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Change of guard in the US: the good, the bad – and the hopeful

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal

Hero image description: President Joe Biden address the crowd and nation during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan 2021. Credit: Carlos M. Vazquez II/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CC BY 2.0) Image credit:Carlos M. Vazquez II/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Image license:CC BY 2.0

The good

Let’s start with the good news. There has been a change of guard in the US, and democracy has prevailed. Against the backdrop of a raging pandemic and the violence that had enveloped the Capitol a few weeks before, the inauguration of Joe Biden as the country’s 46th President went seamlessly – and it was a tribute to the kind of diversity and talent that have always made America great.

The elections also marked momentous firsts. Kamala Harris has become not only the first woman, but also the first woman of colour, to become Vice President in US history. Georgia, a state that had been reliably red since 1992 and turned blue last November, elected its first ever African-American Senator, Rev. Raphael Warnock, as well as its first ever Jewish Senator, Jon Ossoff.

The story of the flipping of Georgia is also the story of the commitment and perseverance of thousands of organisers, volunteers and canvassers, Stacey Abrams foremost among them. Their large-scale mobilisation efforts resulted in a massive turnout, especially among Black communities – and that made all the difference. Beyond Georgia, the 2020 elections played out in a year of national reckoning with police brutality and systemic inequality, which was instrumental in unleashing the political might of Black voters across the US.

The bad

But even if former President Trump was defeated in these elections, Trumpism is alive and well – and it will continue to test the quality and resilience of democratic governance in the US. Biden may have won the highest number of popular votes for any candidate in US history, but Trump won the second largest, and his hold on the Republican party and the right-wing political agenda remains remarkably strong.

A hallmark of Trumpism has been to exploit the grievances of disaffected pockets of the population, especially among the less privileged white working class, through a noxious combination of fear, anger and an “us vs them” rhetoric that has not lost its appeal. Another key feature has been a relentless attack on facts and truth, alongside the institutional foundations that sustain them. Just as one example, polls suggest that one in four US citizens believe that the presidential elections were stolen. This after Trump and his allies spent months making unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud and undermining elected officials and government authorities at both the federal and the state levels.

As the scenes from the assault on the Capitol and the series of events and actions leading up to it vividly capture, the US is polarised along opposing and uncompromising blocks that have become deeply entrenched. The country seems to inhabit two completely different political, social, economic and cultural realities that seem difficult to reconcile. The formal and informal rules of the game that had long worked in mutually reinforcing ways to provide predictability and reliability (including the basic principle that the losing presidential candidate recognises his/her opponent’s victory) can no longer be taken for granted.

However, Trumpism is not in itself the cause of the kinds of challenges that the US confronts today, but rather a symptom. Both the 2016 and the 2020 elections reflect frustrations with “politics as usual” that have been brewing within the political system at least since the 2008 financial crisis, if not over the past several decades.

Widening inequalities, often galvanised around identity-based cleavages, have laid bare frailties of the social contract that are rooted in a profound lack of trust and legitimacy in the state and other mechanisms of democratic representation and accountability, including political parties and traditional media. Reflecting this eroding trust in political institutions and established rules, norms and practices, since 2016 successive Economist Intelligence Unit democracy indices have ranked the US as a flawed democracy.

The hopeful

What this suggests is that the US looks a lot like the other struggling democracies of the world, and is fragile in its own ways. At their core, fragility and resilience are about how actors in state and society interact to channel different interests, needs and demands to address collective challenges, and to mediate conflict. Like many other countries, the US is living through a deeply fraught process of contestation to redefine power relations and underlying political settlements, in ways that can be progressive (Black Lives Matter) as well as considerably less so (the strengthening of white supremacist groups).

But in the powerful words of national Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman during the presidential inauguration, this does not mean that the United States is a nation that is broken, “but simply unfinished”. Or as John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, put it shortly before he died in 2020, “democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build … a nation…in peace with itself”.

Democracy, then, is a work in progress that must be fought for and nourished. As this very election shows, there may be breakthroughs but there will always be setbacks too. The US is clearly in bad need of reform, including changes that are essential to tackle systemic racism and other fundamental inequalities, as well as to ensure the integrity of the electoral process and the democratic rules of the game.

But this is where the power of its example and the hope of the incoming administration may well lie: in its own engagement in a never-ending push and pull to foster a more inclusive and cohesive union and live up to democratic principles, even if this will always remain far from perfect. The US can continue to be a beacon of hope, however unfinished.