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Thoughts on Democracy (whilst waiting for election results)

Writing by Tara Gold. Illustration by David Richards.

Disclaimer: This article was written before the race was called for Joe Biden and is a perspective from when the votes were still being tallied during the week.

On Sunday the 1st of November, I sent the following message to my editor about this article:

i’ll start work on the piece tho! although i probs wont write it till after tuesday cause we’re really gonna have to see how the whole election goes lmao

Although only a week ago at the time of writing, I look at this message now like one might look at an old photo from freshers week, taken before the realities of uni life were apparent - only on a far more existential scale. I’ve had countless exchanges with friends bemoaning how hard it is to concentrate on anything but the electoral map and the painstakingly slow counting of apparently endless votes. The election is inescapable, and the celebratory victory which many hoped for has yet to materialise.

Like many Rattlecap readers, I imagine, I had resigned myself to Biden after quietly rooting for Bernie throughout the primaries. The prospect of a Biden administration, particularly a Biden/Harris one, didn’t inspire much hope. I imagined achingly slow progress on climate change, a complete failure to tackle mass incarceration, while the rhetoric from American leadership would turn to one of restoring balance and rebuilding the imperial might of the US on the world stage. The suburban anti-Trump activist would slide back to the bleachers, and the mobilisation it had taken to swing battleground states in the Midwest would evaporate rather than being turned towards causes that desperately needed support. As the polls seemed to shift further towards a victory for the Democratic ticket, this future seemed more tangible. It was a prospect as demoralising as it was relieving - while it would mean the end of the Trump administration, it also meant a victory that could offer no more than the slight relief of no longer having to avoid criticism of moderates who seem to constantly demand it for the sake of the ‘lesser evil.’

By the last few weeks of campaigning, though, the think pieces on a ‘New New Deal Era’ had gotten to me. Beginning to imagine the possibilities of a landslide Democratic victory in the White House and Senate, the ideas were endless. Think about the options that would become feasible! Health insurance policy, climate change action and racial justice. I thought about what Green New Deal policies might make their way into a Coronavirus stimulus bill, and the possibility of genuine reform to the American immigration system. Systemic change seemed a desperate inevitability, a vindication of the narrative we have been forced to watch play out since 2016. I wasn’t so naive as to imagine the world after the 3rd of November as problem-free, or as the birth of a transformative political system exempt from the mass damage of capitalism, racism and imperialism; but the idea of watching the downfall of Trump and the passage of legislation that would tangibly improve our lives and futures was irresistible. While I didn’t warm to the concept of a Biden-Pelosi-Schumer trifecta, it seemed like it might offer a moment of respite, allowing the left some room to tackle structural issues that have been continually pushed aside in the wake of Trump’s chaos.

Now, it seems childish to have even suggested that corruption and disinformation wasn’t an apparently permanent fixture of our political reality. Although Biden continues to creep ahead as outstanding ballots are counted, the election has been anything but the rebuke of fascism we had dared to dream of. The Senate will not be convened with a new unbreakable Democratic majority ready to break the filibuster and pass Supreme Court reforms. Instead, runoffs that won’t take place for months seem likely to determine whether the Senate is tied or stays Republican - elections that I’m sure will face massive outside interference, corporate funding and public spectacle. While Biden would have options for reform regardless, like rejoining the Paris Agreement that the US just officially left, they would be dramatically limited by a Senate still led by Mitch McConnell.

This election may have achieved nothing more than proving how utterly broken the US’s electoral process is. The chaotic mess of watching this election unfold has been profound, with the threats of interference, last minute legal rulings on voting procedure, voter suppression and gerrymandering. Despite this, as of writing, Biden has received over 74 million votes, the most won by any candidate in history. This is not only far from represented in the electoral college, which still hangs in the balance, but it sidelines the arguably more relevant statistic: Donald Trump received over 70 million votes. Analysts will be arguing over why this is the case for decades to come. But the number remains 70 million (and counting). For scale, that is more people than currently live in the UK (about 66 million). The US is a profoundly divided place, and watching Florida slowly turn red on Tuesday night was perhaps the most acute reminder possible of that. Writing from my Edinburgh student bubble, it’s a valuable lesson. The UK has far more in common with the US than many would like to admit, and we are faced with no less division. The left has yet to find a way to truly grapple with the fact that they are not presently the majority. Regardless of the demographic shifts that may save us in a couple of decades, how can we hope for radical democratic change in a context of such massive systemic oppression and violence? What are we meant to think about the fact that 70 million people find Trump’s stances on women, POC, and corruption (to name just a few) not only morally permissible but to his credit? Ultimately, we are not dealing, either here or in the US, with a system where some corrupt elites have stolen power and chosen to abuse it; instead, they have been endorsed by millions to do so.

I have absolutely no answers to these questions. Given how this year has gone I wouldn’t be surprised if some developments soon make the exercise of dissecting the election seem ridiculous. The only thing which might offer some consolation for the mess of an election week was that time right before Tuesday, where we could think hopefully, without the constraint of realism, about the world we would be able to create. Since 2016, politics has felt more like reading The Hunger Games via Twitter than any genuine exercise of democratic engagement. Many of us haven’t experienced adult lives without the spectre of Trump and Brexit to deride. Conceptualising a relationship with politics as an adult that doesn’t include a sense of nihilistic irony seems almost strange now. And while we probably won't be free of any of this any time soon, the exercise of imagining a political landscape where more can occur than just reactive damage control feels desperately necessary. Hopefully, it is an exercise we will get to repeat and build on. None of the change we argue for will happen if we don’t conceptualise it, and while it may continue to fail to materialise as it did this week, there are so many people who worked tirelessly to get us even here. So maybe, in 2020, we should take whatever lessons we can get.

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