Our Current State, What's At Stake?

How did we get here, and where do we go?

By Tajwar Khandaker

A bizarre election, in a bizarre year, led to the presidency of Donald Trump in a moment that signaled the start to one of the wildest experiments in American history. Despite the abundance of confident punditry and forecasting that followed election night in 2016, it seems as though no one got it right–not completely at least. Those that expected the 70-year-old “Apprentice” star to embrace something resembling the “normal” role of president and shed his campaign persona were sorely mistaken. So were those who saw Trump as a Washington outsider who would “drain the swamp” and represent the “forgotten majority” in the White House. Some underestimated his anger and his impulsiveness; others overestimated his interest in upholding the duties of the office. What America has come to learn––and probably should have understood long ago––is that Trump has always been exactly the man he comes off as being. There is no deeper layer, no higher motive, no calculated grand plan. The president has proven to be every bit as underqualified for the post as his campaign indicated; his first term has produced an inexhaustible array of scandals, the most broken congressional inter-party relations in recent memory, and contributed to the mismanagement of the worst national health crisis in nearly a century. Norms and systems established over centuries by politicians, statesmen, and experts have been discarded. The decorum of the American government is in disrepair, both in the eyes of its people and those of the world. It now feels like an act of providence when we see the president handle something as mundane as a bill signing instead of dropping rap-battle threats against foreign leaders on Twitter. The bar has been lowered beyond recognition.

As we approach November, we cautiously await the American people’s referendum on the Trump experiment. It is a mistake, however, to make this election entirely about him––none of this has ever been entirely about him. It’s about a deeply rooted mistrust of government, of decades of growing resentment against establishment politicians who seem to fail to grasp the needs of the American people. It’s about a country with such a complicated national identity that its own citizens can’t reconcile their competing perceptions of what America stands for with one another. It’s about a litany of other things: education, immigration, privacy, on and on. The path that led to Trump was paved with stones left over decades, by everyone from senators and presidents to judges and newspaper editors. The erosion of “American Values” that so many have decried over the past for years was not conjured out of thin air by Donald Trump––it was the inevitable endpoint of the course America has trodden for the last half-century. Those values––democracy, equality, justice––have been preached loudly by the United States across the world for decades, often at gunpoint. Yet at home, our maintenance of these ideals has been in disrepair. America’s once-thriving middle class has shrunk rapidly, as rising costs of living, stagnant wage growth, and ramshackle healthcare have crippled socioeconomic mobility for tens of millions of Americans. A flawed and overburdened criminal justice system has exacerbated the plight of communities across America, disproportionally harming minority populations. Voter suppression still silences millions in what is supposed to be the world’s greatest democracy. So, it was no surprise that Americans on opposite sides of the nation, opposing ends of the political spectrum, and of every race and ethnicity grew tired––a reality that in 2016 manifested in the form of two wildly different presidential candidates. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were dramatically opposed, both in their platforms and ideologies. Sanders’ brand of progressive politics had remained practically the same since his entry into government nearly 40 years ago– well to the left of the establishment of the Democrat party. Trump’s right-wing tendencies, on the other hand, were reminiscent of Tea Party rhetoric during the Obama years, entrenching the Republican party further in a fiery and often nasty nationalistic position. Americans unhappy with the status quo and establishment politics flocked to both candidates in 2016––mostly young, multicultural, progressive voters for Sanders against an older, more right-wing, and decidedly whiter base for Trump. Both candidates, despite their drastically different directions, tapped into the sea of discontent across the country––evidenced by their successes amongst working-class voters. 

However, in 2016, Hilary Clinton’s nomination and the subsequent campaign would overlook these realities. Her platform appeared mostly an appeal to voters to continue the Obama years, offering little in the way of the bold new policy. At times, it seemed as though the Clinton campaign’s central argument was simply that she was not Donald Trump. There was no great vision the candidate set forth, no rallying cry like Obama’s “Hope” for the masses to gather around. The lack of inspirational direction was an issue for the campaign all the way through, as enthusiasm lagged among young and undecided voters. Her message failed to move the voters of the Rust Belt and of the traditionally Democrat “Blue Wall” of northern states––areas where she had unexpectedly lost primary races to Sanders. The results were catastrophic; not only would Clinton fail to secure a victory in Ohio or Pennsylvania, but Michigan and Wisconsin would also turn red for the first time in decades on Donald Trump’s road to victory. Many of the working-and-middle class Americans who voted for him––mostly white––saw it as a gamble. Much of Middle-America was willing to overlook the long list of obvious problems with the candidate because they clung to the hope that regardless, he was still the first unique option presented to them in a very long time. Trump represented to these voters an outside presence willing to rip up the snooty club of the Washington elite– the same who had failed to deliver on promises for decades. Election night came, and the Democrats were stunned. Despite winning the popular vote, Clinton lost badly in the electoral college. Though his margins were razor-thin in many key states, Trump’s victory was resounding.

Four years later, America looks dramatically different on the eve of the election. The severity and breadth of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to grind to a halt, with the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression and a degree of worldwide crisis not seen since the last World War. The United States, under the leadership of President Trump, has unflatteringly bungled the situation, failing to institute any kind of coherent national policy to counter the pandemic. While many of America’s peers abroad have managed to control the spread of the virus to varying degrees, the United States itself has been woefully inept in its response– resulting in bans in many countries on the entry of American visitors. Meanwhile, the administration has been repeatedly dismissing the danger posed by the virus and disputing official numbers. As American deaths continue to mount at a frightening pace, Trump’s chances in the election continue to take a tremendous hit. Though a concerning number of Americans seem to be dismissive of the virus, nearly two-thirds of the country believe that other nations have handled the crisis better than the United States– including 57% of Republicans. As Republicans across the board have started to take the coronavirus more seriously in recent weeks, Trump has been forced to show more concern, even though the president still claims that the U.S. is doing a good job handling the issue. One way or another, it looks as though it will be too little, too late for Trump. Holding onto his electoral gains from 2016, on paper, seems a tremendous challenge. Trump has taken significant losses among independent voters and many centrist Republicans, while his new gains look limited. For working-class swing voters little has changed for the better during Trump’s presidency. His economic policies, particularly the series of tariffs, have hurt industries such as agriculture and steel. His attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act also went over poorly with working-class voters, as did his tax cuts which disproportionately favored corporations and the wealthy. Consequently, Trump is in very real danger of hemorrhaging votes in states that were crucial to his victory four years ago. Current polling backs up the hypothesis– Biden holds a healthy margin against the president in many key states from Pennsylvania and Michigan to Florida and possibly even Texas. 

But so did Hillary Clinton at this time four years ago, and she lost. 

Biden’s numbers are better than Clinton’s were, and his chances are certainly strong, but his campaign will have to grapple with many of the same problems that torpedoed that of his predecessor. Clinton’s lack of a strong ideological message (other than being an anti-Trump) was a drag on her campaign; the same could easily be said about the Joe Biden campaign in the present. The lack of proactivity and initiative shown by the Biden campaign thus far indicates that the candidate is content with sitting on the sidelines for the time being while Trump punches himself out. Ideally, the former vice-president will remain unscathed, able to emerge clean for election day having avoided the brunt of public pressure. However, Biden’s candidacy has too many issues of its own to avoid scrutiny, much as he may like it to. Questions around his age and health are inevitable, as are those about the sexual misconduct allegations directed toward him over the last year. Of course, the platform itself is a matter of concern to many as well. Biden is a traditionally “safe” candidate, sure to appeal to centrist Democrats, moderate Republicans, and many independent voters, but the Vice President’s policy proposals do not go far enough for many. As a result, the Biden camp has made moves to incorporate progressive policy into a  platform that was once establishment vanilla in recent months creating a Unity Plan with Bernie Sanders and integrating some of Elizabeth Warren’s proposals with his own. Many of the possible fruits of these decisions are promising– universal childcare, stronger environmental legislation, and a tax rise for the wealthy. However, in declining to endorse a Green New Deal or Medicare for All, even in the wake of the current health crisis, Biden continues to alienate many of his skeptics on the left. Similarly, the former Vice President’s response to the events in Minneapolis and Kenosha, and their fallout, has been unsatisfactory to many, lacking the kind of decisive promise for action that many hoped for. Many progressives see Biden’s candidacy a hollow promise, an engine willing to go only so far as reinstituting the pre-Trump “normal.” For millions across the country, that normal was never sufficient. During the Democratic Convention, there was a concentrated effort to cater to that concern, with the endless repetition of the promise to  “Build Back Better”. Whether or not voters buy it is another matter. The discontent of millions requires more than some alliteration to solve.

The Democrats have long bemoaned the leadership vacuum with Donald Trump in the Oval Office; Biden has an opportunity to start filling that void by being present and vocal now.  The DNC was a strong first step in that direction, as the former Vice President offered perhaps the best speech of his career accepting his nomination for the candidacy. Biden cast himself in a presidential light his campaign hadn’t managed to conjure until the convention- speaking clearly and assertively, ostensibly leading from the pulpit. This was essential for a candidate that had long been painted as too old, too addle-minded, too out of touch. The people needed to see him not only campaigning but leading, with a clear theme for the future he proposed. Biden delivered at long last, projecting an image of leadership, accountability, and competence for his potential administration, though the lack of policy in his speech remained concerning. His choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate the prior week may have been an equally significant moment in the timeline of the campaign. The junior senator from California offers an incredibly mixed bag for critics and supporters to pick through, as often-justified criticisms of her record as California Attorney General mar her image to many, despite her strong political skillset, prosecutorial success, and status as potentially the first woman (of Black and Indian heritage no less) to be Vice President. Harris is a politician’s politician; shrewd, smart, and often hard to trust. The selection carries more weight than most; there are strong indications that Biden plans upon being only a single-term President. As a result, Harris’ selection is not only for the role of VP but perhaps by extension for the Presidential candidacy in 2024. 

The Harris-Biden union offers a well-rounded ticket to voters– a white man and a woman of color, experience and energy, the empathy of an elder statesman, and the zeal of a young prosecutor. With his Vice President in tow, it is time for the Biden campaign to lock in and push for the remaining days of the race. Doing so successfully involves leaving behind the complacency the Democrats showed in 2016 when they assumed they could pull off the victory despite the discontent of many potential voters. Biden cannot make the same mistakes. The voters of the Rust Belt and the Blue Wall will need answers to their concerns––Biden will have to address them in a way that Clinton did not. There is a large pool of potential voters available to pull upon for the cause of defeating Donald Trump. It behooves the Biden camp to ensure that they’ve properly appealed to all of them rather than a select few.

Much like Clinton, Biden may find it challenging to get people out to vote, a result of both lacking enthusiasm for his campaign and overconfidence in the result by potential voters. Biden’s ability to draw voters to the election is even more important than it already would be due to the apparent instability of the voting process in November. With the coronavirus still raging across much of the country, conducting normal in-person voting seems highly inadvisable, if not impossible, and states and local governments are scrambling to establish functional protocols and systems for carrying out the election. The chaos is stoked by the executive branch’s intentional hindrance of vote-by-mail practices across the country, as Trump publicly and regularly declares that mailed votes will lead to a stolen election. Vote-by-mail undoubtedly has logistical challenges, but it’s been a part of the election process for years in many parts of the country. No evidence shows higher risks of voter fraud with mail-in voting, and many regions that use it have seen better voter turnout. The fight over the voting process will take place both in Washington and in lower levels of government across the country. The result will likely be a patchwork system of voting nationwide, with some regions voting exclusively by mail, some in person, and some with a combination. It’s still hard to gauge what turnout will look like in November, but the idea that the more people vote, the better Biden’s odds will be, is a popular one. The President, hellbent on restricting mail-in voting,  believes this himself. Although this had been pretty clear to most observers for months, Trump made sure to put it in words himself. In early August, the President admitted to withholding USPS funding for that reason, proudly declaring “They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots [...] If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.” The battle for the ballot box will be crucial to the story of this election, and there isn’t much time for it to be resolved. Some hope lies in the fact that more and more politicians, many of them Republican, publicly break with Trump over his attempt to slow mail-in voting as every week passes. After all––senators, governors, and local legislators, Democrat and Republican, all need their voters to turn out too.

Uncertainty colors all things in the present, but that either Joe Biden or Donald Trump will be president of the United States in January is inevitable. It may not be an enjoyable prospect, or perhaps even a tolerable one for many, but it is our reality. The widespread distaste for Biden and the establishment of his party is to be expected. Biden’s nomination once again showed the Democratic Party’s disdain for its progressive wing– as did their handling of Bernie Sanders in 2016. Biden has made overtures to those on the left, offering a pledge of cooperation with Sanders and Warren, and seemingly making an effort to integrate parts of their platforms into his. Whether or not these are sincere remains to be seen. For now, the left’s best hope is to propel Biden to a victory and ensure that they have a seat at the table in doing so. The party will soon have to reckon with its treatment of the progressives as they continue to win elections and gain bigger platforms––the establishment Democrat party cannot continue to evade and reject them as they have for much longer. In the present, the election looms, and the reality remains a world where either Donald Trump represents the United States for four more years, or Joe Biden does. Americans will need to decide which of the two they prefer––and their decision will reflect profoundly on what this country is and what it wants to be. The president has threatened to invalidate November’s results (he can’t, but he can certainly make things messy), Russia and possibly other nations actively look to play a role in swaying the election, and Covid-19 continues to cast its shadow over everything we do. The American people will face no shortage of obstacles when they try to prove that their democracy works in November. Nonetheless, there is so much change that needs to be done that it remains essential. American foreign policy is in tatters; tensions with Iran are escalating, our partnerships in Europe falter, and relations with China worsen with each passing day. At home, social injustices abound, the financial disparity grows, and millions don’t know how they will make it through the ongoing pandemic. And across the globe, we continue to watch environmental damage mount ceaselessly towards disaster. The list of the issues America faces today is much longer still, and voting one way or the other likely won’t solve most of them. It will, however, allow us to choose the way we go about trying, and that is worth something. There are many things to be done in this country, and many of them will be done by protestors, by organizers, by teachers, and by writers. Not all change comes from the ballot box– but much of it still does. In less than 50 days, America will make a decision about what kind of country it wants to be. The fork in the road right now only runs two ways. Both might end in disaster– but one almost certainly does.