie Sander bravely tried twice to push the Democratic Party to the outer limits of the bipartisan consensus, but in the end both in 2016 and 2020 he was bloodied by the DNC establishment that refused to be pushed anywhere near the brink. It is notable that Sanders, like Trump from a rightest direction, sought to alter the outer limits of the consensus but never mounted direct assaults on the structural features of militarism or capitalism.

The Trump phenomenon is an extreme national example of the global populist drift away from democracy by alienated citizenries around the world who cast their votes for demagogues, that is, for individuals who are taking advantage of democratic procedures and institutions to hollow out democracy so as to move particular societies toward autocracy. Such a drift reflects the distinctive features of national narratives as well as reflects a certain set of global conditions that express alienation from what ‘democracy’ bestowed upon their lives. To distract and divert, scapegoating becomes a core tactics of these moves away from democratic cohesion. In a world of inequalities and global warming, there has arisen a frightening receptivity to blaming the stranger or the other for the unfairness being experienced in the forms of inequality, economic displacement, and erosions of national identity.

 

(4) Disenfranchising the World

A final concern involves the disenfranchisement of the peoples of the world. I would maintain that a legitimate U.S. democracy in the 21st century should enlarge its writ to heed the political will of those who reside beyond the territorial boundaries of the country and owe traditional allegiances to another country. These foreigners are deeply affected by the extra-national influence exerted by the United States on their lives and livelihood, and yet are without representation or any means to register formal approval or disapproval. The U.S. by virtue of its global reach, mainly through a network of military bases, naval forces patrolling the high seas, claims based on cyber and space security, and diplomatic leverage, often has more impact on foreign societies than their own government.

Should not consideration be given to some form of non-territorial enfranchisement (not necessarily a full and equal vote) that is more congruent with the realities of a networked, digital world than is the territorial sovereign state? It is time that we deploy our moral and political imagination to envision non-territorial democracy that takes account of geopolitical configurations of power as well as ecosystems that cannot function properly if subject to no source of governance with precedence over the claims of national sovereignty.  The statist territoriality of life on the planet has declined to the point where only multi-leveled democratic governance can hope to address humanely the multiple and diverse challenges directed at humanity as a whole. Europe has pioneered such a development on a regional level, and although paused at present, gives us existential strivings toward new forms of political community and governance.

 

Coda

In essence, we cannot be hopeful about the future unless we commit ourselves to the hard work of deterritorializing democracydemilitarizing the state, pacifying geopolitics, empowering people, and strengthening the United Nations and international law. As well, time as well as space must become integral elements of national, transnational, regional, and global policy formation and problem-solving. This means that short-termism must be supplanted by time horizons that are congruent with the nature of global challenges.

__________________________________________