We have watched democracy in action since last Tuesday. We have seen how messy it can get. At the end of it all, the biggest winners are not Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the biggest winner is democracy.
Democracy was a winner in 2016, too. It elected an outsider to Washington's political ecosystem who brought a whole different style in leading the world's most powerful office. Sadly, the difference, intending to clean the swamp of politics as usual, turned the presidency into a laughingstock and a never ending fodder for late night comedy shows.
If actions spoke louder than words and the pandemic were handled more wisely, the incumbent, Donald J Trump, would probably have been re-elected. During his tenure, the American economy continued creating jobs and increasing wages across diverse occupations. His international trade policies had many risky elements, but he did weigh in on compliance with intellectual property laws and unravelled the inadequacies in the architecture of global economic governance.
These positives paled in significance compared with the words spewed out of his Twitter account day in day out smearing, vilifying, and denigrating all views differing from what would serve his narrow self-interest.
The dignity of the presidency reached a low comparable only with the McCarthyism of the early 1950s. These and the foolhardy defiance of the worst pandemic in the last hundred years spoke volumes louder than his good actions making the 74 million plus Americans tell him what he often relishes telling others: "Mr President, you are fired!"
Last four years were a gruesome reminder that democracy is never perfect. It can at times let the wilful blind lead the sighted. However, until the world finds a better system of political governance, this is the best-known option.
America, an icon of democracy, has demonstrated that you can trust the democratic system to correct mistakes as egregious (by hindsight) as the choice of Trump for the highest office of the republic. All you need to do is to let the voices of the people be heard.
The innovations in the voting system, which Trump resisted tooth and nail, in response to the pandemic made it so easy and safe to vote that participation in the election reached a high the US has not seen in over a century.
What can we learn from this monumental event celebrated in the US streets as if a dictator has fallen?
The biggest lesson is institutions matter more than individuals if they are robust. If Donald Trump had his way, the system of checks and balances built over centuries would have crumbled. Salute the founding fathers of the US Constitution who did not let that happen.
A second big lesson is to not make science the enemy of politics. A Trump victory would have sent a dangerous message to the rest of the world that science can be ignored even where it matters the most – a pandemic can just be wished away no matter how costly it is in terms of human health and misery.
We can only hope that science will return to the White House in pandemic management, a critical precondition for a sustainable economic recovery in the US.
Recovery in the US economy is important not just for American workers, entrepreneurs, and consumers but also for the rest of the world. It used to be said that when the American economy sneezes, the rest of the world gets pneumonia. That may not exactly be the case in the present-day world economy with several emerging counterweights in East Asia and Europe. But the strategic importance of the US economy can be underestimated only at your own peril.
The economic agenda for the next four years in the US depends as much on the future make-up of the new Senate as it does on the election of the new US president. A Republican Senate and Democratic House are likely to deliver a scaled-back stimulus bill in the near-term and a compromise infrastructure package in the medium term.
Biden's ability to work across the political divide on domestic issues such as health care and fossil fuels will be severely tested. However, his announcement to immediately constitute a Coronavirus Task Force comprising of eminent specialists who understand the biology, physics and chemistry of the virus should be music to global ears.
It will be a mistake to expect any major immediate changes in the US foreign policy. The new adult in the Oval Office is a pragmatist facing many serious domestic challenges the first and foremost of which is to restore statesmanship in the conduct of the Presidency. What may be a reasonable expectation is the end of a transactional and go it alone foreign policy model practiced in the Trump era.
Cooperation and negotiation rather than egoism and bullying will hopefully return as the principal ingredients for resolving issues in the provision and financing of global public goods such as pandemic control, global trade, and the protection of the planet earth. Biden is expected to shape US foreign policy that fundamentally believes it can achieve more when it works together with the comity of nations and re-engage in multilateral cooperation, international norms, and the global order.
The US retreat from global leadership left its allies and friends all over the world somewhat rudderless. It will take much more than a presidential election to rebuild the consequent loss of trust and credibility. America must meaningfully cooperate in rebuilding a more resilient rules-based system of global governance that can meet the challenges and capitalise the opportunities of this century without leaving nations behind. However, Trump's stronger-than-expected showing should awaken those who expected the US to fully abandon the ethos of his foreign policy. The post-Trump Republican party, which will remain a force to reckon with, is likely to remain apathetic to the value of international institutions and the utility of multilateral agreements.
Amidst all the euphoria, the new team in the White House must not forget that Trump may be gone, but the Trump political power is alive and well. Over 70 million voted proudly for Trump. They are a significant force to reach out to. The new administration will have to find a way of fracking mindsets set in stone with beliefs that find their validation in divisions. Rather than unison; disrespect for opponents rather than mutual self-respect; and ruling by inciting fear rather than inspiring hope. Nevertheless, the chasms and apprehensions that led to the election of Donald Trump will not disappear as Trump leaves the White House. They must be addressed.
Donald Trump also has a choice to make. He can learn from this experience and leave gracefully, or he can live in the bubble of his alternate universe and condemn himself to the dark pages of American political history. I will not bet a penny on the side of the former. And do not be surprised if he runs for the presidency in 2024.