US election 2020: Of winning a victory for liberal democracy - and inheriting a pile of rubble


The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is a significant victory for liberal democracy in the US and for a policy of compassion and cooperation. At the same time, the new government is facing a political pile of rubble full of enormous challenges.

Weißes Haus 2020 nach der Wahl
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Celebrations following the victory of Joe Biden on Black-Lives-Matter Plaza in front of the White House.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris did it. After long months of campaigning, they beat Donald Trump and Mike Pence by more than four million votes nationwide and a majority in the decisive states. The Trump era is now coming to an end the same way it began, with a slew of norm violations, conspiracy theories, and attempts to destroy trust in democratic institutions and the community of citizens. But Trump seems helpless. The reins of power have already slipped out of his hands.

This election is a great victory for liberal democracy. It will bring a change of direction for the country and a possible turning point for international relations and the global order. Its importance can hardly be overstated. It occurred against a backdrop of profound domestic political and social crises: An unchecked pandemic that has cost well over 200,000 lives, a severe economic and social crisis, social conflicts over structural racism and the country’s own history, and a political culture war over the identity and the very fabric of the country and American society.

There is now a real chance for a new beginning. Yet the incoming administration is facing immense challenges.

1. Biden is taking over a pile of rubble

Trump is leaving his successor a country in shambles on all levels. The most immediate challenges facing the new administration are the raging pandemic and a flailing economy. Federal institutions have taken a hard hit, such as the State Department or the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self. It will take time to restore these institutions and to return to functional policy-making processes. Add to this a 20-trillion-dollar mountain of debt that is severely restricting the scope for political action. Moreover, the United States’ reputation and appeal around the world has suffered massively and won’t be restored easily, let alone quickly. In addition, Biden will have to deal with a toxic domestic political climate in which a large portion of the citizenry will initially consider his election illegitimate thanks to Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the election. These are anything but simple conditions to set out from.

2. Institutions prove stable at a critical time

The much-lambasted democratic institutions impressively proved themselves this week under extremely difficult circumstances. The media reported and informed the public responsibly, without haste and excitement, and without jumping through every hoop Trump dangled in front of them. This was particularly important because it was an election without historical precedent, both due to the pandemic and Trump’s attacks leading up to it. This calm demeanor has instilled a sense of confidence and serenity in broad sections of the population, despite the long delays and the uncertainty that came with them. State and local election officials also managed to ensure a very smooth election and vote counting process. This is all the more remarkable as new, pandemic-safe voting processes had to be introduced at short notice and an exceptionally large number of new volunteer ballot workers had to be recruited and trained. This week has, once again, demonstrated the importance of functioning federalism for the stability of democracies and confidence in democratic processes. And last, but not least, the courts proved their independence and greatly helped keep the situation stable, contrary to many fears voiced in the run-up to the elections.

3. High voter turnout and political polarization

Never before have so many people cast their vote in a US presidential election. Voter turnout rates were higher than at any time since the beginning of the 20th century. On the one hand, this bodes well for democracy because it shows how many people trust that politics can make a real difference to their lives and the country. On the other hand, it is also a result of political polarization. Two starkly different candidates and visions for the future of the country were up for election. The high voter turnout was also fueled by fear on both sides that a victory by the other side would plunge the country into chaos and spell the end of American civilization. This social climate of fear also helped refute the Democrats’ long-standing thesis that high voter turnout would always be to their advantage. In the best case, this might cause Republicans to reconsider their policy of systematic voter suppression.

Another remarkable aspect of this election were the new additions to the list of swing states. In addition to traditional swing states like Ohio, Iowa, and Florida, states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are also seeing extremely tight margins now, and perhaps also will in the future. This also applies some Southern states, such as Georgia and North Carolina, parts of the Southwest with Nevada and Arizona, and even to Texas. This could throw even more wrenches into efforts for non-partisan cooperation because in all these toss-up states, a political zero-sum game holds the risk that the parties will try to distinguish themselves from each other even more harshly.

Addressing these social and political divisions therefore requires bottom-up approaches more than ever, building trust in institutions, public infrastructure, and non-partisan cooperation at the community level. At the federal level, the Biden administration will accompany such approaches by doing everything it can to prevent rhetoric that might further divide the country. While this won’t solve the problems at hand, it will create the right conditions to address them.

4. The urban-rural divide

Much has been written about the Blue coasts and Red heartland of the United States. But the fundamental political rift does not run between state lines, but within them. It is the chasm between urban agglomerations and rural areas. In the middle between the two, the politically more diverse and thus highly contested suburbs form a third category. This socio-geographic disparity is accompanied by contrasting cultural and political attitudes and educational backgrounds. One factor that is not decisive, however, is the voters’ economic situation. As in 2016, the average income of Trump voters exceeds that of Biden supporters. Given that the US electoral system affords disproportionate political power to rural states, the Democrats urgently need a more viable political strategy for rural areas. Addressing the social urban-rural divide is also the key issue to tackle the political polarization at the federal level that has been paralyzing the United States in recent years.

5. Right-wing populism will remain. Expect the Republicans to play political gridlock.

The Democrats fell short of their own great hopes for a landslide victory for Biden, and thus also for a resounding, unambiguous rejection of Trumpist populism. Trump’s policies have proven to be a viable strategy for Republicans. They were able to make significant gains among the general electorate and even among Black and Latino voters. This also debunks some Democrats’ thesis that demographic change towards more social diversity would automatically lead to political majorities for them.

This significantly dampens hopes that the Republican Party will be reformed and become more moderate in the medium term. The blend of anti-elite rhetoric, nationalism, socio-political revisionism, delegitimizing one’s opponent, and systematic lies and conspiracy theories will remain part of American politics in the foreseeable future.

With this strategy, the Republicans earned new seats in the House of Representatives and will likely uphold their Senate majority in this election. Equally important are their successes at the state level, where they were able to win or defend solid majorities in state parliaments, giving them the chance to gerrymander districts in their favor next year and thus cement their political power for years to come.

The result will probably be a policy of radical gridlock against the Biden-Harris administration, according to the maxim: I’ll do anything that hurts my opponent more than me. This does not bode well for the new administration’s ambitious reform plans, despite the wide social majorities for its policies nationwide, from climate policy and gun laws to health policy.

For perspective, it will also be important to take a good look at mail-in voting to see the effect of the pandemic on this election. There is no question that the Trump government’s catastrophic mismanagement has earned Biden votes. But it remains to be seen to what extent the pandemic has also heightened fears and insecurities among broad sections of the population, driving them even further into the arms of populists and conspiracy theorists. One thing is for certain: Large sections of the Republican camp have abandoned all regard for facts and even their personal economic and physical wellbeing in support of a tribal political affiliation, a sense of “us against them”.

6. What we can expect and what is expected of us

Given all these challenges facing the new administration, Germany and Europe should entertain realistic expectations. Biden and Harris will depend on the support of like-minded partners at least as much as Europe depends on them. And yet, with this government, we can now open a new chapter in transatlantic relations, which is direly needed because we face many shared challenges, from overcoming the climate crisis, defending and consolidating our liberal democracies both at home and to the outside, to policies to shape our digital world and our cooperative, lawful global order. Differences of opinion and conflicting interests will continue to exist. But with the Biden government, the European Union expects a partner who largely shares our view of global challenges, who can revive the transatlantic alliance of values, and who is committed to strengthening democratic alliances worldwide. There’s no time to lose. We must leverage our combined strength to make good use of the next four years - because we don’t know what comes after.