After a long and exhausting week, the US elections are finally behind us. Securing the decisive 20 electoral votes from Pennsylvania on Saturday afternoon, Joe Biden turned from “former Vice-President” into “President-elect”. His election victory ― “convincing” at the end of the day ― comes on the back of a record number of 75 million votes at the time of writing. His running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, has made history by becoming the first woman and person of color to become the Vice President.
I sometimes find myself puzzled by my fascination in US politics and the many hours I spend reading and listening to news from overseas. There surely is some personal affinity here: four years ago, I was in Ann Arbor as a visiting researcher on the evening that Donald Trump tore down the “Blue Wall” in the Midwest by flipping Michigan. I will never forget the atmosphere of shock and terror in the law school’s cafeteria the next day, which found momentary relief only during a short speech by President Obama. Even as an outsider, it was hard not to feel implicated and imagine the raw disappointment turning into political mobilization. Last week it did, yielding Joe Biden a majority of about 150,000 votes in Michigan.
However, there are objective reasons why this election is a matter of global importance. The US remains the world’s largest or second-largest economy depending the estimate used, and by far the strongest military power. Its cultural influence is undiminished (even if many of us Europeans do not like to admit it). Most importantly, however, the US plays a central role in tackling global challenges. The fate of the Paris Climate Agreement ― the US officially withdrew last Wednesday ― is closely linked to the country recommitting to emission reductions and supporting the implementation of the treaty. When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the situation in and beyond the US would probably have looked different with another leader in the White House. The next months and years will show whether a President Biden will be able to address such problems effectively.
With that said, I also believe that there are lessons to be learnt from this election. Joe Biden ran a campaign that foregrounded the elusive notion of “decency” while putting policy questions on the back-burner. In waging a battle for the “soul of the nation” (the slogan on Biden’s campaign bus), the now President-elect took the risky bet that there still are some shared values and principles hiding underneath the many layers of political polarization. He was proven right in the end, mobilizing a diverse and unprecedentedly large coalition to come out in defense of virtues such as empathy, honesty, and humility. While the US certainly remains a deeply divided country, it seems that there is a real demand for normalcy and de-escalation and, on the flip-side, a political price to be paid for stoking too much animosity. This is news at least on some level, as it is widely believed that many countries around the world find themselves in a “downward spiral of anger and division”.
As I write these words, President Trump has not conceded defeat in what he claims was a fraudulent election. His lawyers are contesting the election process in several battleground states in an effort to undo the result. None of this is particularly surprising considering that Trump is fighting not only for his political survival but possibly also for his personal freedom, which raises the legally troubling prospect of a self-pardon. This story, in short, is not over yet, as the next weeks hold in store some serious political and legal challenges for US democratic institutions. And although we probably won’t need to endure more sleepless nights or non-stop media coverage, the outcome of these processes may prove just as vital as the election itself.