Presidential elections in the United States of America are always an extravaganza but 2020 was more colourful than usual. Donald Trump’s erratic and unorthodox approach to governing made for a 2020 election contest like no other.
I strongly suspect Trump would have been returned if it had not been for his COVID-19 failures. He trivialised the virus and paid a heavy price. A Trump win would have been one of the greatest upsets anywhere in the global political history and it poses the question; why was it so close?
The closer than expected outcome reminds us how divided the American community is and they certainly remained divided on election day. The record voter turn-out, despite COVID-19, also reinforces that point. People seemed more determined than usual to cast a vote in favour of their preferred candidate.
It is this polarisation that should interest us most because its very much present in our own democracy. For most of our lifetimes, the political divide everywhere ran between class, income and ownership. But increasingly, people are divided on issues like climate change, gender equality, immigration, and discrimination. None of these issues are new, but they’ve been elevated and fuelled by social media. This has, in turn, driven a new divide as people react to what they deem to be “political correctness” and “Nanny State” government policy.
The evolution of an increasingly complex political dynamic should not be surprising in a more complex and high-tech world. The question becomes; is our democratic model fit-for-purpose for this new dynamic? In the United States we saw the model pushed to the brink and as I write, a smooth transition to a new President is not assured.
Of course, we can all be confident our democracy will survive the test of time – there is no better alternative. But events like those we’ve just witnessed in the United States remind us of the value of the free-vote and the need not to take it for granted. This is a particularly important reminder for the political class, which seems more focused on division than unity.
Joe Biden’s victory speech suggests he understands this, and he is determined to take a more inclusive and unifying approach to government. As the new “leader of the Free World”, he has a wonderful opportunity to heal the divisions and tensions, and to demonstrate that issues like climate change and discrimination can be addressed with policies and strategies which don’t themselves discriminate and leave people behind.
At this point in our history, the world is in desperate need of some strong political leadership. If Joe Biden can provide it, he may also provide a model for others, including Australians, to follow. In this COVID-19 environment, we need more policy thinking, and less political opportunism. All politicians please take note. I have.