It will take weeks, if not months, for the U.S. election results to be finalized. While the world waits nervously, the American political world will be engulfed in a tsunami of recriminations, second-guessing, finger-pointing, and introspection.
For a nation that appears to have produced the worst possible results—a fuzzy presidential election, a GOP–Democratic split between the House and the Senate, and a highly mobilized African American population who saw their dreams of political attention dashed—the struggle to understand the election will be equally divisive and unrewarding.
The major problem with the fall 2020 election is that nothing appears to have worked right, sowing the seeds of political dissatisfaction that could resonate for years if not decades. Here are a variety of ways in which the U.S. political system suffered near total organ failure.
The U.S. electorate begged for real policy in 2020, in areas as diverse as pandemic management, innovation strategies, economic renewal, climate change, rural revitalization, poverty amelioration, race relations, policing, the management of dissent, and a resurgent China. What we got instead was thin rhetoric and emotion from both sides.
The progressive wing of the Democrats brough forward dramatic policy proposals, but Joe Biden and Kamala Harris pushed these concepts (like the Green New Deal) into the electoral shadows. President Donald Trump spoke often about what he would not do if re-elected, but his policy book was distressingly thin. The 2020 election was waged over values, thinly described, and not ideas.
US and International Media
The media coverage of the 2020 election was far from dispassionate and professionally disengaged, and they wore their contempt for President Trump on their front pages. The smaller number of media outlets, such as Fox News, that supported President Trump, in turn, took a similar approach to the treatment of the Democrats. In the days leading up to the election, with some unenthusiastic hedging of bets, the vast majority of media commentators assumed Biden would win.
Election night coverage showed how little the professional analysts understood what was going on in the country and how disconnected the media are from the main currents of political thought in the United States. In the end, the core point is that the U.S. media, in particular, neither leads, reflects, nor influences the public will in the United States.
For the second U.S. election in a row, and with other international examples, the polling industry let the side down. Despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars on professional polling, the results didn’t mesh with the forecasts. There were, obviously, points of overlap and convergence between votes and polls, but as a guide to voter intentions, the polls were more misleading than helpful. As an after-the-fact description of what happened, in contrast, sophisticated polling can help explain the inexplicable and the unanticipated. As a predictive enterprise, however, we may have seen the last of heavy reliance on polls.
For several decades, commentators have decried the growing importance of money in U.S. politics. The amount of money is obscene in financial and political terms, particularly when the expenditures by the political action committees and super PACs are added to the mix. But the spending was not very effective. Surprisingly, the Democrats mobilized tens of millions of dollars for key districts, only to produce disappointing results. Massive sums were spent to defeat—or support—President Trump.
It may be increasingly difficult to get donors to write so many big checks in the future. The failure of big money may convince millions of small donors to stop responding to the endless stream of fundraising emails.
Many people made millions of dollars off electoral processes that, in the end, had surprisingly little impact on political outcomes. At some point, an enterprising journalist will follow the money and find out how the political donations were spent, often to little positive effect.
The Democrats did an excellent job of rounding up celebrity endorsements, including from many athletes, musicians, and television and movie stars. The admirable efforts by professional athletes to get out the vote probably did convince more people to go to the polls but didn’t produce the clearly desired Democratic sweep. The messages from the stars played well with the Democrats’ political base, but failed to sway close to half the voters in the United States. By shedding all pretense of political impartiality, and by lining up so strongly against almost half the American electorate, they have managed to politicize popular culture and professional sports in a way that will resonate for years.
Ridicule and Scorn
The 2020 strategy emphasized political ridicule at a remarkable level. President Trump dumped endless scorn on former Vice President Biden, but almost half of all American voters didn’t reject the Democratic candidate on account of the harsh comments. Biden, in turn, described the president in consistently derogatory terms. But, again, the verbal abuse didn’t stick, as the president’s share of the popular vote suggests. This applies to the media as well. The anti-Trump contempt of virtually all TV comedians would, in historical circumstances, probably have been enough to turn the election. That didn’t happen this time. People watch and listen to the critical attacks, but the attacks clearly didn’t sway the election.
Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the academy has wrestled with the Republican president, his erratic behavior, and his quixotic policies. In the hypersensitive world of cancel culture and exceptional concern about ethnicity, race, gender, and human sexuality, Trump represented the antithesis of the value system in the university and college system. The collective academic effort to get rid of Trump was more than palpable; it had become a central pillar of intellectual engagement. And despite hundreds of academic speeches, lectures, op-eds, books, scholarly articles, and other interventions, the political needle in the United States barely budged. While Trump and Republicans railed against the perceived left-wing bias in the academy, ironically it appears that they over-estimated the influence and impact of academic interventions.
The two main parties—the Democrats and the Republicans—used to be the foundations of American political stability. They varied little in substantive policies, moderated regional and other differences, and provided a counterbalance to the aspirations of presidents, senators, congressmembers, and special interests. They no longer serve that function.
The Democrats are bitterly divided among themselves, united temporarily by a hatred for President Trump. The Republican desire to hold on to power caused many key leaders to surrender their independence to Donald Trump.
Instead of being a source for constructive ideas and political moderation, the parties have become ideological battlegrounds (the Democrats) or facilitators of a strong leader (the GOP). It’s not clear that they’re deeply connected with the American people, and they don’t appear to be outlets for any electoral aspirations other than self-interest.
Through 2019–2020, the U.S. election was going to be about the political redemption of African Americans. This was the first test of Black Lives Matter and came in the wake of countless public attestations that animosity toward African Americans had been relegated to the past. African Americans mobilized around the call to action—led by professional athletes, actors, thousands of African American leaders, school kids, and community activists. And, even if Biden emerges as the eventual winner, it was really all for naught. Almost half of the American electorate chose not to rebuke a president who apparently stood in the way of the improvement of life opportunities for African Americans. It’s hard not imagine a withdrawal of African Americans from electoral politics and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the American status quo.
The United States has one of the strangest national electoral systems in the world. Put aside the unusual Electoral College system and consider instead the absence of a national electoral system. Focus on the fact that counties, not states and not the U.S. government, run elections. The 2020 election was the culmination of thousands of local-level electoral processes. The complex web of rules, procedures, operations, and management styles creates confusion and uncertainty. It’s hardly a top-flight demonstration of a democratic election, and it’s revealed structural weaknesses in U.S. politics.
In the Bush–Gore election of 2000, the crucial decision was made not in the ballot box but by the Supreme Court. In the ultra-tight 2020 election, and with Trump and his supporters demanding judicial protection, the courts will once again likely provide for a continuation of the campaign into the coming weeks.
With President Trump having filled many of the nation’s courtrooms with Republican-friendly judges, the assumption is that the courts could provide the GOP candidate with further support. To the degree that this is tested—and true—it’s a degradation of the credibility and integrity of the legal system in the United States.
There’s probably too much to hope that the United States will wake up, post-election, and alter the controversial processes that lie ahead. As the country stares into the black hole of presidential uncertainty, and with the Republicans narrowly holding the Senate, the political quagmire of 2020 is certain to spread into 2021 and beyond.
The United States suffered a system breakdown in November 2020 that brought to the surface the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of a deeply flawed political structure. Uncertainty reigns supreme, and prospects for greater political chaos, disharmony, and conflict loom over the United States and the whole world.
Ken Coates is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Canada research chair in regional innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.