“Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York”. These immortal lines, the opening salvo of Shakespeare’s Richard III, indicated a prolonged period of unhappiness coming to an end with the budding promise of deliverance. There seems to be a similar sense of hope building around the American presidential elections.
Most democrats, liberals, moderates and all those loosely coalesced around the Joe Biden bonfire of “Never-Trumpism” are, understandably, too anxious or traumatised by the ghosts of 2016 to show any semblance of optimism. But most polls, both nation-wide and in key battle-ground states, favour Biden to clinch the elections. Intertwined with this tangible sense of apprehensive optimism is the belief that a Trump loss would bring salvation from a long winter of discontent. Or that Biden, a lifelong career politician and by all accounts a decent person, would be able to bring glorious summer by returning America to a “normal” state. An analysis of socio-politics in America, over the last four years, however, suggests otherwise.
Most political scientists and analysts agree that over the last four years, American democracy has taken a generous beating. This is a phenomenon political scientists refer to as democratic backsliding or autocratisation, referring to a transition — often gradual — away from liberal democracy towards a closed autocracy. This erosion of democratic structures, institutions and norms is closely monitored by organisations like the V-Dem Institute and Freedom House. They have been warning that the United States, along with several other countries across the world, are currently in the throes of a “third wave of autocratisation” with democracy in global decline. The V-Dem Institute’s 2019 report on the United States made for depressing reading, noting that the country is undergoing “substantial autocratisation” under President Trump. They further noted, rather ominously, that only one in five democracies undergoing autocratisation are able to reverse the trend without succumbing. Beating the odds will require two herculean efforts.
First, it will require a sacrifice, rather than flexing of power. Repairing America’s democratic institutions and structures will take time, effort and commitment. Trump’s authoritarian impulses were enabled by a compliant Senate willing to indulge his whims and fancies and to fawn over him as he ran roughshod over accepted practices and established notions of public decency. Beyond a mollycoddling legislative branch, however, Trump was also empowered by an executive branch of government that had been incessantly strengthened over the last few decades by incumbents, both Democratic and Republican. The situation necessitates a recalibration of the different branches of government, rebalancing the dynamics of power between them and limiting a supercharged presidency by holding the executive branch more accountable to Congress and the courts. Doing this will require support from a President willing to constrain himself in office for the future of American democracy. More than anything else, this could truly be the legacy of the Biden presidency, a willingness to constrain rather than wield power in service of a beleaguered democracy.
Second, restoring American democracy will require repairing its “common sense”. The Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci used the term common sense to refer to collective consciousness, an accepted, public understanding of norms, beliefs and ideas that often function in a reflexive way, rather than the product of critical reflection. The collective knowledge of what is right, what is acceptable and what accounts for righteous behavior and common decency is part of our common sense, from a Gramscian perspective. Four years of a Trump presidency and 14 years of Mitchell McConnell’s leadership over Republican senators has birthed a political culture that is polarised and premised on the principle of obstructionism, with an absolute abhorrence for bipartisan collaboration. The sustained vilification of opposition politicians and the willingness to engage in Machiavellian strategies (particularly with regards to Supreme Court nominations) has helped create a social sphere in America divided on party lines. Repairing this will require the Democrats to pursue a different political strategy from the Republicans. Refusing to expand the Supreme Court, giving a legitimate hearing to Republican grouses and trying sincerely to embrace bipartisan solutions may seem foolhardy and naïve to many. In addition, this will expose the Democrats to accusations of being losers, particularly by sections of their own supporters. But it might be the only way to renegotiate American “common sense” from a society of winners and losers to one that is co-dependent and collaborative.
A vote for Biden, for many, will be a vote against Trump rather than a vote in support of the former vice-president. It would not be presumptuous to say that Biden is not an exciting candidate and that he has not fired up the Democratic base in any significant way. He is a compromise candidate, who is seen as a viable leader by many classic conservatives and Republicans weary and wary of Trumpian politics.
However, it would be a monumental mistake to conclude that a Biden victory would signal a desire for a return to pre-Trumpian politics and a re-embrace of establishment politics at the Capitol. It is worth noting that both Obama (“Yes, we can”) and Trump (“Make America great again”) emerged victorious from underdog campaigns on the back of mass movements, with slogans advocating monumental changes in American politics. Hillary Clinton (“Stronger/Forward together”), Mitt Romney (“Believe in America”) and John McCain (“Country first”), all ran campaigns and slogans advocating continuity and stability and failed to capture the presidency.
The fractures in American politics can be traced to events and legacies dating back decades, ranging from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Supreme court decision on Roe vs Wade in 1973, the embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s and the institutionalisation of big money in politics through Citizens United in 2010. But it is undeniable that the financial crisis of 2008, and the realisation that the working class bore the brunt of the crisis, while the financial elite were “bailed out” truly triggered the socio-political crisis of today. The utter betrayal felt by large sections of the American public, underpinned by a burgeoning resentment and distrust of perceived elites and establishment politics, played an indispensable role in shaping the polarised politics of today
The deep desire for reform and change in American politics is underscored by the fact that Americans have steadily been voting against traditional politicians. A significant number who voted for an “outsider” like Obama, switched over to Trump in 2016 over Hillary Clinton, an embodiment of establishment politics. Studies have estimated that the raw number of Obama-Trump voters range from about 6.7 million to 9.2 million in 2016.
If Biden indeed comes to power, significant changes like stronger gun laws, infrastructural, policing and healthcare reforms, each of which enjoy support from a majority of Americans, must be pursued with vigour by the new administration. A failure to act in tangible ways for the benefit of most Americans will further entrench the idea that traditional politics will always fail the people. This will lead to a future of authoritarian and populist leaders who rise to prominence rightly decrying the failure of the traditional, establishment elite to govern in the interest of the volk.
It is extremely unlikely that in the event of a Donald Trump defeat, he will concede the election. He will almost certainly challenge the election results if he loses. He will employ every means at his disposal to cling on to power, including attempting to petition a now conservative Supreme Court. It is also entirely feasible that he will try to instigate violence and rioting amongst his supporters.
The immediacy of a Joe Biden victory will, thus, likely be fraught with conflict and chaos, fanned by a merchant of hate skilled at the art of stoking conflict. Both the legislative and judicial branches of government, the individual state governments and the American public will have to navigate these choppy waters prodigiously while preventing Trump from stealing the elections.
The end of a Trump presidency will also not herald the end of Trumpism. In many ways, Trump is a harbinger of the challenges that will await American democracy in the years to come. He has provided a roadmap for would-be autocrats, demagogues and despots, usefully marking the inherent weaknesses of American democracy for other more skilled and effective leaders to exploit in a bid for power. A Biden presidency will offer an opportunity to repair and strengthen American democracy and heal a deeply divided society. It will, however, require incredible sacrifice and commitment from a political system and class that has shown little capacity for it. This may truly be the winter of American discontent, but summer may yet be a while away.
The writer is a doctoral fellow with the Heidelberg Graduate School for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). He is currently pursuing a PhD at the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, Universität Heidelberg
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