Spare a thought for President-elect Joe Biden who might just have got the ultimate booby prize: the presidential election result that he, and the Democrats wanted. A Democrat back in the White House, even if the current tenant has to be dragged out kicking and screaming that he was robbed. A fairly comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. And now, thanks to the voters of Georgia and two run-off elections, practical control of the Senate. On paper, at least, he has the power to force his agenda through congress.
No doubt he would rather be in this position than as it looked in early November, where a stronger than expected performance by Donald Trump made it seem doubtful Biden would be able to force his legislation, and his appointments, through the senate. It took days and days of counting before it became clear that Biden had won -- with a victory that might almost have been called a landslide. But even now, it seems, about a third of the electorate believes, against all of the evidence, that Trump was the real winner, and that the Democrats somehow cheated in having more voters in more vital states than Donald Trump did.
Biden now has no excuses. He has promised action in a host of areas, including on a much more focused and disciplined campaign against the coronavirus, and action on climate change. It is one thing to say almost anything he does should be better than what Trump achieved. But there are no clear paths for fulfilling his promises, and it is by no means clear he will get great credit from the population if he does.
Trump, for one thing, sent practical management of the pandemic to the states, much as (if by a different process) Scott Morrison did in Australia. But Australian state administrations, while making some mistakes, were tremendously successful in containing the spread of the virus, and even if they are still in the process of doing it, dealing with second and third waves of an infection which is not only mutating, but whose threat has broadened to be not only a great threat to the aged and the immune-compromised, but now also to younger and middle-aged Australians.
At the same time Biden has to take some charge of the economy, both with new general stimulus measures and income protection. America is not ready to snap back, as Morrison seems to think Australia is, bar a few hiccoughs, mostly in the gold-standard state. Around the world, the pandemic has never been running so strongly as it is now. Incidence - new cases each day - has never been as high. Likewise with mortality and morbidity. In a host of areas, including California, the number of people seriously ill has outstretched available resources, with the inevitable consequence that poorer folk, black folk, Latino folk, are being triaged for death. Even a Republican senate overcame a last-minute Trump veto of a hard-negotiated Democrat measure, but Biden's task in mobilising the resources he has just been given is still formidable, and able to start only after he takes power two weeks hence.
Donald Trump will no doubt leave the White House claiming he solved the whole problem by sponsoring, and delivering on, the search for a vaccine that could bring the disease under control. He has hinted at the fact the first production of apparently successful vaccines did not occur until a few days after the election was a part of the bag of dirty Democrat tricks depriving him of a second term. But it already seems clear a program of rushed vaccination, using all of supplies available, may take the rest of the year, or more, to bring transmission of the disease, and deaths, to a halt.
That would be so even if every American lined up with enthusiasm for the vaccines (it is expected that most will have to take two, probably now months apart, to maximise the hit even a single dose is expected to give. Indeed, we have yet to see whether the vaccines "cure" the disease among those already infected, reduce the severity of the serious effects, or will work as effectively with new forms and mutations of the virus. A majority of American states are under Republican control, and some may use resistance to any nationalisation of anti-pandemic measures as yet another opportunity for a last stand against the vaccines, microchips, socialism and One World Government they think the Democrat triumph means.
The pandemic has demonstrated the ramshackle nature of the American national health system, as well as the virtual collapse of some of the institutions which once guarded Americans - and also the world - against deadly epidemics. In normal times, one would have looked to bodies such as the Centre for Disease Control to provide international leadership - and expertise - on dealing with the pandemic. It is not the fault of the sabotaged and defunded CDC that this was no longer possible, but it might serve as an illustration of how America's standing, status and notional leadership of the western world slipped under the isolationism and ignorance of the Trump administration.
Not that most of the rest of the western world has much to boast about, with or without hollowed out public health institutions. Other countries in a position to take a lead, such as Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and, to a lesser extent Germany, suffered rates of disease, and containment failures, far worse than many third world countries. Just as we need an inquiry into how the disease passed from bat to man, we need an inquiry into how the rich and powerful economies lost control of it. While others - by no means all authoritarian - were more successful.
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Here's some figures of death rates per million: The Americas, north and south: 853 deaths for every million in the population; USA: 1045. Europe overall: 631. But Britain: 1098. Italy: 1240. Spain: 1079. Belgium: 1699. In contrast - Africa: 39 deaths per million, (South Africa 492); Japan: 28; Philippines: 84; Australia: 36. Australia's low rate was not only a factor of good regional and federal management, but of its geography, and being an island.
Joe Biden, as it happens, sees action on all fronts as an urgent task. Along with action on subjects not mentioned here, such as the police and justice system in chaos, a trade war with China, and working to revive international trade and growth - seriously threatened anew by the return to shutdowns and fresh waves of infection.
Behind them - a critical part of every task - is the dismantling and discrediting of Trumpism. Trump and some of his supporters gave this campaign a big assist this week. But it's not for pointscoring or virtue signalling. It's a necessary step towards a return to proper politics - by which citizens of different opinions argue about what to do with respect to each other and acceptance of the ultimate verdict. For Biden it's an action issue, as much as a communications one. Of course he must not talk about disarming them!
Pandering will not bring prodigals back into the fold
Joe Biden has never been one for fighting on all fronts at once. He's more George McClellan than Sam Grant or William Sherman - often afraid that too great a display of courage might bring him into collision with the enemy. But he does not have all the time in the world. And everything he does as president needs to be not only essential in its own right but judged for long-term wisdom through the prism of whether it serves to help restore some unity in a very fractured and divided nation - at times seemingly on the brink of civil war.
Restoring unity is not merely a matter of being statesmanlike rather than jeering at opponents after a solid victory. Nor is it necessarily about mere reconciliation, as though differences have not become fundamental. It is not simply about knocking heads together, or of breaking down some of the hyper-partisanship of recent years. It is a matter of restoring faith in democratic institutions, including the electoral system itself. It involves doing something to restore faith in the media, including new media, and in generally agreed facts (as opposed to strongly held opinions or beliefs) as a basis of argument and debate. Trump manipulated the sense of his being an outsider - one who didn't care what the "elites" thought - by constantly talking of how politics at virtually every level had become corrupted by insiders, lobbyists and special favours. He was going to drain the swamp. That struck a chord with many dispossessed white Americans, but it's a feeling (and a reality) that goes well beyond special Trump constituencies.
As it happens, hardly anyone could better represent the comfy and corrupted world of professional politicians, lobbyists, influence mongers and deals than Joe Biden himself. He's been around forever, including in an era before politics became so polarised. He knows how the system works. He knows something about lubricating the machine of state.
Some of the deal-making has been corrupt. But it is not necessarily so, if only because of the way compromise is at the heart of the American constitutional system. Sometimes it brings politicians from both sides to work amicably in solving great national problems, rather than looking only at ways of making the other side look bad. A major vice of Trumpism has been how its effects were mostly for short-term political advantage, rather than any long-term good, even from the viewpoint of a Trump. He, and supporters such as Mitch McConnell, trashed a lot of institutions and conventions for mostly fairly small gains - often succeeding only in making government more difficult, less based on public interest, and less trusting.
Over his long parliamentary career, the art of a Biden often consisted of finding ways opponents could be brought on board by little concessions (to their districts or prejudices) that could make them think they shared ownership of a project and they too had had a win. Compromise, in the American system, is more about win-win than about grinding one's enemy into the dust. Biden would do well to think aloud, and to address the electorate at large - including the alienated, the sullen and the suspicious - over the heads of the politicians. The man may not be charismatic, but he is affable, and does not instinctively seek to politicise or polarise with every breath. Unlike Trump, he should be asking the best of Americans, not echoing their tribal hatreds, sneering, point-scoring or living in short-term grudges.
Trump became famous for tweeting insults, anathemas and surly commentaries into the dawn, along with an unshamable narcissism. But these tweets were by no means all spontaneous or from a stream of consciousness. They were researched by his political staff - and not only for their capacity to appeal to potential supporters, but for their capacity to distract, infuriate and unsettle political enemies. His enemies thought wrongly his weakness was his indiscipline, or that he could be trapped by disputing his "facts" or his logic. Too often they were being played by an expert.
Bringing people together is not an unmanageable task, even when the chasm and distrust is high. Many Americans, for example, are deeply sentimental, susceptible to reiterations of claims of American exceptionalism, greatness and nobility of purpose - statements that seem absurd, ludicrous and embarrassing to the rest of the world. Especially now, post-Trump. The nation abounds in flag-worship, and national rituals, not least at times of death or tragedy or rededication to disinterested higher purposes. Whether one likes the excessive religiosity or not (or its preachers or not), religion is another way of inculcating higher purpose into a conversation between governor and governed. America's best leaders have been good speechmakers, good at drawing all together for some common purpose (and in the process making themselves seem above the fray). The best too use their "bully pulpit" to set the public agenda.
This seemed something Trump simply could not do. He was a specialist at dividing Americans. Hardly ever did he or many of his followers - including members of his family - espouse a noble aspiration or sentiment, or use some ideal as an explanation of what they were doing. He spoke the language of self-interest. Even when religion was invoked it was generally as a weapon to attack others - by the pretence that God was a registered Republican, and that the Republican agenda had been settled with the Bible on the table (alongside the gun). The mean spirit has been all too much underlined by the introduction of coded references to race, misogyny and latent violence.
Those most needing to be brought into the fold of mainstream America are in particular need of jobs, dignity and pathways to self-improvement rather than the dead-end of the minimum wage. But they and other alienated Americans must be addressed also in terms of their values and their identities rather more than being patronised by transactional promises or mere appeals to their economic self-interest.
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It is not merely a reflection of the way that the partisan spirit has atomised society and made people more tribal and inclined to believe that others are a clear and present threat to their way of life. Such folk have their own media reinforcing not only their sense of themselves, but, as Isabel Sawyer put it this week in The Atlantic, their sense of themselves as citizens. She quotes political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lyn Vavreck as saying, "growing divisions between the Republican and Democratic Parties threaten to make political conflict less about what government should do and more about what it means to be American ... This is the American identity crisis and it is getting worse."
At the core of a unifying response will be an agenda to address the economic divide between Americans. It needs to be focused on the dignity of work, and call for greater investment in building skills, creating jobs and raising wages and benefits.
"I now believe that, in addition, the US may need to adopt a more explicit industrial policy alongside place-based strategies to revive small towns and rural communities. I also believe the cultural underpinnings of American divisions are more important than I earlier understood. To address them, the country will need more than an economic agenda: it will need new efforts to re-establish respect for the facts and to cultivate respect for one another across political and social tribes."
And just as important, she says, is the establishment of schemes to rebuild a sense of community and shared purpose at the local level. Enhancing inter-group contact (prejudice and distrust are reduced when groups know and deal with each other) and to create shared work towards common goals, building bridges instead of walls, thereby limiting tribalism and social division.
That's a big agenda for an old codger still curious about whether Trump has booby-trapped the White House, poisoned the water supply, or encouraged harassment by gun-totin' "patriots". It won't be sweetness and light, and, after all, the mid-term elections are now only 22 months away. Biden's biggest consolation is that there are plenty of people wanting the nightmare to be over and for him to succeed.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. email@example.com