Joe Biden’s domestic challenge

Joe Biden’s domestic challenge

Biden's crisis is not primarily about the states in the US union but about states of the mind

US President-elect Joe Biden. Credit: AFP Photo

Now that the American Electoral College has confirmed Joe Biden as President-elect, he confronts a secession-like domestic crisis. Unlike the one faced by Abraham Lincoln during 1860-61, this one will not lead to a civil war, but Biden must address it by uniting the majority of Americans committed to the reality of his election victory.

Lincoln’s crisis featured the secession of seven states. South Carolina was the first, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. They all feared that Lincoln would dismantle the slave economy, and the newspapers, operating at speed due to the recent innovation of the telegraph, helped to fuel the alternative reality.

Biden’s crisis is not primarily about the states in the US union but about states of the mind. About two-thirds of Americans believe that Biden won the election, but the other one-third does not. About 36% of all voters -- which is 77% of the 47% that voted for Trump -- believe that Biden’s victory was due to fraud. Those people are angry and bewildered at the idea that Biden could win and choose to believe that the election was rigged.

The failed appeal to the US Supreme Court, supported by as many as 19 state attorneys and 126 members of Congress, is a vivid manifestation of the United States as a deeply divided nation. The lawsuit repudiated the actions of various Republican officials in those states that certified the election results, and the Republican-appointed judiciary which rejected the election-rigging charges for lack of evidence. Both reliably Republican media outlets Fox News and the Wall Street Journal have warned that overturning the choices of millions of voters may forever undermine the American democratic process. Biden’s adversaries are not necessarily bigots or racists and as a group they are not yet violent, though threats of violence against election officials are rising. 

Donald Trump’s ideological followers reject more institutions than just the election management procedures. Their hostility is directed against the courts, media, academia and science, and they are starting to create a new imagined nation by referencing media platforms like Newsmax, One America News, Epoch Times, and Parler to stimulate a parallel polity and society. How should Biden react? Lincoln tried to unite a disparate collection of states and peoples by pleading for peace and reconciliation, arguing that Americans must be friends, not enemies. Biden does the same and has said repeatedly that he would be a president for all Americans, “not just for the ones who voted for me.” 

His first priority must be to solidly unite the two-thirds of the nation who accept the reality of his election. More than 51% of voters, or about 81 million Americans, chose Biden. Another roughly 20 million did not vote for Biden but accept that he won. Consolidating those 100 million voters should be Biden’s first order of business. His base is made up of centre-left voters, and his challenge is going to be how to maintain the loyalty and patriotism of both centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans who accept his victory but fear the ‘socialism’ of the Democratic left. 

Each of the nation’s present crises offer opportunities for uniting Biden’s disparate groups of supporters. The coronavirus pandemic is most obvious because three quarters of the population support common-sense actions to counter the further spread of Covid-19, to treat the ill and to vaccinate the healthy. Economic revitalisation is another necessity. While Democratic socialists and centrist Republicans have different economic priorities, there is strong political support for the $900 billion emergency package that has been passed, and perhaps for a second one later to focus on infrastructure investments and to support industries that will take time to recover, such as airlines, hotels, restaurants, tourism, and services in general.

Biden emphasised racial justice and climate change during his campaign, which are higher priorities for his core support than they are for Republicans, but he could find allies across the aisle dedicated to ending discrimination, lowering emissions and producing clean energy. Biden has a reputation of believing in bipartisanship and has applauded officials of all parties who courageously secured fair elections in ‘battleground’ states like Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Republican election officials may not appreciate a new Democratic president’s endorsement, but Biden must at least be receptive to their concerns. 

One-third of the United States rejects the election results that brought Biden to power. President-elect Biden cannot endorse their sense of deprivation, but if they want to meaningfully participate in further strengthening the election systems, his administration should engage with them. If they want equally to address bias in the media, universities, and other institutions, Biden should be open to such discussions. All that said, Biden’s willingness to review and reform the American polity must be linked to acceptance of the reality that has already been acknowledged and recognised by the other two-thirds of the nation that support his incoming presidency.

(The writer is a former foreign secretary)