Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first African-American president electrified the country and the world. The Nobel Committee jumped the gun and awarded him its Peace Prize in anticipation of the promise of his presidency.
Young Americans across the country were jubilant, and many went to Washington, DC, to witness his inauguration as a defining moment in American history. The sitting Republican president, George W Bush, movingly declared the historic nature of the moment. Pundits noted the arrival of a post-racial era in America.
But the Republican leaders of the Senate promised to make Obama a one-term president and, for the first time in American political history, a president was heckled as a liar by a member of Congress in one of Obama’s first addresses to the joint sitting of Congress.
The contrast between jubilance and rejection marks the existence of two political tendencies in the country’s politics.
The first has been a reactionary force that has been anti-human rights, anti-workers’ rights, patriarchal, xenophobic and racist. A second predisposition has been a liberal and progressive thrust that has advocated for justice and equality for all under the rubric of a liberal capitalist framework with a minimal social safety net.
There appeared to be an understanding between the liberal wing of the progressives and the conservative camps that pro-business policies were the order of the time.
As the American economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz noted in his most recent book, “People, Power, and Profits” (2019), the Clinton-Bush-Obama eras produced the most unequal of societies despite their different political labels. Defining the policies of the three presidents is the stunning inequality represented by the three most affluent Americans who have amassed more wealth than 168 million Americans combined.
This reality has alienated many Americans of different political persuasions.
Some groups drifted deeper into nostalgic America, hoping for the restoration of the good old days; others went further left into democratic socialism, feminism and green politics. Yet others remained confused and frightened by the demise of their class status, as sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich predicted in her illuminating book “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class” (1989).
It is this political maelstrom that produced Donald Trump’s presidency and subsequent reaction.
It now appears that the American population comes in three political hues.
First, about 35% of the population are marooned in the glorious past and constitute the heart of Trump-land.
Second, another 35% are young, progressive Americans who want to take the country into a more civic and socially just direction.
Finally, about 30%, including many of those who are scared of falling from grace, also realise that something is seriously wrong in the country, but are afraid of the unknown.
It is this last group that is usually decisive in who wins the presidency and which party controls the houses of Congress. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 but won the electoral college, which represents states, rather than the population of the country.
Trump’s racist, sexist and xenophobic agenda has been offensive to a majority of Americans for the past four years, but the diehards have stayed with him. In addition, the Republican Party and its principal leaders continue to drink Trump’s Kool-Aid, despite the death of more than 225,000 Americans because of the president’s inept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Also, Republican senators demonstrated the depth of their disdain for principle when they reneged on their promise that the Senate not take up confirmation of a Supreme Court justice in the year before a presidential election.
Four years ago, the Republican-controlled Senate denied Obama the right to nominate a Supreme Court justice when a vacancy arose due to the death of one of the sitting justices 10 months before the election. Four years later, the Republican Senate changed its tune when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died two months before the election, and they confirmed a conservative justice eight days before the presidential election.
Such unbecoming political behaviour has shattered whatever little common ground existed in the Senate, and the Democrats have threatened to increase the size of the Supreme Court if they win the Senate and the presidency.
Can Biden heal the rift?
All the polls predict a Joe Biden win and that a Trump victory would be the ultimate political shock.
If Trump is re-elected, American politics and communal relations will certainly become unimaginably ugly, with some even suggesting fascism. But the vital question is: if the polls are sustained by the people’s vote, and Biden prevails, will he and the Democrats be able to heal the rift and provide a foundation for a more tolerant, civic-minded public, or will the Balkanisation continue?
It is hard to tell, but if the size of the vote garnered by Trump is more than 40%, that will put a damper on the wings of the Democrats, and many will caution against adopting strongly progressive policies.
Appeasing some of the middle 30% of the electorate will have its advantages of passing moderately liberal policies. Still, it might alienate the growing number of young Americans – women, and white, black and brown people – who are at the forefront of the progressive agenda.
Biden will likely advance some of the liberal policies since his long political record manifestly reveals him to be a moderate Democrat.
He will work for a bipartisan agenda to save “the soul of America”, as he has noted. He has already demonstrated his civility towards those who disagree with him and has attracted some leading Republicans who have been energetically advertising his decency through The Lincoln Project.
However, we might be pleasantly surprised if he adopts some progressive policies by taking significant risks as there is a good chance that he might be a one-term president due to his age.
The surprise progressive notwithstanding, his policies will at best moderate the right-wing drift of the country and restore America’s global leadership.
Such repair will ensure Euro-American dominance of the global agenda, and that will not be a boon for most of the world, including Africa. A liberal approach will not fundamentally alter America’s fractured politics and society. DM