When Democratic challenger and former Vice-President Joe Biden emerged victorious in the race for the presidency, one could almost hear the hushed sounds of tens of millions of Americans collectively exhaling. While expressions of joy would come later, it was relief — not elation — that struck many Americans first. Relief that a protracted ballot counting process had turned in a decisive manner. Relief that an interminable campaign had reached its finale. But, above all, relief that a fog of perpetual exhaustion might finally lift.
The past four years have challenged American democracy. While the country's political institutions have long shown signs of disrepair, the Donald Trump presidency exposed their abject decay. The president governed as if checks and balances were a nuisance, rather than a necessity.
The career bureaucracy was vilified — its professional ranks hollowed out. The Senate — one of the world's most revered deliberative bodies — struggled to muster a veneer of legislative accountability. And, even as the Biden team executes plans for a transition, many Americans are unsure whether the incumbent will willingly exit centre-stage.
As draining as the attack on institutions has been, it has paled in comparison to the assault on democratic norms. Perhaps the biggest lesson of the Trump era is the revelation that institutions are only as sound as the social practices that undergird them. The president weaponised social media to target political opponents, civil society, and the media. From his obscured income tax returns to his questionable business dealings, the president embodied conflicts of interest. Even on questions of foreign policy, presidential whim — rather than any coherent policy process — often dictated the United States (US)'s posture towards friends and foes alike.
For the roughly 75 million Americans who backed Biden, the desire to turn the page is palpable. Women, ethnic and racial minorities, and urban and suburban dwellers turned out in historic numbers to put an end to the Trump presidency. This is no small matter: Trump is the first incumbent president to lose his re-election bid in a quarter century.
But this victory was not preordained. The so-called blue wave of disenchanted, frustrated Democrats was met by a corresponding red surge of passionate Trump supporters who basked in the President's derision for political correctness and his dogged efforts to codify conservative principles into law and regulation. Despite the fact that Biden garnered five million more votes than Trump, more than 70 million Americans stood solidly behind Trump and the margins in several battleground states were razor-thin. Democrats longed for an unambiguous repudiation of Trumpism; what they got instead was a mild rebuke.
To a certain extent, the post-election bliss Democrats are experiencing is muted — for three reasons. First, driven by optimistic polls, expectations among rank-and-file Democrats ran sky-high — they expected to win the White House, regain Senate control, and expand their ranks in the House. The latter two did not materialise, although it's possible that Democrats could still wrangle control of the Senate if two run-off elections in the state of Georgia go their way.
Second, the Democrats are a house divided. In the past week, social media has been brimming with recriminations emanating from the progressive Left as well as the moderate Centre, each blaming the other for a disappointing showing in down-ballot races. In the wake of a massive victory at the presidential level, conversations in Democratic circles resemble a circular firing squad rather than a jubilant victory lap.
But there is a third factor giving Democrats pause: Biden will assume the presidency at a time when America is encumbered by three simultaneous crises. A brutal second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has reared its unwelcome head, racking up more than 100,000 cases and 1,000 deaths per day. The economy, while showing tentative signs of recovery, cannot fire on all cylinders as long as the pandemic rages unabated. But there is a third crisis — over race relations — that came to a boil this summer and is simmering just below the surface, and which Biden and Kamala Harris will be under tremendous pressure to address expeditiously.
What does this mean for India? While Biden will want to signal the US's return as a responsible global stakeholder, the incoming administration will initially be consumed by domestic affairs. In the medium-term, the outlook for India is bright — expect Biden to carry forward many of the cooperative policies that the Obama administration pursued, on subjects from the climate crisis to defence collaboration. Economic irritants won't disappear overnight, but a less hostile outlook on immigration and trade deficits will help. Many in Delhi worry that a Biden administration will apply greater scrutiny to issues like civil liberties and human rights. While such talk is overblown — China's behaviour has all but assured that — it is curious that many seem to care more about the US's attitude toward democratic freedoms than the health of those freedoms to begin with. In any case, America's democratic deficits are plentiful — giving Indians ample fodder with which to push back.
With this election, the US closes a corrosive chapter in its political history but under a cloud of uncertainty over its ability to author a new, more constructive one. If it can muster the political will to do so, this can only redound to India's benefit.
Milan Vaishnav is senior fellow and director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC