On 4 November, Americans woke up not knowing who the next US president will be. We knew going into this election that voters – and the world – would be left without a definitive result until some time after the polls had closed. In this, our pandemic election, more votes were cast ahead of election day than at any other time in the republic’s history, either by early in-person voting or mail-in votes. And in some swing states – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – those votes cannot be counted until election day. We were in for the long haul.
Make no mistake: this is an unprecedented test for American democracy.
During the campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly said that the election should be decided on the night of 3 November. He also raised the spectre of electoral fraud, assuring his supporters that he would dispatch lawyers to the key battleground state of Pennsylvania to challenge the counting of mail-in ballots. “As soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” he said on 1 November.
National polls had consistently put Joe Biden ahead of Trump with respect to the popular vote. But all this did was to distract excitable commentators and keyboard warriors – as it did in 2016 – from an inconvenient truth: in the US the popular vote doesn’t matter; the electoral college does. At the time of writing, it was too close to call the results in states such as Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania that will determine who will occupy the White House.
[see also: Darkness has fallen on American democracy]
If Joe Biden had prevailed in Florida or Texas, as some pollsters had predicted and his supporters hoped, we could have retired for the night, assured of a new Democratic presidency. But both states voted for Trump, and so we now face days and even weeks of uncertainty. We also don’t, as I write, know the result in Georgia, even though pundits thought that the state would declare before the day was over; this is because, in an incredible piece of Americana, a pipe burst in a room where ballots were kept in Fulton County, Atlanta, delaying the ballot count.
At least one state flipped for Biden. A combination of Hispanic voters and suburbanites disgusted by the Trump administration meant that Arizona – previously a Republican redoubt – voted for Biden, which is a significant accomplishment for the Democratic Party.
But this election is a real challenge for the American voter. In a politically fractured nation, one consumed by Covid-19 and riven by economic inequalities, racial injustices, partisan media and a reactionary president, people want certainty; a sense that, for all of the crisis and instability of the past four years, the republic can correct itself by letting the people speak. That hasn’t happened.
This election is also a challenge for the world. Speaking in the early hours of 4 November, Trump described the results as “phenomenal”, and said that he had been ready to celebrate. In a lurid speech, he then declared that he had won Georgia and Pennsylvania, even though those states had yet to declare a winner. He called the delay in the results “a fraud on the American people” and threatened to challenge the outcome in the Supreme Court. His strategy is to sow doubt about the legitimacy of an election that he is, at the time of writing, in danger of losing.
Speaking in Delaware a few hours earlier, Joe Biden projected confidence to a crowd of supporters. “We feel good about where we are. We really do. It ain’t over until every vote is counted. Every ballot is counted.”
The Biden campaign has spent weeks tempering expectations that a winner would be declared in good time. But the reality remains the same: if Trump wins, either legitimately or through force or fraud, the result will be disastrous for the United States. The nation’s international standing will continue to decline and its alliances will be further tested; the civil service will be dangerously politicised; legal immigration will fall and hostility towards immigrants will intensify; the media will be maligned and encouraged to be distrusted; and far-right groups will continue to enjoy the tacit support of the most powerful person in the country.
But there is a more dangerous scenario, in which Biden secures a narrow win and the Republicans get the result overturned in court. That would throw the legitimacy of the entire US electoral process into doubt, it would tar a supposedly independent judiciary, weaken the separation between the branches of government and further entrench executive power. In short, it would spell the death of the cherished ideal of American democracy.
It is possible that none of this will come to pass, that the US will witness a peaceful transition to a Biden administration. But who would make such a prediction in the shadow of Trump’s loserdom?
“Keep the faith, guys,” Biden urged his supporters late on election night. But faith can be tested. It is tested all the time. And the institutions of the United States are about to be strained to breaking point. Before his erratic address from the White House, Donald Trump tweeted that election night was “a big WIN” and claimed that “they are trying to STEAL the election”.
He spoke as the votes were still being counted. Few would doubt that the republic is in crisis and we can have little confidence about who will win. We can only cling with hope to the words of the poet John Milton: “Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.”
Emily will discuss the US election with Attica Locke, the BBC’s James Naughtie and Sarah Churchwell in an online Cambridge Literary Festival event on 21 November: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos