By The Japan Times Editorial Board
Nov. 3 was election day in the United States. While voters cast ballots in state and local races, considered dozens of referendums and selected every representative and one-third of the senators, all eyes were focused on the presidential contest. Hopes and anxieties rested on a simple question: Would Donald Trump win a second term as president?
As many anticipated, 48 hours after the polls closed, the answer remains unknown. Blame a pandemic that prompted historic numbers of voters to cast early ballots — more than 100 million across the country. Blame a postal service creaking under the weight of unprecedented numbers of mail-in ballots. Blame a patchwork of rules and procedures that in some cases prevents early counting of those votes. Blame some combination of the three for creating legal challenges as authorities tried to cope with those exceptional circumstances. And, finally, blame intense divisions in the United States that have produced elections that are decided by fractions of a percentage point of turnout.
In some ways, the results are almost secondary. In the absence of an electoral tsunami that favored Democratic candidate Joseph Biden, the winner inherits a deeply divided country, one in which neither side believes in the legitimacy of the other. The intensity of support has fueled claims on each side that it can only lose because of deceit. Trump declared early Wednesday morning after polls had closed that the Democrats were trying to steal the election and threatened to go to the Supreme Court to halt vote counting as occurred in 2000, a decision that ensured the victory of George W. Bush and colored the court as partisan.
Pressure for another, similar intervention will mount as the “red mirage” — the early strong showing by Republicans — dissipates as many early votes cast by Democrats are counted and begin appearing in the tallies. If the Supreme Court does step in — a likelihood anticipated by Trump with his campaign to quickly install Amy Coney Barrett on the bench — damage to the court could be permanent.
Another win for a candidate who did not win the popular vote will intensify clamor for electoral reform and a reconsideration of the role of the electoral college. That institution was designed to be antidemocratic, giving smaller, less populated states greater weight in national politics. It has worked too well, however, creating great resentment and contributed to the delegitimizing of presidential outcomes.
Tensions will only mount, however, since reform is unlikely if the GOP retains control of the Senate, which appears to be the case. That body may well rediscover its enthusiasm for executive oversight and fiscal prudence with a Democrat in the White House. Even if he loses, Trump will have outperformed the pundits and most expectations, which, in combination with his party’s retention of control of the Senate and unexpected gains in the House of Representatives, should ensure that the Republican Party continues his pugnacious approach to politics.
There is little likelihood that there will be the comity and bipartisan compromise that Biden remembers from his days in the Senate. Internecine warfare may well become the norm.
Politics as blood sport is a metaphor but it has the potential to become real. The violence that wracked American cities this year is a hint of what may ensue. It is telling that many U.S. cities, including the capital, boarded up their windows in anticipation of the election results.
Trump’s refusal to accept the idea of systemic racism and his preference instead for re-education campaigns that cover up uncomfortable history further inflames passions. Images of law enforcement and military authorities gassing and beating peaceful protestors raised fundamental questions among many Americans about their nation and fellow citizens. Throughout the campaign, Biden would shake his head in response to some action or decision by the president and say, almost with wonder, “That’s not who we are.”
Foreign audiences watched those same scenes and wondered what sort of nation their friend, ally and partner has become. For much of the world, Trump’s first four years resembled nothing so much as a slow-motion car crash. His “America First” policies were a repudiation of internationalism and a denigration of the rule of law, an unraveling of the world order his predecessors worked so hard to build. A transactional approach to foreign policy appeared to prioritize the president’s personal interests and image over that of his country. Bold initiatives that might have shown promise, such as outreach to North Korean dictator Kim Jong, were instead casual, haphazard and undeveloped.
Inconsistency did great damage to the U.S. image and undermined its authority. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile Trump’s biting nationalist rhetoric with Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”
For all his talk of restoring U.S. leadership, even a Biden victory may disappoint. Bitter partisanship will sap America’s will and distract the administration’s attention. Governing will require the forging of a domestic consensus that will focus attention on affairs at home. Regardless of who ultimately prevails in this week’s vote, U.S. allies and partners must expect continued demands to do more, contribute more and bear more of the burdens and responsibilities for regional and global security. That is not unreasonable, but it will be easier with a U.S. administration that respects its partners and the global order that the U.S. labored for decades to build and support.