America’s democratic reawakening


By Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza:

The American nightmare under the unhinged, chaotic, incompetent, cruel, crude, corrupt, authoritarian and exhausting presidency of Donald Trump is over. The United States (US) can now exhale and begin to dig itself out of the abyss of national and global ignominy, a superpower that for four long years was shamelessly led by a pathological liar, an irredeemable narcissist, an incorrigible racist, a contemptible showman and a reprehensible bully who demeaned and diminished democracies and comforted and cavorted with dictatorships around the world.

The Trump defeat


Trump will be remembered as one of the worst presidents in US history, who brutally and blithely exposed the failings and fragilities of American democracy, the enduring polarisations of its body politic and the deformities of its institutions.

Many commentators have bemoaned how the Trump presidency severely damaged American society and global standing. Trump’s transgressions are aptly captured by leading columnists in The New York Times in a series ‘What Have We Lost’.

They variously claim, Trump’s shocking election led to the loss of naivety as the country was dragged to the brink of ruin; America was robbed of its innocence and optimism as he extravagantly exposed some of its hideous history and attributes; the perpetual state of emergency impoverished the national imagination, culture, creativity and thinking; his boorish behaviour smashed the decency floor for society; he emboldened moral cynicism that eroded the spirit of generosity as selfishness was normalised and turned into a national credo; his incendiary populist partisanship systematically undermined the social capital of trust, connectivity and community; his perpetual and pervasive outrage, lies, scandals and incivility sapped national pride and discourse; his corrosive nationalism and belligerence dimmed America’s aura and standing in the world, accelerated the demise of Pax-Americana, tarnished democracy and emboldened autocracies and facilitated China’s great leap past America.


The roots of Trump’s loss lie in the incompatibility of his electoral promises of authoritarian nationalism and economic populism in 2016 and the Republican Party’s fiercely anti-populist economic agenda by which he actually governed. So instead of enacting a popular infrastructure bill, he supported a massive tax cut that benefitted the rich. His trade war with China did not revive domestic manufacturing; instead, it ravaged farmers and did little to cut the trade deficit.

Trump inherited a growing economy from the Obama administration, which improved little under his tenure. “The United States grew at an average annual rate of 2.5 percent during Trump’s first three years, almost identical to the 2.4 percent pace during president Barack Obama’s final 36 months.” This made it difficult to distinguish the Trump economy from the Obama economy, notwithstanding Trump’s promises and boasts of his business prowess, which was fake given his history of serial bankruptcies, staggering business incompetence and tax avoidance revealed in a sensational expose by The New York Times in late September and early October. Not surprisingly, voters showed increasing faith in Biden’s ability to rebuild the pandemic-ravaged economy.

As the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic surged across the country, the Republican Senate balked at passing a new stimulus bill that would have helped millions of people and bolstered Trump’s populist economic agenda. To the delight of Republicans, the Trump administration ended up redistributing “wealth upward even more aggressively than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush did. But for Trump, the political consequences have been dire”.

All too often, the condemnations of the Trump presidency become a deflection when he is depicted as an aberration rather than an embodiment of the profound and long-standing debilities and deficits of American society and democracy. The fact that about 40 percent of the population consistently supported him throughout his presidency, and he won 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, shows he represented a large swath of American society and embraced their values of intolerance, bigotry and racism. But he also made more inroads than any Republican president among non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Black men gesturing to the appeal of his strutting conservative machismo.

In The New York Times series noted above, some acknowledge the ugly truths of the Trump phenomenon. Jamelle Bouie puts it well: “For many millions of Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump has been a kind of transgression, an endless assault on dignity, decency and decorum… But his transgressions are less a novel assault on American institutions than they are a stark recapitulation of past failure and catastrophe…. What is terrible about Trump is also terrible about the United States. Everything we’ve seen in the last four years — the nativism, the racism, the corruption, the wanton exploitation of the weak and unconcealed contempt for the vulnerable — is as much a part of the American story as our highest ideals and aspirations. The line to Trump runs through the whole of American history…”

But instead of generating a serious reckoning with the uncomfortable realities laid bare by the Trump presidency, another commentator laments, there “has been widespread retreat from revelation, let alone from any subsequent conversion, and a rush back to the comforts of one’s preconceptions and one’s tribe”. The right, left and centre of American politics responded to these revelations “[s]ometimes with recognition and adaptation, but more often with denial”.

However, it is also true that the breadth and depth of Trump’s perverse omnipresence and invasion of the fractious nation’s political space and discourse shook Americans out of their complacency; it provoked a massive backlash among women, minorities, aggrieved independents and livid liberals that promised to revitalise American democracy.

In the vanguard of the democratic resistance were black women, the unshakeable bedrock of the Democratic Party, the conscience of the beleaguered nation. They marched and mobilised, volunteered and voted overwhelmingly for the Biden-Harris ticket to rescue the country that had oppressed, exploited and marginalised them for centuries from the Trump nightmare.

Trump’s train wreck was brought to a halt by facts he failed to bend to his will, to banish to the fantasies of fake news, to denigrate and deny. He was mauled by the deadly facts of the coronavirus pandemic, the undeniable facts of economic collapse, the haunting facts of tens of millions of lives and livelihoods destroyed, the hideous facts of a country coming apart at the seams, the humbling facts of a superpower surging towards decline in compressed time before the gaze of an incredulous world.

The election represented the repudiation of Trump by a majority of Americans who had never voted for him in the first place; in 2016, he lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. He has lost to Biden by more than 4 million votes. However, the election of Trump in 2016 and the nail-biting finish in 2020 showed the inherent flaws of American democracy.

The Biden victory

The election also represented a resounding affirmation of the Biden-Harris ticket. Six dynamics propelled Biden to victory. First, he captured the mood of the country by campaigning for the “soul of America”. He sold himself as the sober and descent pragmatist who would bring back civility and compromise, pursue national unity and public service and rescue the country from the abyss of political partisanship and Trump’s swamp of personal avarice and corruption and moral nihilism. He successfully made the election a referendum on Trump.

Second, like Obama before him, Biden’s was a crisis candidacy, forged in the burning inferno of the worst health and economic crisis in a century that the Trump presidency squandered through staggering ineptitude. Biden seized the moment as he exuded empathy and competence steeled by personal tragedy and a long political career. He believed in science, facts, collective action and government capability and intervention as part of the solution, not the enemy of the Republican imagination, to resolving crises and promoting national wellbeing. Unlike Hillary Clinton, after the bruising campaign, he managed to unite the party behind him including the restive left. He also revived the Obama coalition.

Third, Biden made an inspiring choice for running mate, Senator Kamala Harris. As a Black and Asian woman, Harris carried the historic weight of struggles against racism and white supremacy and women’s marginalisation in a charged moment of unprecedented national and global protests under the banner of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, Trump’s misogyny had revitalised the American women’s movement. As a daughter of immigrant parents from India and Jamaica, Harris recreated Obama’s multiracial and migrant appeal and attracted the new African and Asian diasporas at a time of draconian anti-immigration rhetoric and policies.

As a graduate of Howard University, she affirmed the intellectual prowess and transformative power of HBCUs and mobilised the black middle class produced by HBCUs. The stature of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha soared “and people began to understand precisely what a Black sisterhood is — the strength and support of those bonds. These women, 300,000 strong, organised for the Biden-Harris ticket. And their wondrous blend of accomplishment and poise was writ large”. Harris has become the first woman, first black woman, and first woman of colour to ascend to the highest political office in American history, a monumental achievement that has electrified women across the country.

Fourth, Biden’s campaign skilfully reinstated the blue wall around the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and looked poised to flip the red and rapidly diversifying states of Arizona and Georgia. He was saved by the cities without alienating the suburbs by his reassuring balancing appeals to the anxieties and aspirations of African Americans and other minorities, as well as white workers and white women, who gravitated to him in larger numbers than Hillary Clinton. Particularly challenging was how to address issues of police brutality, law and order and racial equality and justice.

Fifth, Democrats have progressively won the battle of ideas, so that ideas espoused by the Democratic Party platform in 2020 which would have seemed radical when Obama ran for office suddenly appeared moderate. Over the last century, four major ideological battles have been fought in American politics and society: on the role of the state and the market, social mores and policy, racial equality and justice and America’s international relations with its allies, rivals and the developing countries.

Following the demise of Keynesian economics and rise of neo-liberalism at the turn of the 1980s, Republicans unapologetically favoured small government and free markets, while Democrats stuck to their preference for larger government and regulated markets. To quote David Brooks, “That debate ebbed and flowed over the years, but 2020 has turned out to be a pivotal year in the struggle, and it looks now as if we can declare a winner. The Democrats won the big argument of the 20th century. It’s not that everybody has become a Democrat, but even many Republicans are now embracing basic Democratic assumptions. Americans across the board fear economic and physical insecurity more than an overweening state. The era of big government is here.”

If the Great Recession dented the neo-liberal hegemony of limited government and unfettered markets, Covid-19 has buried it. To quote Brooks again, “Covid-19 has pushed voters to the left. It’s made Americans feel vulnerable and more likely to support government efforts to reduce that vulnerability… This greater support for social safety net programmes transcends political ideology”. About 60 percent of Americans now believe government should do more to solve national problems, and two-thirds that it should fight the effects of climate change.

American society has also been moving left on contentious social policies such as gender equality, abortion and sexuality. According to the Pew Research Centre, in 2020, 57 percent of adult Americans say the US has not gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men; the figure is 64 percent among women and 49 percent among men and 76 percent among Democrats compared to 33 percent among Republicans.

Seventy-seven percent say sexual harassment is a major obstacle to gender equality. On abortion, the majority of Americans, 61 percent, continued to support legal abortion and 70 percent opposed overturning Roe vs. Wade. Sixty-one percent supported same sex marriage while 31 percent opposed, the reverse of attitudes in 2004 when 60 percent were opposed and 31 percent were in favour. There are of course variations by political party, religious affiliation and demographic group.

As for foreign policy, 73 percent “say that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, while 26 percent say that military strength is the best way to do this. By a similar margin, more Americans say the US should take the interests of allies into account, even if it means making compromises, than think the US should follow its own national interests when allies disagree (68 percent vs. 31 percent)”. Democrats and Independents score highest at 90 percent and 83 percent on the two questions, while Republicans are more evenly split with 53 percent and 51 percent. Those younger than 50 are more likely to favour diplomacy and compromise with allies. On the US involvement in the global economy 73 percent say it is a good thing; an opinion that is highest for those with college education at 86 percent and drops to 64 percent to those with high school education or less.

Clearly, notwithstanding the loud fulminations of America’s right wing, inflated by the Trump presidency, the America of 2020 is more liberal than the America of 2016, or 2000, let alone 1950 that conservatives sought to restore in their plaintive cry “Make America Great Again”. Progressives need to deconstruct the narrative that sees the US as a naturally conservative country whose authentic overlords are Republicans in which Democrats come to power only as periodic interlopers. This often leads Republicans playing hardball and Democrats playing softball; the former are always ready for combat and the latter for compromise.

Sixth, America is becoming more diverse and destined to become a majority-minority nation in the mid-2040s. The demographic shifts are evident in even comparing the electorate in 2016 to 2020. Demography is of course not destiny. The country changes and so do political parties. At one time African Americans largely voted Republican, the party of Lincoln, then drifted to the Democrats, the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that propelled the Republicans to adopt their Southern Strategy of racist appeals to white voters.

However, trends point to what Fessenden and Gamio call “The relentless shrinking of Trump’s base”. From 1976 to 2018, white voters without college degrees declined from 71 percent to 39 percent, while for white voters with college degrees doubled from 17 percent to 34 percent and minority voters more than doubled from 11 percent to 27 percent. The shifts in age are no less telling. Between 2016 and 2020, voters among the silent and older generations fell from 30 percent to 9 percent, baby boomers from 38 percent to 29 percent, Gen X from 26 percent to 23 percent, while millennials increased from 6 percent to 25 percent and Gen Z from 0 percent to 13 percent.

Notwithstanding the cultural and demographic advantages enjoyed by the Democrats predictions of a blue wave failed to materialise. In the immediate aftermath of the election, panic and cheeriness gripped the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, as Trump bagged Florida and Texas and took an early lead in the polls in the battleground states and Republicans held on to Senate races that had been expected to flip and won House seats from Democrats.

Some feared or hoped for a repeat of 2016, and questioned the accuracy of the polls that had shown Biden and Democrats in a commanding lead. But in an editorial, The Washington Post reminded its readers, “Surprise! The election is unfolding as predicted”. As the voter counting continued from hours to days and Biden’s prospects brightened, the narrative and expectations shifted.

The author is Vice-Chancellor at United States International University – Africa

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