If any American has enough time and curiosity to search for reactions overseas, particularly in Europe, to the chaos that rages in present-day America, he or she will not be surprised to learn that foreigners do not understand why Americans cannot have the orderly and reliable counting of votes that should be expected in a leading and technologically advanced nation like the United States. The foreigners have a point but a lengthy explanation as to why this happens will not suffice. To them, it defies their knowledge of the democratic process that the United States does not elect a president on the basis of the votes cast for him. Their puzzlement is now heightened by the fact that the Democratic candidate Biden will receive 5 million votes more than President Trump. The total may even increase. Biden is not the first Democratic candidate to score such a margin of success.
Europeans, well steeped in the traditions of parliamentary democracy, consider the Electoral College an archaic mechanism to choose a president. They are not alone in this judgment, but it would be foolish to think that there will be a majority in the U.S. Congress willing to change the system. Now, both Americans and foreign observers realize that as chaos prevails in Washington, we will have to wait until Dec. 14, the time when Electoral College electors in each state will report the official results. The final outcome, however, will come later, since the certificates recording the electoral vote in each will have to reach the president of the Senate by Dec. 23. It is fair to admit that Donald Trump has one leg to stand on until such certification occurs. Until then, he will revel in the turmoil caused by his refusal to concede.
There is reason, however, to hope that American democracy will return to normalcy due to its ability to adapt to new circumstances and to change course. In the meanwhile, many foreign observers seem to fear the worst for America. Some of them are talking openly of an imminent coup d’etat in Washington, plotted by President Trump with a series of actions, particularly through the placement of faithful servants in the Department of Defense. The behavior of President Trump, who behaves as if he will not leave the White House next January, justifies grave apprehensions in the nation and even more in foreign circles that are prone to see tanks deployed on the ellipse. They envisioned that happening before when American democracy was severely challenged by the Watergate crisis. There were no tanks then and President Nixon was forced out by both Democrats and Republicans.
This time, a new and more dangerous crisis is before the eyes of the whole world. The elections have dramatically revealed the full extent of the political and cultural divide that is shaping the present course of events in the United States. At its root is the state of denial by a president who is taking advantage of a constitutional hiatus before the inauguration of a new administration. Such a long interval before the transfer of power puzzles people in foreign countries.
Finally, the economic divide promises to be the keystone of political evolution. One economic statistic by the Brookings Institution is worthy of mention: only 477 counties of the 3,141 in the country voted for Biden. Yet, they account for 70% of the nation’s economic output. The Democratic advantage is due to the transformation of the American economy that unquestionably has been expanding under the Trump administration (until COVID-19 hit, it was the ace up Trump’s sleeve) but in different sectors than the traditional agricultural and manufacturing ones. The new economy has been growing in the big cities but not in the rural America that clings to the populist rhetoric of Donald Trump. And yet, the Republican minority prevalence across the Midwest and old-style Southern states will not yield any time soon. At the moment, reconciliation cannot be on President-elect Biden’s radar. President Obama tried to open a dialogue with McConnell in 2009 but failed. There is a slightly better chance for Biden because he and McConnell have known each other a long time.
Realistically, control of the balance of power between the Democratic White House and the Republican Senate is the name of the game. The question then is to what extent the new president will be able to employ the power of the executive, in what ironically could be a repeat of the recourse to executive orders that was hugely abused by President Trump. The path of President-elect Biden is ridden with traps, first and foremost the danger that many progressive Democrats in Congress may push him into legislative strategies that will be immediately branded as socialist and anti-American by McConnell and company in the Senate. The winners may write history but forcing their will in a democracy is no easy task. The raw exercise of power may be the only way to go.