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The 2020 US elections: grassroots activism, toxic legends and the abiding divide

Posted on 12 November 2020

On 10 November 2020, exactly one week after Election Day, and roughly 48 hours after Joe Biden was announced as the 46th President of the United States, we invited Professors Laura Stoker, Gary L. Gerstle, Federico Romero and Mario Del Pero to share their insights into what the elections results mean going forward. The discussion was organised by the ‘Democracy in the 21st Century’ Interdisciplinary Research Cluster.


Election Day 2020. A voter casts his ballot in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Phil Roeder. CC by 2.0 (wikipedia)

The blue wave was only a slight ‘swell’

One thing is certain: Donald J. Trump has lost the election. However, closer analysis of the results reveals some potential problems for the Democratic Party. Stoker started by stating that “This election was a referendum on the president and a rejection, but not a rejection of the Republican Party, as the magnitude of split vote in this election reveals.” Romero added that while Trump as an individual was spurned, “conservative populism was not”.

The rural/urban voter divide is becoming increasingly polarised

Stoker repeatedly brought up the deepening divide between urban and rural voters, as part of a “deliberate and entrenched strategy for the Republican Party.” Gerstle added that the divide is related to the end of a certain area in globalisation, which pre-dates the 2016 election. “The fruits of globalisation have been unequally, improperly shared. Trump’s ability to recreate that deep sense of grievance among his followers is a very powerful part of what is going on in the US.”

Romero emphasized the potential damage of the Trump camp’s ‘stolen election’ lie: “If it takes hold as a legend that gains ground in the galaxy of conservative media, it is going to poison the public debate in the years to come”.

While Stoker suggested that the recent rise of independents and vote-splitters (supporting the Republican candidate locally but voting against Trump) could be a sign of fatigue with “affective polarization.” Del Pero disagreed, saying that Trump and his toxic speech have “dominated the political discourse of the right and it will be very difficult for anyone to emancipate the [Republican] Party from that.”

Mixed feelings about how successful the Biden administration can be

All panellists felt that both the obstructionist Republican faction lead by Senator Mitch McConnell, and the growing leftist Democratic faction, will play crucial roles in determining the accomplishments of Biden’s administration.

Del Pero claimed that modern conventions have made it increasingly difficult for presidents to govern using congressional legislation, leading to the increased use of executive orders. Trump routinely took such actions during his tenure; reversing Obama’s environmental regulations. This is a potential problem for the quality of American democracy and the efficacy of politics. “It leads to a [leader’s] legacy written in the sand that can be easily reversed with the stroke of a pen.”

The general public and the media have made much of Biden’s age and his perceived lack of charisma. However, Gerstle offered some confidence in the president-elect’s abilities: “The last 12 years have been marked by presidents who were charismatic but did not have insider knowledge of how Washington politics work; they struggled to achieve their political agendas. Biden’s experience and his relationship with Mitch McConnell may not be such a bad thing: US citizens will happily accept new Congressional policy if it is bi-partisan and they are ready for this kind of leadership from ‘above’. “Maybe we have had enough charisma for a while,” concluded Gerstle. “Trump had his version and Obama had it in abundance, but neither of them was good enough to make deals in Congress.”

Extraordinary efforts by black women in the election

The last, and important, takeaway from the discussion was the panellists’ acknowledgement of the campaigning and organising achievements of Black women such as Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, Leah Aden, and of course Kamala Harris. Moreover, a resounding 91% of Black women voted for Joe Biden in this election.

Gerstle spoke about this achievement: “It is a major reconfiguring of how we understand Black politics […] It is an explicit rejection of the old way of having charismatic Black male speakers leading the charge.” Black women are extremely conscious of having played a very significant role in determining the election’s outcome, and this might herald similar evolutions in other minority movements across the US.

About the speakers:

Laura Stoker is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Gary L. Gerstle is Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University. Federico Romero is a Professor of History at the European University Institute and an expert on Post-War Europe. Mario Del Pero is Professor of International History at SciencesPo, Paris.

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