Not that I need to tell you, but 2020 was one hell of a year, with the tumultuous transition from Trump to Biden serving as a capstone to a worldwide pandemic, which itself was a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the world today: globalization and automation increasing inequality and decreasing jobs, tension between the West and China over who should rule the world, and most importantly, that climate change will disrupt all plans.
On November 8th, after it was clear Biden had won, I set out to write a daily update on what was clearly going to be a rough transition - though I underestimated the rage over the election being ‘stolen’ and did not anticipate the invasion of the Capitol. Fifty seven updates later, I had a real sense of how this election captured all the tensions of our era and the challenges ahead, not only for Biden but the world at large.
What follows is the first of five essays based on those daily posts; a halfway house between a blog post and a short book. This first essay surveys the election and its immediate aftermath, including the key players who emerged from it.
Introduction: From Trump to Biden
Trump’s election was treated as an apocalypse by most people I know. He was the most racist, climate change denying and inequality increasing president we could imagine. But that just tells you about the bubble inside which I live, since he got about 47% of the vote, including doubling his vote share amongst African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
In the Trump vs Biden tussle, Biden was the conservative candidate - not in the sense of left wing versus right wing, but in the sense of a rehabilitating an earlier liberal idea of governance that many would say is nothing more than a neoliberal elite running the show. As a friend said on Facebook, many people in developing countries could prefer Trump to Biden because:
he didn’t start any new wars and
because he was awesome at taking an axe to the sources of American power
he made it harder for the US to start new wars of aggression.
For let’s not forget the basic fact of American foreign policy:
When I first wrote these words, it wasn’t clear if Biden would return to warmongering and making deals with Republicans - perhaps even appoint Republicans like John Kasich to cabinet positions - or whether he would listen closely to the energy on the left wing of his own party. Also, no one expected a Democratic victory in both Georgia Senate races, which changed the dynamics of governance right away. The $1.9 Trillion stimulus plan is arguably the most progressive legislation passed since WWII and it’s enormously popular even among Republicans.
The progressive legislation shouldn’t come as a surprise, for Biden did run to the left of Obama and Clinton. The Democratic base skews left, and young people are much more progressive. Biden won Georgia because of the untiring efforts of people like Stacey Abrams and Native American and Hispanic activists in Arizona are likely to have propelled him to victory there.
Afternote: and once again in the Senate races.
Biden acknowledged the contribution of African Americans in his victory speech but he will have to back his words with policies. This interview with AOC will give you a sense of the interesting times ahead. Interestingly, it looks like Biden did better than down-the-ballot Democrats, i.e., people fighting state, house and senate elections, while Trump did worse. Republicans gained seats in the House and lost only one seat in the Senate even though they were projected to lose a lot more. The results are consistent with an anti-Trump election. The poor performance in the house and the senate has prompted finger-pointing among the Democrats (read the AOC interview for one side of the story).
M4A == ‘Medicare for All’ is a form of socialized healthcare that’s been demonized by the Republicans but everyone who supported it won in November. Then again, did they win because they supported M4A or because they are represent progressive districts? Electoral politics and demographics are driving districts further apart - While some districts such as those in the Atlanta suburbs are changing color, the Red/Blue divide seems to be getting stronger.
Trump did way better than the polls predicted. Not enough to win but still. Biden got the highest number of votes of any presidential candidate but Trump wasn’t far behind: he got the third highest number of votes of any candidate ever. Like many others, I was too caught up with polls and predictions to understand what’s happening to the ground beneath my feet.
Why is Trumpism so popular?
While I was born in India and retain my Indian citizenship, I have lived in the US for 20 of the last 27 years. Americans are a warm, generous people. I love the energy and optimism I encounter here. At the same time, the United States is an imperial nation that can’t stop bombing others. It also has creaking infrastructure, climate change is breathing down our necks, and conflict with China is rising. Trump’s election was a sign of the internal contradictions in the US system.
What’s Biden going to do about all these contradictions?
As an Indian, I am also interested in what a Biden presidency will mean for India. A surprising number of Indians like Trump and were more than happy to spread his falsehoods.
Once upon a time, Mohandas Pai was a leader at an iconic Indian software company. Pai is an accountant by training but that hasn’t prevented him from making elementary book-keeping mistakes about the difference between registered voters and eligible voters. It’s not just private citizens. I was shocked when the Indian PM endorsed Trump at a ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston. Apart from the fact that I don’t like the politics of Mr. Modi, why make a move that could backfire? We will find out over the next three and a half years. Envision an American president traveling to India and endorsing Rahul Gandhi. The horror! Perhaps that’s why Modi was quick to endorse Biden’s victory.
Congratulations @JoeBiden on your spectacular victory! As the VP, your contribution to strengthening Indo-US relations was critical and invaluable. I look forward to working closely together once again to take India-US relations to greater heights. pic.twitter.com/yAOCEcs9bN
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 7, 2020
Of course, India is not on Biden’s mind; perhaps China is, but even that’s got to take a back seat to the pandemic. The US reported ~100,000 new cases of COVID every single day of the week of the election. Probably sank Trump with it, but Biden has inherited a pandemic and the economic recovery after the disease recedes. The giant stimulus is the first signal in that direction. On November 8th, I wrote:
Trump might never concede; chances are he will announce his candidacy for the presidency in 2024 even before he leaves office. Biden will try his best to project an aura of normalcy during the chaos ahead.
Biden faces a series of wicked challenges in the coming months and understanding how his administration hits the ground running will tell us a lot about how to solve wicked problems.
Will he leave?
Around Nov 8th, when most of the networks had declared the election in favor of Biden, the question on everyone’s mind was:
Is he going to leave?
I was quite confident that Trump won’t concede the election. The only way I saw him admitting defeat is if the rest of his party starts talking in one voice to make him do so and that didn’t happen even after the insurrection. Despite some encouraging signs, from Romney and retired presidents such as Dubya, support for Trump is strong; there’s evidence that the post-election Republican party is even more an extension of Trump’s empire than before he lost - the anger over an election being ‘stolen’ has made the base even more fervid in their support of Trump . I can’t tell you how dangerous that is; if 50% of the system is forced into adopting the stance that a transfer of power is illegitimate unless they win, all bets are off in terms of what will happen to the system as a whole.
While he did leave office on Jan 20th, he continued to ‘campaign’ as if the election was stolen, which leaves him with plenty of options about what to do in the future, including declaring his candidacy for 2024.
What we are seeing is the intertwining of structural problems - racism, corporate control etc - with the emergence of a unique individual. Trump’s self-understanding as well as political charisma are too closely tied to his image as a winner. A winner who lost because of fraud is primed for a come back. In fact, it gives him a platform to be in the opposition as if he were a ruler and force Republican ruled states to enact policies that reflect his agenda. Republican politicians are forced to toe Trump’s line or risk being primaried. And once a politician agrees the election was stolen, the network of reinforced lies becomes too dense to deny later.
While the Republicans have an extreme version of the true believer problem, the Democrats are struggling with controlling a ‘big tent,’ which has everyone from Derrida quoting academics to socially conservative blue collar voters. And while Biden won, the party failed to pull this big tent together in the House and Senate races, where they were expecting a landslide and instead lost ground. If success can buy loyalty, failure prompts infighting. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, better known as AOC, ends this interview with the NYT with the following line:
But I’m serious when I tell people the odds of me running for higher office and the odds of me just going off trying to start a homestead somewhere — they’re probably the same.
That’s a dramatic display of disaffection isn’t it? In the same interview, she also said about one of her ‘moderate’ colleagues:
And so we know about extreme vulnerabilities in how Democrats run campaigns. Some of this is criminal. It’s malpractice. Conor Lamb spent $2,000 on Facebook the week before the election. I don’t think anybody who is not on the internet in a real way in the Year of our Lord 2020 and loses an election can blame anyone else when you’re not even really on the internet.
As it turns out Conor Lamb eked out a victory. He had this to say in response to AOC:
She doesn’t have any idea how we ran our campaign, or what we spent, to be honest with you. So yeah, her statement was wrong. But there’s a deeper truth there, which is this — that our districts and our campaigns are extremely different. You know, I just leave it at that.
Sounds like a schoolyard fight to me. The big question underlying this cat fight is the following:
Should Democrats become more moderate or more progressive?
Both Trump and Pence spent a lot of time trying to paint all Democrats as Green New Dealing Police Defunding Socialists. Some of them might well be so, but Biden took great pains to reiterate that he doesn’t stand for defunding the police or for banning fracking. Kamala Harris is a law and order Democrat, though also a Senate co-sponsor of Green New Deal legislation. It doesn’t look like supporting the GND is a liability even in swing districts.
But the more important lesson I am drawing from Trump’s popularity as well as the sudden fame of AOC is what I call political contagion. Politics - except for the presidential race - was famously local. Media endorsements that mattered were local newspapers and magazines - no one in Pennsylvania cared who the NYT endorsed. But social media is changing the local nature of elections. Defunding the police in Oakland can become a liability for Conor Lamb in Pittsburgh.
That, by itself, would be interesting but not dramatic, if it were not compounded by the fact that asking for the police to be defunded might make you a stronger candidate in Oakland and therefore, your incentives might be aligned with adopting a more progressive stance (as AOC’s are). Therefore, the very same dynamics makes AOC stronger and Conor Lamb weaker as a candidate and if Conor Lamb loses, the party has one less moderate and strengthens the hand of the progressives.
The Republicans have seen this happen over the years with very few moderates left - especially in the Northeast. Looks like the same is phenomenon is happening in the Democratic party as neoliberalism bites the dust. In sum:
Expect the nationalization of local elections when there’s a national candidate on the ballot. Even more important: expect the emergence of ‘national’ candidates whose local importance exhibits a positive feedback loop with their national importance.
The US has a national referendum every four years with the presidential election. One reason why incumbents have a great advantage is because they are the default ‘national’ candidate; their opponent has to become a national figure while trying to defeat a sitting president. But will that change with the emergence of national candidates in many house and senate seats? Will it make it easier to win against an incumbent president?
Now for some numbers
Voting in the US is heavily skewed by race and less so by gender.
2020 being a strange year, Trump gained votes in every POC group and lost share among white voters, even if his advantage remains solid. Where did he lose white votes? White college educated men made the biggest shift.
White people without college degrees are Trump’s base. White people - especially men - without a college degree are living shorter, poorer lives for the first time in living memory. Such a big shift in life outcomes will impact everything, politics included. It would be mind-boggling but not unimaginable if the Republicans become the party of the working class (white for now, perhaps more diverse in the future).
Marco Rubio is making those noises already - not surprising since Cuban-Americans shifted Republican in a big way in this election and we are seeing the same shift in border areas in Texas that you might expect to be deeply anti-Trump given his messaging around immigration and wall building. Perhaps the right is getting good enough with its propaganda tactics - this election saw a huge increase in Spanish language misinformation - that it might be able to expand its core to include people, mostly men, of other races. Will Facebook catalyze an amalgam of race and class?
Such shifts have happened in the past. Do remember that it’s the Republicans who ended slavery and the south was solidly Democratic until the 60s. Republican == White is a relatively new phenomenon. Having said that, party correlation with race is overwhelming. Mapping votes by geography makes it stark
And the contrast with ‘only nonwhite people voting’:
In his victory speech, Biden acknowledged the importance of African Americans in his successful run for president:
And especially for those moments when this campaign was at its lowest — the African-American community stood up again for me. They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.
It started with the primaries. If you recall, Biden lost Iowa and New Hampshire with Bernie and Buttigieg ahead of him in both. It was Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden in the South Carolina primary that gave Biden his first victory, after which he was unstoppable. Hillary Clinton lost Michigan to Trump in 2016 by 11,000 votes. Biden won Michigan this year by about 145,000 votes. If you zoom into Wayne County, which contains Detroit:
2016: Hilary beat Trump by ~ 290,000 votes with a turnout of ~ 520,000 for the Democrats. Total voter turnout, i.e., Democrats + Republicans + Third Parties, in 2016: 8,02,195 == 59.17 % of the total population,
2020: Biden beat Trump by ~ 323,000 votes with a turnout of ~ 587,000 for the Democrats. Total voter turnout in 2020: 61.68 %
Increasing the turnout by 2.5% is amazing, especially in sharply contested races in which the margin of victory is < 2%. While much media attention is being paid to Biden gaining new voters in the suburbs, the campaign itself must be acutely aware of the additional turnout in Wayne county - about 67,000 people- who voted Democrat this year. Since he got about 2/3rd of the vote in Wayne (the Republicans had higher turnout too), that extra turnout gave Biden a 33,000 vote cushion - three times the winning margin in 2016.
The political logic is straightforward: every pre-election poll suggested most voters had made up their minds. There were few ‘undecideds’ left on Nov 3rd. If you can’t increase mindshare, the only way to better your chances is to bring your people to the booth. As a result turnout had an outsize effect on the final outcome, or conversely, voter suppression can swing the election. Guess who gets suppressed?
Wayne county is ~ 40 % African American as opposed to ~ 13.4% nationwide and ~ 25% in Michigan as a whole. Wayne County has been losing people continuously since 1970, so more people voted in 2020 despite fewer people living there than in 2016.
In short, African-Americans turned out in large numbers to vote Biden into office. He said he’s got their back - now he has to make good on that promise.
People Worth Watching
In an important development over the last decade, women, especially women of color, are the ‘natural stars’ of the Democratic party - leaders with mass support as well as media appeal. Barack Obama was a lone star but today we have The Squad:
You can read more about them in the linked Wikipedia article. They get a lot of national and international press. Stacey Abrams isn’t as well known, but she might well be the most important political figure in this list.
I wrote the above paragraph on November 16th. Since then the Democrats have won both the Georgia Senate races and Stacey has correctly received much of the credit. She is now an important figure in the Democratic Party.
Like the other two people profiled in this series (Ron Klain and Tom Cotton), she too went to an Ivy League law school (Yale), which seems to be a general requirement for political prominence, but has since cut her teeth in a more difficult political terrain - Georgia politics - than the squad.
Abrams lost the Gubernatorial race in 2018 to Brian Kemp with credible charges of voter suppression in the background, but she turned that defeat into victory by leading a massive campaign to register African-American voters. That drive led to Biden winning Georgia and will be instrumental in Democrats winning one or both senate seats that are headed to a runoff.
I wrote on November 16th: Abrams’ star will rise meteorically if the Democrats win one or both of those seats.
Guess what: her star has risen.
While the future is always hard to predict, race-dynamics alongside the ravages of capitalist globalization are creating the conditions for the rise of an authoritarian elite in the US. Trump’s election in 2016 opened the door for authoritarianism in America, but more disciplined politicians will be the face of the white authoritarian movement in the long term.
If I had to pick a name, it would be Tom Cotton.
Cotton has the right neoliberal credentials (AB and JD from Harvard) but he combines those with imperial street cred (Bronze Star in Iraq and Afghanistan) which he wants to import into the streets of Washington an Philadelphia. That’s the message of his NYT op-ed
Let’s not forget his comments on slavery:
"As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction."
‘Necessary evil’ being the key phrase here. Though he will never have the media celebrity that Trump has, Cotton is the kind of politician the Republican establishment could decide to back wholesale. Their ‘necessary evil.’ He’s only 43, a calculating, articulate and smart politician who could well become the first elected fascist president four, eight or twenty years from now.
A dangerous man.
The first of three updates on people worth watching in the Biden era.
Every incoming administration signals its priorities by appointing a chosen few to the cabinet and other important positions. Obama was elected on a mandate to end the war in Iraq and tackle a deepening recession. He kept Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and appointed a Robert Rubin acolyte, Timothy Geithner, to the Treasury. Both were widely perceived (i.e., by me) as conservative appointments, walking back the promise of the campaign.
Biden’s first appointment was Ron Klain as Chief of Staff. From Wikipedia:
Klain had worked with Biden, having served as counsel to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary while Biden chaired that committee and assisted Biden's speechwriting team during the 1988 presidential campaign.
Ron has a long history with the incoming president - he has worked with Biden since the 80s, was Biden’s chief of staff as VP, before which he was Gore’s chief of staff. Hiring a long term confidant is a window into Biden’s emphasis on loyalty. He was also “appointed by Barack Obama to serve as the White House Ebola Response Coordinator in late 2014, serving into early 2015,” and wrote this prescient piece on pandemics and climate change in 2017:
COVID and climate were high priority items in Biden’s manifesto; by appointing Klain to the gatekeeper’s role, Biden is (might be?) signalling the importance of both challenges to his presidency. Klain also served as the legislative director to Ed Markey, the Massachusetts senator who is one of the senate champions of the Green New Deal (alongside Kamala Harris).
Is that a robust signal about Biden’s legislative agenda?
Neither COVID and climate - climate more so than COVID - obey national boundaries and any American president who wants to engage with them will have to start talking to other nations. China looms large on this horizon, and the absence of American leadership for four years has given other countries plenty of room to chart their future without American support. How will Biden win back their support? For example:
Will Biden launch a U.S alternative to China’s OBOR?
Or the exact opposite, since it might be easier for Biden to make a deal with Xi than with Mitch. Perhaps the US and China will launch a joint climate action plan? Biden can sell that plan as better for jobs in the American heartland - isn’t that the premise of a Green New Deal?
Biden + Xi might the last and best chance to save neoliberal globalization.
Whether China becomes friend, stays enemy or lands in a frenemic zone in the middle remains to be seen, but Klain will be central to these developments. He’s the kind of cosmopolitan person who can talk to elites everywhere. Wikipedia says:
In 1987, he received his Juris Doctor degree magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.
Very much cut in the neoliberal ‘best and brightest’ mold, a successor to Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, Klain represents continuity from Clinton to Obama to Biden. Is that an asset or a liability? I guess it depends on whether the great challenges of the future can be solved with the neoliberal mindset - a ‘compassionate neoliberalism’ to play on Dubya’s imfamous homage to conservatism. It’s like Google’s approach to AI: throw enough data at it and we can solve anything.
I am skeptical but I wouldn’t underestimate their chances.
The American Mind
Complexity theorists and propagandists often talk about the Overton window, the
range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time
At the end of the Cold War, when Francis Fukuyama wrote his infamous book about the end of history, he was saying that the Overton window had settled for ever on capitalist liberal democracy. Boy was Fukuyama wrong: we have seen not one but two alternative windows emerging in the last three decades. There’s the authoritarian window through which Trump, Modi, Erdogan, Putin and Xi look at the world and there’s the (much smaller) left-wing window through which Bernie and others shout their slogans. A subtler version of the Overton window is the Foucauldian concept of the Episteme:
In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.
I think Overton windows and Epistemes are flawed concepts, that collective cognition is much more dynamic with new branches and pathways bubbling up and luck playing as big a role as strategy. What we have in abundance are deep, intractable challenges: The NYT reports:
On the website, buildbackbetter.com, Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris pledged to be ready on Day 1 to tackle four main priorities for the new, Democratic administration after four years of Mr. Trump’s rule: Covid-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.
Those four should be important priorities everywhere in the world, and what the US does in response will impact everyone’e lives. I will be talking about two out of these four in subsequent essays (Covid & Climate) with a third C joining them (China). The politics of race and the need for an economic recovery will inform my coverage of the three Cs.
Why this Series?
What’s the purpose of this Trump to Biden series of posts? A couple of answers:
Gives me an excuse to read and learn more about an interesting and important topic.
Begin to understand where America is going.
As a way of dipping my toe into the future before diving in - too cryptic for you?
Like most people alive, my life has been lived entirely in the shadow of American power though that’s decreasing - the US had about 40% of the world GDP in 1960 compared to about about 15% today. The rest of the world rarely gets to understand the internal dynamics of the US - the exercise and transfer of power seems so ‘normal’ unlike the coups and revolutions that beset other nations. Therefore we only get to experience it from the perspective of various elites - the people who control business, media etc.
But as democracy has deepened, we are now seeing any number of other views emerge (many repulsive!) and gather influence. Understanding these changes takes a lot more than sticking to one’s bubble, whether that be an immigrant community or ivory tower academic institutions.
When I say democracy has deepened, I don’t mean that the ideals of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ have deepened though has happened too. I mean that the processes of capitalist-nationalist power have spread wider and deeper and are enmeshing more of us in its workings.When we say ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’ what do we mean by ‘people?’ Whatever the answer to that question, it’s clear the people of 2020 aren’t the people of 1920, let alone 1776.
The US is the country most associated with the ‘future.’ Every other country - especially ones that bear the weight of ‘civilization’ - is associated with the past but only the US has defined itself with respect to the future. That’s the promise of the New World, right? - especially if you can wipe the slate clean of anyone who came before you. Don’t mind my snark; I am a romantic about the future. When I first arrived in the US oh so many years ago, I used to watch Star Trek every single night in the TV room in my apartment complex - and the friends I made then are some of my best friends. That romantic future is taking a beating these days, what with climate change, ecological collapse, killer robots, you name it. But even the dystopia is draped in the American flag.
If you want to understand the future, understand America