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US election: what does it mean for democracy?

United States
Victoria Pickering/Flickr
Celebrations in Washington D.C. after Joe Biden
is announced as the winner of the US presidential elections, 2020. Credit: Victoria Pickering /Flickr

‘We the people’ read one victory banner on the streets of New York at the weekend.

The elections that are set to make Democrat Joe Biden the 46th US president and Kamala Harris the first woman vice-president, and the first person of colour to hold the position, are being widely heralded as a triumph for democracy. That is representational, electoral democracy.

More than 160 million Americans voted – the highest number ever and at 67 per cent the highest percentage of possible voters in 120 years. Around 75 million voted for Biden, giving him more votes than any other presidential candidate in history. But it must be noted that Donald Trump, with over 70 million, got the second highest.

At a time when faith in the democratic process is under assault in many parts of the western world, the high turnout and voter engagement were extraordinary – especially in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has claimed more lives in the US than any other country.

Despite voter-suppression via social media, people polled in their millions, thanks largely to months if not years of hard graft by grassroots activists.

Minorities and young people were especially active in swing states like Georgia and Arizona, mobilizing parts of the population that either tended not to vote, or whose vote was being deliberately discouraged via negative campaigning.

The simple fact that so many people voted for a politics of unity and social and racial justice offered by Biden and Harris, restored faith in a different, more humane set of values.

So, this is all good – and let us enjoy it.

The other half

But it’s not the complete story.

Trumpism is not over. Half of US voters chose four more years of his divisive and often hate-fuelled politics. They chose a candidate who preached climate change denial, racism, xenophobia, misogyny.

Trump’s decision not to concede, but instead to call the election result ‘a steal’ and to start legal battles to reverse it will, just because of these sheer numbers, have considerable public support.

We don’t know what his supporters will do in a country full of firearms. Images of armed members of an extreme-right terrorist group standing outside the polling station in Las Vegas are a deliberate warning. The next few days and weeks will tell.

Progressives in other parts of the world may hope that Trump’s defeat will rattle other autocratic populist leaders: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey. Pro-democracy citizens in these countries may be inspired by what democrats and grassroots activists in the US have achieved.

But it might go the other way too, telling autocratic leaders seeking another term that elections aren’t to be trusted, better not to bother with them at all.

There is so much we don’t know still and cannot predict.

Those whose job it is to predict, the professional pollsters, seriously underestimated the support Trump was still able to muster this time. Again. ‘Shy Trump voters’ were blamed.

But the pollsters can’t see what is happening on social media until it’s too late. The New York Times reported that Facebook was ‘alarmed’ by the US elections. It took the rare step of demoting election-related misinformation on its users’ news feeds and requiring additional clicks before people could share posts. But these are minor measures really, that do not hit their bottom line.

Virality is what delivers eye-watering profits for the digital companies and they cling to a deliberately opaque modus operandi that enables it. If they were properly transparent, and shared their algorithms for example, it would spoil all that.

Twitter and Facebook did choose to label as ‘potentially misleading’ a message put out by Trump during the election. But generally, the platforms when they do move, do so slowly.

For example, TikTok, the new kid on the block, was especially busy profiting from misinformation during the US election. Media Matters, an American media watchdog, found 11 examples of misinformation circling the app – these gained more than 200,000 views before TikTok removed them. A QAnon-related conspiracy, which propagated false claims about ballot fraud, also racked up more than 200,000 views before removal.

Bigger discussion

There are many challenges ahead for the US Democrats. For example, trying to pass measures to provide public health and tackle climate change in what may still be a Republican-heavy Senate and evenly divided Congress will test Biden’s skills – and politics – to the limit.

Other challenges – like what to do about the digital titans and a world awash with toxic misinformation – are still somewhat below the radar.

And there is the bigger discussion of how we create democracy that involves more genuine citizen participation, more than just voting for leaders every four or five years. This includes a, still small but growing, global movement for deliberative democracy and citizens assemblies.

The struggle for a bigger, better, more real and equitable democracy continues. But at least now there is a greater sense of possibility. We can breathe. That’s a huge improvement on where we were last week.

Democracy and trust in the people will be the topic of a forthcoming edition of New Internationalist magazine.


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