Bracing for Hurricane Democracy
With the conclusion of the two ceremonial national conventions of the two US parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, one may say that the presidential race has begun in earnest. The current election will be unique in modern American history for its overlap with a pandemic which may not be the deadliest in recent times, but it is certainly the most mediatized and has elicited the strongest public policy reactions ever. At the same time, much like 2016 but also other important American elections, the Presidential campaign takes place against the backdrop of rioting, looting and general social strife which has become inextricably linked to the political race. The issues are more complicated than breathless media analyses make them out to be and there is a great deal of unknowns for an event that is scrutinized by the entire world in unison as a determining factor of the next four years in the still-extant Pax Americana. Ultimately, trying to predict the result of the November election can be as mystical or as wonkish as we want – some may try polls and statistical models and others the tea leaves. Both options are equally valid in the current climate.
There was an air of stale inevitability to the two conventions. Joe Biden and his chosen Vice President, Californian Senator and former state attorney Kamala Harris, were anointed the Democrat champions for evicting the “ogre of Queens” from the White House. Token resistance was present, in favor of Bernie Sanders, but the results had been a foregone conclusion ever since Super Tuesday in March 2020, in which a relatively strong Biden showing prompted the national media to present him as the presumptive nominee, leading to a predictable self-fulfilling prophecy as donors and media attention rushed to him. Much like in 2016, Bernie Sanders dropped out as a graceful loser and endorsed Biden against Trump, despite the Trumpian agenda being the most similar to his in 2016 and despite the hopes of his own rabid fanbase, the “Bernie Bros”, which were much more highly energized than Biden’s.
The current election will be unique in modern American history for its overlap with a pandemic which may not be the deadliest in recent times, but it is certainly the most mediatized and has elicited the strongest public policy reactions ever.
The search for a Vice President with a few key characteristics led him to Kamala Harris, a candidate who dropped out before the first ballots after a scandal-ridden campaign, but who enjoys strong support from the tech giants of Silicon Valley and from California’s influential unions, as well as a winning complexion for Current YearTM America. With her immigrant, but still high class, background and prior experience in elected positions, Kamala Harris edged out Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, and a host of other female hopefuls, some of whom could have delivered a strong showing in swing states such as Florida. Harris’ California has been a Democrat stronghold for almost twenty years and the Republican Presidential candidates do not even campaign there anymore, thereby obviating a main reason for VP picks, which is delivering a strategic home state.
The Democrats have addressed some of the issues (such as the distorting effect on voting of the high number of superdelegates) which led to controversy and an internal almost-rebellion in 2016, prevented only by Bernie Sanders’ submissive stance towards the will of the Party and of Hillary Clinton. However, the Democrat primaries truly lacked a democratic spark of reasoned policy debates that give options to party members. With the exception of candidates like Tulsi Gabbard, which bucked the main points of the party line, there was little to distinguish the candidates except the variety of personal attacks on hand. Harris memorably accused Biden of racism for his past positions during his long-running Congressional career, as well as of improper behavior towards women. A few months later, all was forgiven as the Party went through the awkward motions of channeling the emotions of the myriad constituencies of the large umbrella party into support for Biden-Harris in order to unseat Donald Trump. Despite this, the customary post-Convention bump in the polls for the new nominee failed to materialize, reflecting Biden’s lackluster appeal as a compromise candidate with weak ground game during the Coronavirus crisis and the divided reactions to Kamala Harris as VP and, in Biden’s own words, possible President should he die in office.
The search for a Vice President with a few key characteristics led him to Kamala Harris, a candidate who dropped out before the first ballots after a scandal-ridden campaign, but who enjoys strong support from the tech giants of Silicon Valley and from California’s influential unions.
Donald Trump, despite the perennial grumblings from his own Party, in which hopefuls toyed with the idea of challenging his candidacy, was the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, as the incumbent President. It would have been a significant departure from tradition if his own Party had fielded someone against him and would have managed only further divisions, without any chance of actually replacing Trump. Unlike the restrained Democrats, where Joe Biden has barely left his house in Delaware, the Republican National Convention organized a grandiose White House event, which made up in sparkle what it lacked in numbers, including forceful speeches and fireworks. The spectacle of old-fashioned American patriotism and civic nationalism is a useful image to project, but the superimposing of the power of the state and the national health with Trump family pageantry was unseemly and vaguely imperial, though in keeping with decades old trends of political dynasty building in the US.
Trump’s speech was a political success, if we consider it in terms of not pleasing anyone – there was a nod to immigration, to border security, but also strong references to economic nationalism, China and the security of Israel. While preserving key aspects mandated by Republican voter demographics and donor preferences, Trump is clearly, though haltingly and not always coherently, charting a new course for the Party towards protectionism, economic confrontation with China and a rejection of military confrontation as a primary tool. The average Trump fan must have found it to his taste, but his more rabid fanbase expected more of him on the immigration front, while the functional constituencies of the Republican elites will extract their policy agenda from Trump later, without needing it spelled out in the speech.
The customary post-Convention bump in the polls for the new nominee failed to materialize, reflecting Biden’s lackluster appeal as a compromise candidate with weak ground game during the Coronavirus crisis and the divided reactions to Kamala Harris as VP and, in Biden’s own words, possible President should he die in office.
Factors to keep in mind
There are several issues to keep in mind as we head into a bloody electoral race. Incumbent Presidents have a significant electoral advantage and their losing a race is an exception, not a rule. Regardless of their (lack of) popularity, they have significant visibility because of their position and can use the “bully pulpit” of the White House for advocacy or simple rhetoric in favor of popular issues. Trump has used this to full effect, regardless of the wish of the mainstream media and his political rivals to starve him of media attention. Of course, Trump was also the second President, after Obama, to parlay his popularity (and his infamy) into a significant social media following, where his Twitter soap operas often distract from the nuts and bolts of his Administration.
The spectacle of old-fashioned American patriotism and civic nationalism is a useful image to project, but the superimposing of the power of the state and the national health with Trump family pageantry was unseemly and vaguely imperial, though in keeping with decades old trends of political dynasty building in the US.
Another element which is in the favor of Trump until recently was the status of the economy, which is the number one concern for the widest possible category of voters. An incumbent President riding the waves of a good economy is all but guaranteed reelection. There was something artificial about the Trump boom in the stock markets, related to the continuation of low interest rates in monetary policy which buoyed asset prices such as stocks. There was also a concrete improvement for the population, though how much of it is due to Trump and his “animal spirits” inhabiting the market remains to be debated. High consumer spending (denoting confidence in the economy) was also paired with the first period in almost 50 years of real wage growth for working class Americans, regardless of race.
Trump was also the second President, after Obama, to parlay his popularity (and his infamy) into a significant social media following, where his Twitter soap operas often distract from the nuts and bolts of his Administration.
The issue here was probably immigration. Trump was strongly blamed by immigration restrictionists for his appeasing stance towards “Dreamers” (illegal immigrants brought to the US as children, who were the subject of a special Obama era program that spared them deportation), his lack of solutions for illegal immigration (including the fact that The WallTM has not been built) and for birthright citizenship and the snail’s pace of immigration reform. It has become apparent, however, that the Administration has been using direct orders to tighten checks, expedite deportations and reduce the number of approved refugees, immigrants, naturalizations and guest workers. This has resulted in a tighter labor market especially for low skilled and service workers, which explains the record low unemployment rate for African-Americans, who were among the main groups displaced by cheap (often illegal) Hispanic labor. The rate of job creation occupied by citizens, as opposed to immigrants, also grew. However, this did not result in any appreciable dent in the low labor force occupation rate, reflecting both unequal growth rates across the country (including in the all-important Rust Belt), as well as the persistence of the dropping out of the work force of able people in the last few decades. Neither was the Trump economic wave enough to arrest the fall in life expectancy and the rise in suicides and opioid use by the White population, whose demoralization was a significant factor in their turn towards populist politics.
The large-scale protests being openly encouraged by Democrat mayors and governors while the rest of the population was restricted from going to church or running their business deepened the perennial culture war in the US.
The situation could have improved further had the pandemic not appeared, with the US becoming one of the most affected countries. The situation here is mixed – challenging the permanent accusations that he is authoritarian and fascistic, Trump left the handling of the pandemic up to Congress and the individual states. The specialized state agencies were rightfully criticized for their dysfunctional response (though their appointees are from the Obama era), but Democrat states and cities fared much worse, with bad decision making and late implementations. Trump was also heavily criticized by Biden for his early restriction of travel to China, as a continuation of his prior rhetoric, but the Trump Campaign has yet to make use of this and has allowed Biden to become hawkish on the coronavirus issue unchallenged. The popularity of Trump’s efforts against China (with mixed results) has led the Biden camp to move in his direction (and Bernie 2016’s position) by emphasizing “made in America”, “buying American” and protectionism, though the turn is too late and opportunistic for it to be credible as a policy option in a Biden Administration.
A whiff of grapeshot
The pandemic would have sunk Trump’s chances for a second term, had the shooting of George Floyd by the police not triggered significant protest waves. The Democrats had been on watch for such an occasion to create street agitation that would convince voters of the moral imperative to vote against Trump. They had tried drumming up support for the recent shooting of Ahmad Arbery by the police, but it had not taken off as an issue. George Floyd became a “cause celebre” and would have become a powerful motivator for Democrat voters to get out and vote and for Trump voters to stay at home. However, the large-scale protests being openly encouraged by Democrat mayors and governors while the rest of the population was restricted from going to church or running their business deepened the perennial culture war in the US. Then, the protests turned violent as looters devastated shopping districts and more politicized protesters (usually identified with Antifa rather than Black Lives Matter and more often non-African American) began a wave of attacks and arsons. This gave Trump an important opening to attack the lack of response or the outright tolerance on the part of Democrat city halls and governor mansions towards the costly chaos. His new mantra became “law and order” and, while Democrats condemned his threats to send in the National Guard to repress rioters, one cannot help but think that Trump was slow to follow through because he, cynically, wanted to give his opponents more time and rope to hang themselves on these issues. Reports regarding the doubling of shootings in cities like New York and the rise of murder rates by 30%, as well as an exodus of wealthy and middle-class residents and businesses, confirm that he would have been right had he been considering this.
Having lived through the same in the 1960s and 1970s, as a Congressman, Joe Biden’s political instincts probably told him to position himself on a law and order angle, but the radical activist wing of his Party was too influential during the Primaries to defy in this manner.
Having lived through the same in the 1960s and 1970s, as a Congressman, Joe Biden’s political instincts probably told him to position himself on a law and order angle, but the radical activist wing of his Party was too influential during the Primaries to defy in this manner. Both parties are beholden to the radical minority interest groups which ensure a significant part of their funding, infrastructure and volunteers (and “shock troops” for ground presence), and all primary candidates end up pandering to them, while also having to head back towards the middle of the political spectrum in the general elections in order to appeal to independents. This is an advantage of incumbents – they can skip much of the pandering as they do not go through the primaries process. It remains to be seen if Joe Biden will, on the eve of the election, summon the political courage to condemn the rioting and looting in direct terms. Following his nomination, he declared that police reform is important, but also police presence in vulnerable neighborhoods, after polls showing that 80% of the African-American community wanted an enhanced police presence in their neighborhoods. This is similar to the situation in the 1990s, when the “tough on crime” measures of the Clinton Administration were implemented following pleas from the African-American community who accused Clinton of racism for ignoring the effects of gang warfare on their neighborhoods. This later came back to haunt Hillary Clinton, as BLM activists targeted her in 2016 during fundraisers for her pro-police and pro-incarceration comments back in the 1990s. This extreme minority view was made to seem more widespread by conflating police reform (for its real abuses) with a rejection of the underlying crime problems in African-American (and Hispanic) neighborhoods.
The polls are irrelevant and represent just election spectacle for the people who are into political confrontation like others are into sports.
Law and order rhetoric are a natural fit for Republicans and, historically, a bipartisan crowd pleaser. Richard Nixon won the 1968 elections partly through forceful denunciations of the 1967 Detroit riots that eventually turned the “Paris of the West” into a ruin. Ronald Reagan came to the attention of the national public as potential “presidential timber” when, as Governor of California, he sent the National Guard to quell the Berkeley riots. Until then, he had been a curiosity as a somewhat famous actor turned politician, which is why Arnold Schwarzenegger’s terms as celebrity Governor of California attracted such initial interest (though he cannot run for President, being a naturalized citizen). By vacating this election issue and being hostage to the more radical elements of the Party, the Democrats have handed Trump a potential winner in the November elections. The closer to Election Day that the riots are still taking place, the better the result for Trump, so long as he can reasonably blame Democrat interference for his lack of response. This is not a new approach for Trump – the BLM excesses of 2015-2016 also enabled him to campaign on a platform of law and order, and I am not the only one convinced that the targeted killing of policemen in New York, Chicago and elsewhere in the summer of 2016, culminating in the killing of 5 policemen and wounding of 9 others by a military-trained gunman radicalized by BLM during a BLM rally in Dallas (7 July 2016), were a deciding factor in Trump’s victory.
Who will win?
The media is making ratings with frequent updates to polling numbers, reflecting the momentary widening or narrowing of the gap between Biden and Trump, the former being currently in the lead. For all the negative media coverage, Trump has had surprisingly good approval ratings for any President, including Obama and Bush, throughout his entire term and even during the pandemic. However, the polls are irrelevant and represent just election spectacle for the people who are into political confrontation like others are into sports. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, most voters are not guided by policies and performance, but rather by image, which is subject to a daily tug-of-war which results in seemingly large shifts taking place. Therefore, results today do not necessarily reflect results in November.
It is not the one who commands the largest support among the population who wins, but the one with the largest support among actual voting populations.
Secondly, the American voter has become sensitive to revealing his true thoughts because of the rising force of social pressure on the free expression of political opinions. This was a significant problem in 2016, when even the presumably serious prestige media outlets like the New York Times were shockingly biased in favor of Clinton’s chance of winning on the basis of inaccurate polls. In general, polling as a tool to reveal voter preference is a problematic issue in the US, where the way in which poll questions are formulated has an outsized effects on responses – e.g., Trump is less popular than his policies and associating immigration reform with Trump tends to lower results in favor of restrictionism, even when a more neutral question reveals large majorities against an overly open or generous immigration policy.
Lastly, the polls may show approval rating, but not actual voting behavior, especially in a country where voter presence has been declining for decades. It is not the one who commands the largest support among the population who wins, but the one with the largest support among actual voting populations. Therefore, both Parties rely on “get out the vote” efforts to register voters and transport them to the ballot box, which requires significant infrastructure, spending and volunteering. At the same time, both Parties pursue methods of discouraging the voters of the other party, in different ways. Some methods are bipartisan, such as negative campaigning or the reporting of overly positive results for the other side early on so that people think they do not need to go out and vote, while energizing their own voters.
The race will be largely decided by the competent use of campaign infrastructure and by each candidate’s ability to work the crowd (rallies, townhall meetings, interviews). Since the pandemic crisis is set to continue, the Trump advantage in pleasing the crowd may be largely nullified, while also allowing Joe Biden to avoid unscheduled and unrehearsed appearances.
The extreme political polarization is also a partly conscious choice, as voters sacrificing their lunch break or other activities on Election Day are more likely to go through the inconvenience if they think that disaster will befall the country if the other side wins or that this election is a pivotal moment in the fight between good and evil (or whatever other Manichean formula is used – progressive/regressive, American/unAmerican etc.). At the same time, each Party has its own tricks for improving their showing. The Republicans tend to favor restrictive and cumbersome voting registration procedures, under the guise of combating electoral fraud, which discourages less motivated or poorer voters from registering, while Democrats favor automatic registration and vote-by-mail to decrease the obstacles towards voting. Revising laws to award voting rights to felons or the jail population is also an item on the agenda of the American left, which has already been implemented, for instance, in formerly Republican Virginia.
In the tight races of today, even errors in voter registration (double voting, voter rolls with errors) and outright fraud (ballot stuffing, illegal voting) can provide a winning advantage, regardless of whether the size of the phenomenon is small. The 2000 election was decided by a few hundred votes in Florida and the 2016 election was decided by a few thousand votes in key states that won Trump electoral votes even while he lost the popular tally.
The race will be largely decided by the competent use of campaign infrastructure and by each candidate’s ability to work the crowd (rallies, townhall meetings, interviews). Since the pandemic crisis is set to continue, the Trump advantage in pleasing the crowd may be largely nullified, while also allowing Joe Biden to avoid unscheduled and unrehearsed appearances. For better or for worse, I do not anticipate significant pre-election debates, though this is not necessarily a bad thing for either one of the candidates. It is, however, bad for American democracy, which is largely becoming more ceremony and formality rather than an actual exercise in candidate-shopping. A stellar third-party candidate could fan the flames of electioneering, but no third party has had the effect of Ross Perot in 1992, when he won 18.9% of the popular vote, the highest ever, though too spread out to win any electors. It was considered that his platform of “East Texas populism with high-tech wizardry” took away more votes from George H.W. Bush than from Bill Clinton (though he had bipartisan appeal), which led to the latter’s victory. This year, however, the only interesting third party candidate is American rapper Kanye West, though no possibility can be discounted in the “new normal”.
There are many factors in play which discourage a high degree of confidence in election predictions.
At the same time, the race is vulnerable to short-term effects from national events in the run-up to the election. A terrorist attack or a particularly shocking riot and looting spree could easily swing more votes towards one candidate or the other. There is something ghoulish in how the political class holds its breath during a shooting to see if the shooter is White or Black or Muslim (as in 2015-2016), but this is the new normal in the age of identity politics. Unless a disturbance is explicitly caused by rightwing extremism, Trump is well positioned to play a centrist, law and order, role and deplore any violence, while the Democrats’ partial capture by radical elements within their party and tolerance for protests turned violent will have lost them significant goodwill.
After a hot summer, the Americans are getting ready for a stormy autumn. There are many factors in play which discourage a high degree of confidence in election predictions. Trump still has the best chance as an incumbent, but the pandemic and his lackluster handling of the national crisis will have cost him, regardless of whether delegating responsibility to the states will, in hindsight, prove to have been the better decision. At the same time, the Democrats squandered their opportunity encouraging and abetting the worst national level rioting since the 1960s, which mostly affected Democrat controlled cities and states and whose effects may be felt for decades, if past experience is any indication.
The race will be tight and that will not be unusual for the increasingly polarized America, in which reckless rhetoric and foreign interference gives the loser in the election both the ammunition and the motivation to attack the victory of his adversary as illegitimate.
The race will be tight and that will not be unusual for the increasingly polarized America, in which reckless rhetoric and foreign interference gives the loser in the election both the ammunition and the motivation to attack the victory of his adversary as illegitimate. The 2020 election stands to be a replay of the 2016 one, in which candidates are asked to pledge that they will accept the results of the election, which they then promptly reject. Regardless of who will win, both Parties are undergoing massive change moving forward, not just because of demographic shifts, but also the social ones of newly emerging constituencies on which to base a sustainable national coalition for the next few decades. At the same time, Americans will be shocked to learn that a Biden victory will not result in a happier and more peaceful country, and that regular protesting flaring up into rioting and looting have become a part of the political landscape, at least until the political class will find the backbone to forcefully discourage this. In the long-term, an increasingly Balkanized US will not find peace without economic reform, an enforced majority culture and strategic culture among elites and a greater role of states in reflecting the social and cultural preference of their populations, as opposed to the homogenizing force from Washington, either through Executive fiat or the Supreme Court.