Arvanitakis on American politics: Slowly moving forward

| November 28, 2020

It has been almost a month since the Presidential election and most things have begun settling now that President-elect Biden’s transition team has started accessing resources. Because of the delays, the transition team has just over 50 days to begin the formal process – although unofficially, Biden’s team had been working away since the shortly after the election.

This is no small task: the USA federal bureaucracy has approximately two million employees and the President becomes the ‘commander in chief’ of 1.3 million active duty troops deployed domestically and across the world.

As Biden moves to deal with his many domestic challenges , including COVID19, a divided nation and the economic consequences of a global pandemic, and an attempt to reconnect with former allies and re-establish American leadership, he must also contemplate what happens in the 2022 mid-terms and 2024 elections.

This may feel like a long way off but given Biden’s announcement that he is strictly a one-term president, the Democrats, Biden and even the Republicans must be thinking about ‘Trump Mark II’ – which may or may not involve Donald Trump.

Within this context, here are three things to contemplate about the aftermath of the 2020 election.

1. Will ‘democratic norms’ return?

One of the things that made Donald Trump so appealing to a large section of his followers was that he was willing to ignore accepted democratic norms.

Writing in 2017, Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam argued that Trump was able to establish himself as the archetypal American: an outsider and maverick who identified the cause of America’s decline which he saw as political correctness, immigrants, endless wars in ‘shithole’ nations, a dishonest media and corrupt and incestuous political system.

In so doing, Trump also identified the solution: himself.

As he did this, Trump broke so many political and presidential norms, most of us stopped caring. Shortly after Trump’s election, Amy Siskind, a former Wall Street executive, started The Weekly List cataloguing news stories documenting “eroding norms” under the Trump Presidency.

We must remember, that much of our democratic institutions rely on certain political norms. Trump is not the only politician to break them, however. Breaking norm behaviour is something embraced by both the left and the right and is often celebrated.

For example, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, has made a point of saying she will not play by the old rules of Washington. As The Guardian reported, both allies and rivals agree that Ocasio-Cortez has upended Democratic politics, pushing the party inexorably to the left including joining climate activists for a protest inside House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office!

There are obvious and significant differences between Trump and Ocasio-Cortez. The point is, however, that the base from the left and the right want radical change, and while we may find Trump’s behaviour vulgar, norm breaking is what drives this change.

While Biden often talks about returning to the ‘old ways’, most of his colleagues on both the left and right seem to have embraced their own way of breaking the rules.

2. How will Democratic in-fighting end?

Despite winning the Presidency, the Democrats underperformed in both the House and the Senate. Consequently, it did not take long for the fragile alliance of the Democratic Party to fray.

Within days, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez began a scathing attack on the Democratic party for incompetence in a no-holds-barred, post-election interview with the New York Times. In so doing, Ocasio-Cortez warned the incoming Biden administration that if it does not put progressives in top positions, the party would lose big in the 2022 midterm elections.

Ocasio-Cortez made it clear that Biden won on the back of progressive rallying around him. Identifying causes driven by young people, Black activists, gender activists and environmentalists, Ocasio-Cortez outlined that this was the future of the party. Following her Times interview, Ocasio-Cortez appeared on CNN stating:

“Progressives have assets to offer the party that the party has not yet fully leaned into… Every single swing seat member that co-sponsored Medicare for All won their re-election, and so the conversation is a little bit deeper than saying anything progressive is toxic.”

The response from the Party’s moderates was swift: stating that you have to flip states to win and only a centrist position will get you that. In fact, Conor Lamb, who survived a Republican challenge in Pennsylvania, responded directly to Ocasio-Cortez by saying Democrats were given a message on election day: there was a clear backlash to progressive policies which risk killing their House majority.

How this will end no one knows, but how the warring factions behave will shape the 2024 election.

3. Stress testing democracy

The third point to note that both the behaviour of the Trump Administration in refusing to concede defeat and the pandemic have stress-tested America’s democracy.

Many argue that American power is in declining globally and it is no longer a beacon of democracy.

While there is no doubt that we have seen a shift in the global power dynamic, America seems to have survived the 2020 stress test. This is not to say that it has not been left bruised and battered, but the warnings of conflict at polling booths and a post-election meltdown did not eventuate.

While deeply divided, the nation goes on with a president-elect whose Trump-based ‘Sleepy Joe’ label may well become his best asset: someone who simply aims to make people feel relaxed about politics again. Biden may well be the President America needs right now: someone that most of us find boring, inoffensive and middle of the road.