Early lessons from the US elections
As I write this, Joe Biden seems to be on the verge of victory over Donald Trump, in a general election that has turned out to be much closer than polls suggested (A “nail-biter,” as my sister in Massachusetts described it). Vaguely reminiscent of the Philippine vice presidential race in 2016, Trump appeared to be winning in key battleground states, but as more urban votes and mail-in ballots were counted, the trend began to favor the former vice president.
The relevance of US elections to the Philippines and the rest of the world, is quite obvious and goes beyond our (post)colonial relationship, as well as our personal relationships with our American relatives—Biden and Trump supporters alike. Aside from America looming large in Philippine foreign policy, the US president’s decisions and stances on matters like climate change, public health, and human rights have global consequences. As if to emphasize this point, the US formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement the day after the elections following Trump’s pledge back in 2017, while Biden has already pledged to rejoin it on his first day in office.
Policy differences between Republicans and Democrats aside, Donald Trump’s brand of right-wing populism and flirtations with authoritarianism have also likely impacted the political discourse in many countries, from Russia whose president Trump has professed admiration for, to Brazil whose president’s response to COVID-19 bears striking parallels with his American counterpart. While Trump has largely turned a blind eye to human rights violations around the world—including the “war on drugs” in the Philippines—Biden has declared that “When I am president, human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy.”
At this point, it is premature to speculate more fully on what a Biden presidency—and a historic Kamala Harris vice presidency—would mean; we don’t even know how Trump will react to his looming defeat, and how Republicans in turn will respond to his reaction. But at this stage, we can already identify some lessons, if tentative, from the elections.
First, the elections confirm the highly polarized nature of America today. Far from a huge majority of Americans repudiating Trump’s response to the pandemic and overall style of leadership (pollsters’ predictions of a landslide will be surely and deservedly litigated), support for Trump has proven intransigent, pointing to the fact that people are using an entirely different lens—e.g. the Supreme Court, abortion, immigration—with which to view politics. In the US, as in the Philippines, a kind of unity that requires listening to the other side, refusing to hate people back, and making everyone (feel) included in one’s vision of nation, remains an unfinished prerequisite to progress.
But no matter how divided America is, we saw the elections conducted in a largely smooth, transparent, and orderly way even in the middle of a pandemic, and this is to the credit of the mature institutions at the state and, fingers crossed, the federal level. As the Philippines braces for another election season, we should demand this kind of independence—even as both countries’ electoral processes leave much to be desired, not least of which is the role of unbridled campaign financing, and in the case of the US, its arcane Electoral College.
We also saw in the past few days the role and importance of an independent media. When Trump prematurely and falsely claimed victory after the elections, news anchors—even in Fox News—were quick to call him out, forcefully challenging his claim instead of just reporting it, arguably helping preempt the kind of chaos and violence that the US president seems to want to incite. We have our own reporters, journalists, and columnists willing to do the same here in the Philippines, but we need to defend whatever independence we have, and support those who do.
Finally, just like Brexit and Trump’s own victory four years ago, the US elections remind us of just how uncertain and unpredictable the world is. Exactly a year ago, Biden was characterized as having a “diminished standing” behind the likes of Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Months later, loss after loss in the Democratic primaries—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada—seemed to reinforce his status as a spent force, only for a comeback in South Carolina on Feb. 29 to completely change his fortune—and perhaps that of America.
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