The election season in the U.S. is drawing to a close, and through all the acrimony and confusion, it has also generated some pointers regarding the country’s immediate direction, regardless of who wins the election. There are at least three points of wide agreement and three points of heightening conflicts in the U.S. that this year’s campaign has brought forth.
Points of agreement
There is an increasing consensus in the U.S. that Big Tech, the clutch of big companies that dominate commerce and information, is causing a lot of harm to the country’s democracy and it needs to be regulated. But the Democrats and the Republicans do not agree on the reasons for regulation and how it should be done.
Democrats, who had not long ago hoped that social media would take democracy to all dark corners of the world, now accuse these platforms of being tools of foreign adversaries who they allege are wrecking the U.S. democracy. The Republicans accuse social media platforms of censoring conservative content and pushing a radical left agenda. Concerns related to privacy, national security, and business models thriving on data harvesting are beside the questions of democracy and freedom of expression. Both sides converge on the point that Big Tech must be brought under some sort of oversight and this idea will move forward in the next administration and Congress.
There is an increasing agreement between the Democrats and the Republicans that national manufacturing has to be protected. The devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic questioned the logic of trade-driven efficiency and the unending search for competitive advantage. Trade deals had contributed to overall economic growth in the country, even as communities in particular economic sectors and locations bore the brunt of its negative impact.
President Donald Trump’s policies disrupted the global trade order. Now, he and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden both make the promise of manufacturing revival in the U.S. Mr. Trump’s long-held position that trade is a national security question has wider acceptance after the outbreak of the pandemic. Mr. Biden, once a champion of mega trade deals, is now all for reviving manufacturing in the U.S., pushed by the left within his party and by Mr. Trump’s politics. Whether manufacturing can return to the U.S. at any significant scale is an open question, but economic nationalism is not a Trump preserve any longer. Mr. Biden has focused majorly on the White working-class voters, who were condemned as “deplorable” by his party in 2016.
A key aide of President Barack Obama had said in 2016 that U.S.-China cooperation was critical to solving any problem of the world. Mr. Trump emerged on the scene with guns blazing against China, this politics aged well with the outbreak of COVID-19, which emerged in Wuhan. During his presidency, the U.S. trade deficit with China increased but Mr. Trump accuses his opponent of being a Chinese sympathizer, and Mr. Biden is trying to counter such accusations.
The intensity might be different between Democrats and the Republicans, but a wider agreement appears to have emerged with regard to China as the main adversary of the U.S. It is not that there will be no exploration of an agreement with China by the incoming President, Mr. Biden, or Mr. Trump.
While these three points of broad agreement are themselves riddled with divergent approaches of both parties on each of the topics, at least three other issues will deepen the fissures and mobilize angst and diatribe, post-election.
The first is the challenges the election system in the world’s oldest democracy faces. In the absence of a central authority or uniform rules that run across the country, like in India, conflicting and chaotic election rules in various jurisdictions have become a source of a political battle. Unlike India, where there is a universal requirement of voter identity cards, and in a country that has millions of documented and undocumented non-citizens, the integrity of the election can be easily called into question.
The familiar argument is that there is no evidence of large-scale election fraud, but there can be no evidence when it has not been the subject of an investigation. There is no meeting point between the two parties on streamlining, securing, and improving the credibility of the process while encouraging higher voter participation. Regardless of who wins, the question mark over the process will continue to loom large.
A second divisive question that will outlast the election is the role of expertise in public debates and policy-making. It turns out that the news about the resurrection of expertise in the aftermath of the pandemic was highly exaggerated. The evolving science of the pandemic has become a politically partisan topic. Its entailment with the questions of liberty — can mask-wearing be mandated? — is far more immediate and knotty than the science and politics of climate change. The hope that a question of immediate life and death would force politicians towards a common ground of science appears to have been premature.
A third and the most fundamental division in the U.S. that will continue into the next presidency and beyond is that of the American self. “Success is going to bring us together. We are on the road to success,” the 74-year-old President said. “…what is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity,” said Mr. Biden. The loser will get a minimum of 40% of votes, of people who have an idea of America different from those who have voted for the winner. That is not a question that lends itself to easy answers. This election could more sharply define all these questions.