It’s easy to say that US-Americans didn’t elect Joe Biden so much as they neglected to re-elect Donald Trump. Biden’s victory was hardly what you would call decisive.
Of the nearly 150 million votes cast, he came out ahead by all of five million. The electoral map in 2020 resembles that of 2016 with the exception of only three states, each of which managed to elude Trump by only a few percentage points. Georgia and Arizona, still undeclared, may bring that total to five.
What were the voters thinking who made the switch? It’s a question we ask ourselves with renewed interest every four years, since election results for the presidency now routinely split down the middle, and only a handful of states seem capable of surprising us.
The voters in those states are said to be “independent”, as if they were the only ones, and presidential candidates spend an enormous amount of time and money courting their favor.
To anyone who lives in a state like California, which delivers a solid majority for the Democratic nominee every election year, it may seem unbelievable that thousands of people living in a so-called swing state like Wisconsin voted for Barak Obama in 2008 only to vote for Trump in 2016.
That shouldn’t be surprising, however, since both candidates played on the same basic concerns.
To say that Trump succeeded four years ago by appealing to the nation’s base instincts is to ignore the distress that he successfully acknowledged.
His hardline stances on immigration and trade with China were merely the solutions that he proposed to a problem that he wasn’t even capable of identifying.
That problem isn’t mysterious. Real wages in the United States have been declining for forty years.
Gainful employment continues to consolidate in major urban areas where the cost of living is basically insane.
Even before the dotcom bust twenty years ago, sociologists had begun to glimpse, in seemingly trivial events like the decline of bowling league memberships, a society that was no longer very social, where individuals were increasingly bereft of long-lasting relationships that are crucial to a person’s sense of validity and self-determination.
Faced with circumstances like those, a large portion of the electorate will always find comfort in simplistic solutions involving immigration and import tariffs.
Political figures like Trump can take that for granted when they propose to erect walls between neighboring countries and to tear up international agreements.
But those kinds of solutions aren’t the only ones that voters accept. Faced with similar challenges in 2008, a majority of US-Americans elected Barak Obama on the strength of a quite optimistic, although simple, vision of international harmony and liberal immigration policies.
One could always say that he played on our anxieties, as did Trump, by readily acknowledging the decline in US-American influence and fortune. He also flattered our egos with the somewhat dangerous notion of US-American “exceptionalism”, which has it that the United States is the world’s only indispensable nation.
“Make America great again” could have been a slogan for either of Obama’s campaigns, although his vision of US-American power was clearly not a belligerent one.
It’s difficult to imagine Obama succeeding at his ambitious program of healthcare reform, to the extent that he did, without his ability to cut through the details and identify the kernel of hope that dwells in every problem, even if he did appeal to our base instincts in the process.
Had Trump actually been a competent officeholder, it’s likely he would have succeeded, too. His vision was also one of hope, in a way.
Running against Obama back in 2008, Joe Biden was clearly unable to compete in that regard. In Trump this year, he was fortunate enough to have an opponent saddled with disillusioned supporters and unpopular policies. It remains a problem for Biden, however, that no one seems to be able to identify what his campaign was all about.
A new generation of Republicans is hard at work on a fresh paradigm of their own, as it happens. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, among others, envision a new kind of conservative ideology that marries economic justice for the working class with a nostalgic appeal for old-fashioned communities.
No doubt, their vision incorporates the usual conservative preferences for limited social safety nets, minimal environmental safeguards, and other policies that cause liberally minded US-Americans much anxiety.
Their vision sounds potentially inviting to many voters, nevertheless. It touches on the root of our problems and offers a solution that sounds both empowering and sentimental.
So, while US-Americans for now seem to have rejected the daydream of US-American transformation proffered by Trump, a revolution may yet await. And it just might be a Republican one, after all.
*Darrin Burgess: US-American writer currently based in Paris.