No clear result: an American nightmare begins

Biden flops: He might still scrape a victory – but an inquest has started into his campaign © Getty

Is this how democracy dies? President Trump falsely declared victory and promised to go to court as Joe Biden seemed to be narrowly winning the election. Many fear violence on the streets.

All over the world, people will wake up today to find history’s greatest superpower teetering on the brink. Speaking from the White House at around 7:30am London time, Donald Trump falsely claimed victory in the US election – when, in truth, his opponent Joe Biden was leading by 220 electoral college votes to 213.

With millions of votes yet to be counted, Trump asserted election fraud, pledged to mount a legal challenge to official state results and claimed that he had won several states that are still counting ballots, including Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Ben Ginsberg, a top US constitutional lawyer, immediately condemned it as “unprecedented” and said it was a historic crisis for American democracy.

Neither of the two candidates had yet reached the required 270 electoral college votes for victory – with eight states left to count.

About an hour earlier, Joe Biden addressed a bitterly divided nation calling for patience; there may not be a final result until Friday. Donald Trump immediately tweeted that the Democratic party and the press were trying to “steal” the election.

As night fell on election day, with polls closing and votes being tallied, protests against President Trump were held on the streets of Washington DC, leading to tense scenes.

Hundreds marched through parts of the Capitol, sometimes blocking traffic and setting off fireworks. Some chanted: “If we don’t get no justice, they don’t get no peace!”

The demonstrations were largely peaceful, but there were reports of skirmishes and confrontations outside the White House. Three people were arrested after scuffles.

The election saw the highest turnout since 1908 with 25 million more voters taking part than in the last election.

For weeks, pundits have been predicting a massive defeat for Trump, with even traditional Republican strongholds like South Carolina, Georgia and Texas within Biden’s grasp.

But they were wrong. Republican voters did not desert him, and he was able to make massive inroads into the Latino vote, which traditionally leans towards the Democrats. Remarkably, Trump even increased his support among ethnic minorities and women.

It is yet another huge upset in a career that has always defied political gravity, starting with the Republican primaries of 2016 when he beat several seasoned politicians to win the party’s nomination.

However, he seems to have lost his unique appeal amongst Rust Belt voters, who opted in large number for his Democratic opponent.

Most will see his success as the result of the strong economy he achieved before the coronavirus crisis, but his supporters may well see it as a vindication of his response to the pandemic.

While the count will be finished within a few days, the election could still drag on for weeks – even months – if the argument goes to the Supreme Court.

Is this how democracy dies?

Guessing games

Yes, say some. US politics is now so hopelessly divided that the supporters of the two major parties simply cannot work with each other. Author Lee Drutman warns that in these circumstances, rival parties stop arguing their case, and simply resort to sabotaging their opponents’ electoral chances, often by trying to prevent their supporters from voting. Democracy cannot survive this tension.

No, say others. This is democracy in action. It is all perfectly normal. While Americans have strongly differing views on a number of issues, their political institutions still command legitimacy. It was always known that the result could be extremely tight. It might take time, but the US law and constitution is the most robust in the world. It is built to survive the messy rough and tumble of political battle.

You Decide

  1. Which is more important: a president’s personality, or their ideas?
  2. People sometimes talk about “transformative presidencies”. Is it a president who transforms a country, or does change within a country shape the presidency?

Activities

  1. You have just won the presidential election! Write a short victory speech, to be delivered to your ecstatic supporters.
  2. Is your country run by a president elected directly by the people, or by a prime minister who leads the majority party in parliament? Which do you think is better? Write a short speech explaining why.

Some People Say...

“Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.”

Gore Vidal (1925-2012), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that many people who should have been able to vote yesterday were prevented from doing so. In many states, Republicans have introduced laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls, which has been shown to reduce turnout among poorer people, women, and ethnic minorities – demographics that usually vote Democrat. They have also closed hundreds of polling stations, so that long queues build up outside the ones that stay open, deterring voters. This is known as voter suppression.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what the election means for the rest of the world. Russia, which always finds it easier to work with Republicans than Democrats, was hoping for a Trump victory. China has found Trump a stiff economic opponent, but he has built a good working relationship with its president, Xi Jinping; a Biden presidency might be more critical of the Chinese government’s human rights record. Iranian politicians hoped that a President Biden might lift some sanctions on Iran’s economy.

Word Watch

Electoral college
The US president is not chosen directly by a popular vote. Instead, each state is allocated a certain number of votes in the electoral college, in proportion to its population. The winner of the state’s popular vote wins all of its electoral college votes (except in Maine and Nebraska). The electoral college is designed to ensure that presidents do not just focus on winning people over in big states, at the expense of smaller ones.
Press
Trump claimed some news outlets had called the vote too early, including Fox News – the first to call Biden’s win in Arizona.
Skirmishes
An episode of irregular or unpremeditated fighting, especially between small or outlying parts of armies or fleets.
Primaries
A series of elections held by each political party to choose its candidate for the presidency. The first one always takes place in Iowa in February of an election year.
Rust Belt
A number of states in the Midwest that used to be industrial, but lost their jobs and factories to outsourcing. From 1992 they consistently voted Democratic, but they gave Trump his path to the White House in 2016.
Supreme Court
The USA’s highest court. It has previously been used to settle the results of presidential elections, most notably in 2000, when it halted a recount in Florida and handed victory to George Bush.
Upset
In a political competition, an upset occurs when an underdog is victorious or in the case of a completely unpredicted result.

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