As an American expat living in Malaysia, I’m always surprised at not just the level of interest in US politics here, but the depth of that interest. Perhaps I shouldn’t be: America is, for good or ill, a profoundly influential country, and its elections can and do have significant impacts on many places outside of the US. What I find more surprising is how detailed that interest sometimes runs, with locals here exhibiting a keen understanding of the peculiarities of the American electoral system, from the odd way we select our president (Americans do not vote directly to elect the president) to “swing states” to term limits, and more.
The 2020 election has not only resulted in record voter turnout in the US, but sharply increased interest around the world. Put plainly, a lot is at stake.
During the stressful hours on November 4 here in Malaysia, when it was late into election night in the US and results were coming in, I got lots of texts and emails from friends here and elsewhere in Asia… possibly because I am one of the few Americans they know! Most were checking on me, making sure I hadn’t melted down from anxiety, but a lot of them were asking for my opinion and insights – as if I am somehow qualified to offer any. (I continually get asked about the Electoral College and why the US elects its presidents this way – the efforts to abolish this distinctly un-democratic system have continued for many years, and regardless of who wins this election, it will only increase the calls to finally get rid of the Electoral College, something that’s unfortunately much easier said than done.)
As I write this on November 5, the presidential election still hasn’t been decided. It certainly looks bleak for Donald Trump, though, as his campaign has launched its expected fusillade of lawsuits in multiple states in a last-ditch effort to snatch an electoral victory from the increasingly obvious jaws of defeat. After a few hours of tension and 2016 déjà vu as a handful of pivotal states such as Florida and Ohio settled into the Trump column, the possible paths to victory now look much better for Joe Biden.
The close and bitterly acrimonious nature of the election has left no doubt that America is a politically fractured nation. Even if Trump goes on to lose, here’s the sobering fact that remains: Despite nearly four years of demagoguery, race-baiting, incompetence, blatantly using the office for personal gain, and a non-stop virtual tsunami of lying (over 25,000 lies and misleading statements as catalogued by The Washington Post), all amid a global pandemic that has killed over 230,000 Americans and devastated the US economy – in absolutely no small part due to Trump’s ineptitude – well over 68 million Americans still thought another four years of Trump’s chaos and unhinged, freewheeling style of politics would be a pretty good thing and cast their votes for him. It’s staggering, and from a purely personal perspective, deeply embarrassing. As Trump has repeatedly encouraged White supremacists and played into a White grievance narrative for his entire time in office, the sheer level of support for him being given a second term reveals a disturbing reality about my country. Or at least a large portion of it.
Still, it must be noted that Trump supporters, numerous though they doubtlessly are, still comprise a minority in America, a vast, diverse nation of over 330 million souls. Indeed, even now as votes are still being counted, Joe Biden – who is by no means an electrifying, charismatic candidate, but rather an ageing career politician whose biggest selling point seems to be that he’s genuinely a decent, normal human being (no small matter in the era of Trump) – has amassed over 72 million votes and counting. That’s the highest number of votes ever cast for any presidential candidate in America’s history. By the time the dust settles, Biden is expected to have gotten somewhere between five and six million more votes than Trump, roughly double the nearly three million-vote margin of Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory in 2016, a hollow victory if there ever was one, as she lost the White House because of the peculiarities of the Electoral College system.
There’s an old saying that a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy, and that may sum up the 2020 US election as well as anything. Democrats likely got what they needed (Trump out of the White House), but they didn’t get what they wanted (control of the Senate and a clear repudiation of Trumpism and White grievance politics). Republicans, on the other hand, don’t seem destined to see Trump return to the Oval Office, but they still fared considerably better than virtually every poll suggested, retaining a slim majority in the Senate and even picking up a few seats in the House of Representatives, though it remains under Democratic majority control. Powerful and often deeply unpopular Republican Senators such as Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all managed to win reelection, despite strong belief that at least one or two would lose their seats.
This reality ensures that, regardless of which side of the political fence someone is on, the election has made it hard for them to declare a loud and cheerful victory. It’s also safe to say that while neither side decisively won, the real loser may ultimately be America and its headed-for-a-cliff electoral process. Early in the election cycle, it because very clear that whoever won the White House would ultimately go on to preside over a bitterly polarized electorate, and a divided government all but ensures a lack of big progress in Washington for the next four years.
But the problems transcend the immediate results. Trump and his surrogates have gone to extraordinary lengths to foment distrust and conspiracies regarding the election, to repeatedly claim fraud with no evidence at all, and to sow doubt in the entire electoral process. This is exceptionally dangerous to a healthy democracy. If the people have no confidence in their own elections, nothing good tends to result from heading down that particular path.
For all the damage Donald Trump has done to America’s political norms, practices, and even institutions, it may just be that the one nut even he cannot crack is Americans’ deeply held conviction about the sanctity of voting and democracy. Time will tell, but for now, this has inarguably been a bitter election, one which has deepened and widened the political rift within America, and raised serious concerns outside it about how the US might – or might not – overcome its now startlingly apparent sociopolitical fractures. In the United Kingdom, an analysis in Wednesday’s edition of The Times of London was succinct and dry in its opening salvo: “It is hard to look at our closest ally this morning without concluding that it is a nation in trouble — with all that means for countries that, since the Second World War, have looked to the United States for leadership and protection. As Britain has.”
But in all this mess, there’s one thing that gives me a little ray of hope. Despite Trump’s blustering tweets and his campaign’s lawsuits and his sycophants’ cries of electoral fraud and theft, most of America is roundly ignoring all the noise and just getting on with the business of the election, just as it’s supposed to be. Ballots are being counted, results are being tabulated and delivered, and when the time comes to certify the winner in every contest, that will happen, too, one state at a time. When Trump prematurely declared victory, then preposterously laid claim to electoral wins in several states like he was staking his flag on a hill in a paintball war (he tweeted, “We hereby claim, for electoral vote purposes, the State of Michigan!”), followed by the anticipated cries that Democrats would try to steal the election and defraud the country, the reaction – from news anchors to lawmakers across the political spectrum – was swift, forceful, and unequivocal. As one US Senator bluntly put it, “Candidates don’t decide election outcomes, the American people do.”
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