Democracy in a time of division

The election of Joe Biden as US president is the first good news for embattled believers in liberal democracy and the postwar multilateral order since 2016. He is a decent man with an instinctive grasp of the values America has, at its best, stood for. On the assumption that Donald Trump’s attack on the electoral process fails, Mr Biden will be president. That will be a huge relief. But it is folly to imagine that Trumpist division is defeated.

More broadly, liberal democracy will remain embattled, in the US and elsewhere. The evidence on this reality is, alas, clear. Research at the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge university shows a rise in global dissatisfaction with democracy since shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. The rise in dissatisfaction in the English-speaking democracies, led by the US, is striking. Frighteningly, in 2020, the respected US-based think-tank, Freedom House, ranked the quality of US democracy 33rd in the world among countries larger than 1m people, between Slovakia and Argentina. Given Mr Trump’s record, that is hardly surprising. Moreover, this was before his attempt to throw the electoral system, the core of democracy, into disrepute, with unsupported allegations of fraud. (See charts.)

Mr Biden’s ability to reverse all this is likely to be limited, even though he will surely wish to do so. He will surely confront obdurate resistance from Republicans in Congress, who will try to ensure that he and the federal government are seen to fail, as was their aim during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Moreover, while Mr Trump may (or may not) be gone, his marriage of plutocratic goals to nativist populism and social reaction ensures that some version of Trumpism will remain the ideology of the Republican party. This is the only viable strategy for a party devoted to low taxes and laissez faire in a diverse democracy with high inequality. Crucial to the success of this party is a Supreme Court dedicated to such goals, under the misleading flag of “originalism”.

It is likely then that nothing fundamental will change in US politics during a Biden presidency. Moreover, claims of a stolen election will resonate with Mr Trump’s base. Particularly if the GOP leadership stops Mr Biden from succeeding with the economy, the chances of a comeback for Trumpism, even Mr Trump himself, are good.

This does not mean that Mr Biden will be unable to do anything. On the contrary, the powers of the presidency are huge, abroad and (albeit less so) at home, though the Supreme Court might strip the president of some of the regulatory powers he was thought to possess. An immediate challenge will be Covid-19. Here, Mr Biden might be lucky. If the promise of a vaccine comes good, he might enjoy an early win.

Chart showing US democracy rated between that of Slovakia and Argentina, Freedom House country rankings, 2020

Yet the Democrats seem unlikely to break the success of the pluto-populist strategy, partly because they are in a not-dissimilar situation themselves. They, too, depend on donations from the wealthy, who are generally unenthusiastic about higher taxes or aggressive regulation. The rest of the active Democratic constituency — the censorious “woke” and ethnic minorities — is likely to keep the bulk of Mr Trump’s coalition of evangelicals and non-college-educated white people united in rage.

The role of money in US politics is fundamental. A recent updating of earlier research, released by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, confirms that the views of the top decile of the population largely determine policy. The inevitable frustrations of the rest give the parties their passionate voting blocs.

Chart showing dissatisfaction with democracy has risen sharply in the big English-speaking democracies, survey responses, change from 1995 level in % points

A successful democracy is far more than a set of institutions. The state must be seen to serve the interests of most citizens. The latter must also share patriotism — a love of country that transcends differences of social position, political belief and economic interest. Mr Biden stands for this. Can the extremes feel the same about their opponents?

If it is unreasonable to expect any transformation in the domestic political pattern, what about the US role in the world? Here changes might be bigger. I expect a Biden presidency to attempt to revive an alliance of interests and values with the other advanced high-income democracies, notably Europe. I expect it will make brutally clear to the British prime minister the wisdom of friendly relations with the EU. I expect it will put the Russian president and his ideological acolytes in central and eastern Europe back in a box marked “hostile”.

Chart showing the winners have won most and the middle classes have fallen behind in the race for higher incomes, increase in US household real incomes after taxes and transfers, 1979 to 2017 (%)

I expect, too, that Mr Biden will make an effort to create an engaged, yet demanding, relationship with China in the context of realistic multilateralism. I am less sure it will be possible to manage the crucial superpower relations without serious risk of conflict. Somehow, the US and China must learn how to confront, compete and co-operate, at the same time. Particularly important will be a deal on climate. Under Mr Trump, others, notably China, have enjoyed a free ride on this issue, promising carbon chastity many decades in the future while building coal-fired power plants frantically today. But this will require the US to accelerate its own green transformation. The opportunity is there. But that is also likely to require some co-operation from Congress. As things are today, that looks very unlikely.

Chart showing the US has among the highest mortality rates from Covid-19, Cumulative Covid-19 deaths per million population

The right response to Mr Biden’s election is hope without naivety. Mr Trump has tested to destruction the idea that a solipsistic superpower determined to disrupt the global order will do much more than destroy its reputation. Mr Biden can do better than that, but deep conflicts will endure, at home and abroad. His presidency might end up as a disappointing interlude. I very much hope not. But his country is deeply divided and the challenges are huge.

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