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Opinionista

The 2020 US election: An American carnival that is rewriting the national story

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David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

At the heart of this week’s US election is the country’s national story: Is the United States, that so-called shining beacon on the hill, an exemplary nation that can overcome its errors? Or, is it an irredeemable cover story for white supremacy and imperialism?

One day before Americans voted in the 2020 national election this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing an advisory committee called the 1776 Commission. The order promises to reassert “how children receive patriotic education in their schools” and restore an “American education grounded in the principles” of the founding of the United States: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The move was no doubt in response to the critically acclaimed and widely criticised New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which seeks to reframe the history of the United States around slavery in order to challenge the country’s founding myths and trace how the legacies of slavery shaped the country and continue to endure in the present.

Although this executive order got submerged between the static of election sloganeering and, at times, hyperbolic catastrophising surrounding potential outcomes of the election, it’s part of a larger re-evaluation of the national story Americans tell themselves about themselves to themselves. This story, like all national stories, is under constant revision as the country’s demographics continue to shift towards a diverse plurality of people and perspectives.

After a summer of activism and protests about racialised police violence and inequalities set against the backdrop of an incoherent and uncoordinated response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the stability of the United States appeared to be buckling under pressure like never before. When Americans submitted their ballots earlier this week — or over the past few weeks through early voting mechanisms — they were not only voting for Trump or the democratic nominee Joe Biden, but also for a broader national story to cling to, push back against or aspire to. 

At the heart of this week’s election was a narrative and the country’s national story: is the United States, that so-called shining beacon on the hill, an exemplary nation that can overcome its errors? Or, is it an irredeemable cover story for white supremacy and imperialism? 

The answer to this question, as the cliché goes, is probably somewhere in the middle: a little of both. On one side of the aisle is Trump’s pitch to “make America great again”, a nostalgic appeal to a time when American exceptionalism went unquestioned and race relations were even more hierarchical. On the other side of the aisle is Biden’s pitch to fight a “battle for the soul of the nation”, an appeal foregrounding the need to redeem America’s fallen character and come to terms with its faults.

Considering these stakes, polls forecast a certain victory for Biden — with some even hinting at a blowout. However, that wasn’t the case because Americans aren’t a monolith and neither are the political parties. For example, in Zapata County, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas along the United States-Mexico border, which is 95% Hispanic, Trump was the preferred candidate despite his racist language about immigrants and emphasis on building a wall. This kind of result is perplexing if one doesn’t look beyond the conventional wisdom of democratic and republican loyalty. After all, the United States’ heterogeneity is often overlooked, which can lead “to a distorted sense of what is going on in American society and what will happen in American society”.

For an American like myself paying attention to the campaign over the past several months and watching the initial results roll in, it felt like buying a ticket to a carnival displaying the worst as well as the best aspects of the United States.

Given Trump’s boorishness, racism, tendency to pander to authoritarianism, incapability of providing any leadership during the pandemic and a host of other negative traits we’re long familiar with, it’s shocking some 68 million people and counting decided to cast their vote for him. Trump’s lackadaisical leadership at home and abroad over the past four years has been an embarrassment for a country that tells itself — no matter who is president — it’s the leader in the world. His style of leadership brings out the worst elements in people, most especially members of his base, and has contributed to the destabilisation of the United States’ social fabric.

That so many people did vote for Trump, however, is also an indication that his opponent, Biden, wasn’t able to take full advantage of Trump’s litany of ineptitudes. According to exit polling conducted by Edison Research, which we should be as sceptical of as other polling, Trump — to the surprise of many — made gains with black men and women, Latino men and women, and voters identifying as LGBTQ. Considering how prominently identity featured as part of the broader Democratic Party’s pitch to voters in 2020, coupled with heightened levels of racial tension, these gains suggest that perhaps too much emphasis is placed on identity in American politics.

Nevertheless, Biden has received more votes than any other presidential candidate in the history of the United States — during a pandemic. Flipping Wisconsin and Michigan, two states that were key to Trump’s victory in 2016, demonstrates Biden’s ability to make inroads across the aisle and where Hillary Clinton came up short. Moreover, that Biden received more than 72 million votes is a remarkable illustration of a kind of enthusiasm and political participation Americans don’t typically display for politics. If Biden can set the country on a path towards redeeming “the soul of the nation”, having 72 million supporters is a good place to start.

If the 2020 election is anything to go by, then the story the United States tells itself about itself to itself contains some of the worst elements and some of the best elements of its political culture. The country is as varied as it is divided and the tension between these elements is susceptible to popular manipulation.

These extremes — 68 million votes for Trump and his regressive pessimism, and 72 million votes for Biden and his redemptive optimism — are worrisome because of the cracked reflection they cast. The legacies of the so-called “Trump Era” may be long-lasting. That being said, these extremes nonetheless suggest American democracy is more resilient than many have speculated.

For instance, in Florida, a state that’s flip-flopped between Republican and Democratic candidates over the past several decades, Trump won in 2016 and most recently in 2020, both by slim margins. Also on the ballot in Florida was the Florida Amendment 2, the $15 Minimum Wage Initiative. This piece of legislation, which passed with just over a 60% majority, will increase Florida’s minimum wage to $15 in phases by 2026. Given Trump’s appeals to big business, his premium on tax cuts and the Republican Party’s refusal of federal minimum wage increases, it might seem counterintuitive to expect his devoted supporters to voice their backing for an issue that’s a central pillar of Biden’s campaign, but it’s an American issue that more than two-thirds of Americans support.

In addition, around the United States, the outdated and violent war on drugs continues to be rolled back. In a bipartisan show of support on election day, voters in Arizona, South Dakota, Montana and New Jersey voted to decriminalise marijuana possession, laws that disproportionately affect black people.

In Mississippi and South Dakota, two states that voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, voters expressed support for medical marijuana too. Rolling back this legislation is key to the larger project of overhauling the criminal justice system in the United States. This progress — in addition to more states adopting federal minimum wage laws — indicates that the convergence of America’s massive political landscape into two parties is increasingly incapable of capturing the complexity, variation and incongruity of the United States. Indeed, the sustainability of both the Democratic and Republican Parties might be better served by additional competition.

If the 2020 election is anything to go by, then the story the United States tells itself about itself to itself contains some of the worst elements and some of the best elements of its political culture. The country is as varied as it is divided and the tension between these elements is susceptible to popular manipulation.

For now, it appears the better elements have retaken the upper hand. However, the divisions at the heart of America’s story are deep and won’t be remedied simply because Trump will no longer be in office in a few months. DM

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