We don’t know if Donald Trump has retained the US presidency, and will not know the political shape of the country under a potential Biden presidency until the votes in Pennsylvania are counted. But we can draw conclusions from the results so far.
The first is that, by giving away trillions in fiscal stimulus, boosting the share portfolios of middle-class Americans through quantitative easing, and by stigmatising black people and the left, Trump energised his support base. Even if he loses, the president will get more votes than in 2016. And a glance at the polarisation maps, county by county, shows an arc of rightward polarisation running from Oklahoma to Ohio.
In a culture pumped full of neoliberal mythology – that illness is a sign of weakness, that prosperity comes when everybody relentlessly looks out for themselves – letting more than 233,000 people die of Covid-19 was never going to sever the bond between white supremacist voters and their president.
The second is that the Democratic establishment has no strategy: for this election, for government, for the next election or for the rest of the 21st century. Indeed, faced with the battle before them – an information war where the president is the air game and social media the ground game – they have looked like the proverbial Polish cavalryman in 1939.
Confronted with an oligarchic clique prepared to deploy narratives straight out of the far-right playbook, the progressive half of US politics does not even have a strategy function to match the players it is up against. There is nobody on the progressive wing whose job it is to design a route to power in the given circumstances, and even if there were, there are no levers for them to pull.
By waging war against the grassroots – against Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign teams, expertise and activists were frozen out of the Biden campaign – the Democratic National Committee reduced itself to a vote-management machine. And even that didn’t work.
Because, and this third conclusion is significant for the future, Trump attracted Hispanic voters in large numbers, despite his record of locking Hispanic children in cages and attacking the Dreamer programme. There was even a drift to Trump among the black electorate.
This means that, whatever the outcome of this election, the Republican presidential candidate in 2024 is certain to be someone chosen to fuse the white supremacist base with the emerging demographic of socially conservative people of colour. All it would take is for the Republicans to find a persuasive Southern, black evangelical and it could then be game over for the Democratic voting coalition assembled since the Clinton years.
Whether he wins or not, the long-term problem is not Trump: it is the American people. Already deeply polarised, last night they became yet more polarised. The dramatist Bertolt Brecht once pilloried the communist bureaucracy of the German Democratic Republic for its disappointment with the people: “Would it not be easier. In that case for the government. To dissolve the people. And elect another?”
In effect, that’s been the strategy of the Democrats for the past two elections and it hasn’t worked. They’ve relied on demographics to create a so-called “new American majority” of educated white people, minorities and feminist women. But it hasn’t emerged in numbers large enough, and it does not yet have a compelling narrative.
If Trump wins once more, with a minority of the popular vote, it will be because he won the battle of narratives in a system rigged in the Republicans’ favour. He will proceed with momentum. If Biden wins, by a whisker, expect the opposite. There was no “blue wave”, no majority to sweep a Green New Deal through both houses, and very little possibility even for an ordinary fiscal stimulus, without a clear Senate majority.
Faced with climate change and geostrategic decline, the US electorate have become unable to make rational strategic decisions using the institutions in front of them. The federal government’s remedy for every crisis since the dot-com crash in 2000 has been to borrow and print money, sure of the fact that the dollar’s global supremacy imposes minimal economic costs in the short and medium term.
But long-term decline continues unabated. Sure, the Cuban reactionaries of Miami can stage a decent party for their favourite racist; but Trump’s America can’t even stage an efficient coup in its own backyard. The Venezuelan fiasco, followed by the election triumph of the Movement for Socialism in Bolivia, followed by Chile’s historic rejection of its CIA-imposed neoliberal constitution, are signs of the US’s shrinking reach.
We, the Brits, have lived through a long imperial decline, but it was rarely dramatised at elections. Battles over the post-imperial future took place within parties as much as through them: as with Oswald Mosley versus Ramsay Macdonald in 1931, or Enoch Powell versus Ted Heath in 1968.
[see also: Why US democracy as we know it may soon be over]
The US, by contrast, is playing out its geostrategic fall through party polarisation. Under a Biden presidency, which is still possible, America would re-engage with Europe, revive Nato, draw tougher red lines around Russia and its proxies. But a country as badly divided as this is only travelling one way in the global hierarchy, and that’s downwards.
For the rest of the world, the problem is not that Trump happened, but that another Trump is likely. Even to beat Trump, Biden has been forced to soft-pedal on climate change, to take a needlessly isolationist stance on China, and to disavow the narrative of hope and progress that inspired mass movements to form behind Sanders and Warren. The world needs the US to wake up to the threat of climate chaos. For that it needs the Democrats to become a party that can persuade them.
It is counterfactual, but I don’t think Bernie Sanders would have done any better than Biden. He would, for certain, have energised the Midwest. But in the parallel universe where Sanders secured the nomination, my guess is that the Democratic elite would have sabotaged him just as effectively as the Liberal Democrats and Change UK sabotaged Jeremy Corbyn. That is what liberal centrism does in the 21st century: it attacks the left and fumbles with electoral opportunities.
If Biden wins, the Democratic Party has to use the next four years to build an organisation that can fight oligarchic conservative populism effectively. This means building a new formal layer of activism and accountability in the space between the DNC and the grassroots: something more like a social-democratic party than today’s outmoded party institutions.
The single most important priority – more important even than universal healthcare – is strengthening US democracy. Only a democratic America, oriented to the world, can help us slow down climate change and prevent the country’s institutions from shattering under the strain.
I’ve written before about the timid remedies of the liberal-democratic legal scholars – a limp series of “subconstitutional” tweaks, judicial appointments, boundary changes and curbs on tech monopolies. But they would be better than nothing.
Because the institutions and the electorate that put Trump in office are quite capable of handing power to someone worse. If we do achieve a four-year respite under Biden, it won’t be the end of white supremacism and misogyny; this will continue as a low-level insurgency, with the broken republican democracy of Weimar as the playbook.