What Biden's Win Tells Us

From Coleman Hughes, Sarah Haider, Niall Ferguson, Irshad Manji, Ivan Krastev, Emily Yoffe and Yascha Mounk

Yascha Mounk: Authoritarian populism poses a serious and lasting threat to liberal democracy, both in the United States and around the world. Joe Biden’s victory has not definitively repudiated its Trumpist variant; given the staying power of populists, it was never going to. But that’s no reason to be disappointed, for this election has also taught us three optimistic lessons. 

One: American political institutions proved comparatively resilient. While we should not be so naive as to think that they would have withstood attacks from a more disciplined populist, we can take pride in the work so many have done to defend the rule of law and the balance of powers. Two: America was not seduced by Trump’s racism. While his provocations endeared him to one part of the Republican base, they always rendered him unpopular among most Americans. Three: popular support for philosophically liberal values is broader than it sometimes seemed in the past years. Shifting vote patterns and the outcome of key referenda both point to a broad preference, shared across ethnic groups, for an America that is genuinely inclusive without indulging in woke fantasies. 

Irshad Manji: I’m a Canadian who has been teaching leadership in the U.S. for almost 15 years. Yet this is the first election cycle in which I’ve been labeled a “foreigner” and told to stop “meddling.” It happened more than once, each time by a Trump supporter. The insecurity that this president has unleashed makes me question what I grew up believing America to be: confident like nobody’s business. As individuals, most Americans I know, including those who lean toward Trump, exude a welcome-to-the-nation vibe. But the bonds of nationhood seem thin. For starters, I’ve learned that it’s not the United States of America. It’s the United States of America. You’d never know that by living next door to the world’s fiercest flag-wavers. If ardent patriotism masks deep insecurity, then this migrant would like to offer a thought about the way forward. To cultivate a more perfect union, let’s dispense with proving our perfection and humbly focus on building our union. I’ll contribute by teaching young Americans a brave new leadership skill that complements public speaking—namely, public listening. I’d love to hear how you’ll help to build the union. Be assured, I’m listening.

Coleman Hughes: It is now received wisdom in progressive elite circles that Trump’s 2016 win was the result of resurgent racism and xenophobia. While this theory has never explained why counties that went for Obama twice flipped to Trump in 2016, it now faces the even larger challenge of explaining why Trump increased his share of the black and Hispanic vote between 2016 and 2020.

The real lesson of the past four years is that progressive elites have become increasingly out of touch with the concerns and sensibilities of working-class Americans of all backgrounds. This elite blindspot opened a vacuum for an authoritarian populist with no experience governing, no respect for the dignity of the office, and no regard for the norms of liberal democracy—so long as he communicated in a way that felt authentic and, more importantly, angered the coastal elites that working-class Americans dislike. 

The other lesson is that the American system—built with wannabe dictators in mind—has done its job. Now that one threat to that system has been taken care of, it is time to focus on the other threat: illiberal social justice ideology. The next four years will be a test. Either the Democrats will become the party of intersectional identity politics, or they will hold the mantle for classical liberalism and the values of the founding. Let’s hope, and fight, for the latter. 

Niall Ferguson: Donald Trump failed to pull off a 1948-style comeback for four reasons. First, his own campaign against mail-in ballots backfired disastrously. Second, the Libertarian candidate, Jo Jorgensen, took precious votes in key states. (Her vote tallies thus far exceed Biden’s lead over Trump in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.) Third, a significant number of voters, e.g. in Maine, voted tactically for GOP Senate, House or state candidates but not for Trump. Fourth, only a trivial number of Republican legislators and no major media outlet backed Trump’s challenges to the result.

Overall, however, this was anything but a Democratic sweep. For the first time since Grover Cleveland in 1884, it appears, a Democratic candidate has won the presidency but not the Senate (though this will not be certain until Georgia’s run-off(s) in January). Further down ballot, the Democrats also lost seats in the House. And they lost a state legislature (New Hampshire) and a governorship (Montana). It was a remarkably disappointing outcome for the Democrats considering the incumbent’s low approval rating and the havoc caused by the pandemic this year. I suspect the Democrats failed to sweep because many voters were alienated by the more radical policy ideas espoused by the left wing of the party, e.g. democratic socialism and the Green New Deal, as well as by slogans such as “Defund the Police” and “Pack the Court.”

Ivan Krastev: In the last days I got the feeling that many Europeans feared the outcome of the American elections the way you fear heart surgery. So many things could go wrong. Many European leaders even doubted whether the EU could survive a second Trump term. So the news of Biden’s victory was greeted like a doctor’s smile. The patient has survived. But the relief triggered by the election’s results comes along with three sobering observations.

First, Trump has gone, at least for a while. But nobody is under the illusion that the pre-Trump world will come back. Second, many of us have suddenly realized that American and European politics are diverging rather than converging. It is my guess that experts on Latin American democracies now feel much more at home with the transformation of American political parties than those studying European politics. And third, while most (though not all) Europeans are genuinely happy to greet America’s return to normalcy, the question we cannot ignore is: Should we expect that the next American election will once again feel like heart surgery?

Sarah Haider: In the face of four years lost in chaos and madness, the clear course for the pragmatic optimist is to find some meaning in all this—to unearth some vital lesson which, if learned, might make it all worthwhile. If such a lesson exists, however, I suspect it was also on offer four years ago. 

The Trump win in 2016 should have provoked introspection throughout our political landscape. And for about two months, it seemed as if that might be the case. But it did not last long—soon we plunged into a deep collective hysteria, or as Trump supporters might call it, a “derangement”. 

In the safety of the Biden victory, perhaps we can revisit the opportunity to look inward. 2016 should not have been lost, 2020 should not have been so close.

It is clear to me that the first step forward must be to abandon the identity politics which have proved to be utterly bankrupt both in providing a useful frame to view our country as well as history and in uniting the people. We need “healing,” yes, but not just from Trump and his direct actions. We must heal from what he has brought out in all of us.

Emily Yoffe: President-elect Biden (and I feel such happiness typing these words) is facing the twin problems of a pandemic and economic collapse. Biden also has the crucial but more pleasant task of rebuilding the federal workforce, and appointing to the government competent, decent people. It is probably a good thing Biden does not have the expansive agenda of a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. It will be enough for journeyman politician Biden to try to dig us out from the mess we are in. A measure of the success of a Biden administration will be if the president, and what he’s up to, takes its proper place of receding from our daily consciousness.

But Biden and the Democrats cannot forget that more than 70 million Americans voted for a second term of Donald Trump. Biden has been admirably careful not to label Trump supporters as deplorables and racists, and to promise to be president to all. But one central appeal of Trump was that he appeared, at least, to care about the economic concerns of working people. As president, Biden needs to understand and address these. He could demonstrate this early in how he shapes his plans on dealing with Covid.

This article reflects the views of those cited, not of Persuasion Institute.