Some quick takeaways from this past week’s election news here in the USA.
1. Though Biden won, it’s still true that more than 70 million Americans cast a vote for Donald Trump. That, after four years of seeing him in action: racism, misogyny, crass cutting of health care and other vital social programs; “White” entitled-ism, anti-scientism, xenophobia, mean-spiritedness, bully-boy tirades, and all.
2. Joe Biden speaks out for “healing”. I think it’s too soon to do that except on a very clear, principled basis. Rather than “healing”, I think the key goal should be “education”, or perhaps “re-education”. Why should we say to those 70-million-plus of our fellow citizens that we will “meet them halfway” and sing kumbaya with them, starting today? First, let them reflect on such key facets of our common life together as: the essential equal worth of every human person… the need to work for the common good and embed individual rights in an understanding of obligations to the civitas that sustains us all… the need to avoid violence both among ourselves and in our dealings with other countries.
3. The degree of support that that ill-educated, anti-education, anti-science man won from Americans is a terrible “report card” on the quality of the country’s education system. Trump threw overboard– indeed, he often derided–such basic aspects of science as a respect for truth, evidence, and logic. Many US jingoists love to point to the “excellence” of the country’s higher-education system. But have you noticed how many leaders– and even worker-bees– in high-tech and other pinnacles of the American economy are immigrants? They’ve been cherry-picked from all around the world, as part of an essentially settler-colonialist approach that scoffs at the idea of providing a strong education to the great of mass of people who already live here– whether Native Americans, descendants of earlier waves of colonial settlers, or descendants of the millions brought here in brutal chains from Africa.
4. Reforming (or forming?) the country’s education system into one that develops the capabilities of all Americans is a longterm challenge (though one that should be easier now the dreadful Betsy De Vos is on her way out.) Much more urgent is the need to deal with the disastrous medical and economic aspects of the Covid pandemic. We can hope that the (transitional) Covid Task Force that Biden promises to roll out November 9 contains people with strong medico-scientific and public-health credentials. Our former neighbor Dr. Fauci quite possibly included? Let’s hope for others like Dr. Leana Wen, etc…
5. The Covid situation is currently disastrous. Given that we have 10 more weeks of Trump’s gross mismanagement before he leaves office January 20, the situation that Biden will face when he assumes office will likely be catastrophic. I hope his Task Force prepares for sweeping, decisive measures that can enable the maximum possible number of Americans to survive the winter, while it also makes the best possible preparations for the development and distribution of one or more functioning vaccines– maybe starting late spring?
6. A sweeping, decisive campaign against Covid should almost certainly include a broad, nationwide lockdown. With or without such a lockdown urgent and intensive steps need to be taken at the socio-economic level, to support vulnerable populations and small businesses, given that a return to anything like a pre-March-2020 “normal” in terms of economic activity is not foreseeable for many more quarters to come.
7. When designing any such economic steps, the mistakes of both 2008-09 and earlier this year need to be understood and avoided. In both those cases, the large amounts of government funding allocated to relief ended up stabilizing mainly big business and finance, while leaving most Americans still mired in economic vulnerability and want. Earlier this year, much of the CARES Act funding traveled speedily through the “immediate” recipients to the credit-card companies, the landlords, and the financiers who stand behind most large landlords…
8. Biden often touts his support for the (very pro-Wall Street) 2008-09 recovery as one of his main economic credentials! But that recovery left tens of millions of American families badly damaged. Biden and the Democratic Party need to make a “clean break” with Wall Street and reconnect swiftly with the legacies of a much earlier Democratic president: the approach that FDR took in the 1930s to deal with the Great Depression. FDR’s “New Deal” brought millions directly onto the government payroll where these workers across a broad range of industries and professions built infrastructure, governmental capacity, and a sense of civic responsibility even while they finally found themselves able to feed their families. Clearly, to deal with the pandemic, we need the “Green New Deal” now. (Okay, starting January.)
9. Can we expect Biden to adopt a bold, “Green New Deal” approach? This is very far indeed from being a given, given his long association with the Wall Street Democrats. Arriving at an FDR-style approach will require strong, continued grassroots organizing to achieve.
10. Several commentators have started to speculate about the fallout that the recent election results might have in terms of relations within the (Trump-bombed) Republican Party. Personally, I find the fallout that the election results have within the Democratic Party a much more interesting topic.
11. Doubtless, the numerous centrists (and Wall Streeters) who remain strong within party– and particularly in such nationwide party organs as the DNC and the DCCC– will try to claim it was their actions, the alliances they built with a handful of anti-Trump Republicans, their fundraising, etc, that won the election for Biden. I don’t think so. This time around, it is clear it has been the dedicated grassroots organizing and GOTV efforts of the left wing of the party that swung the nationwide election in such key swing states as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. The leftists of “The Squad” and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus increased the numbers of their supporters who will be in the next Congress. Progressives like Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D, MI) or Rep. Mark Pocan (D, WI) can claim with considerable credibility that it was their grassroots work– not the great gobs of advertising $$– that brought the Democrats’ long-time “Blue Wall” in the Midwest, which trump breached to such great effect in 2016, back to the Dems this time.
12. Meantime, several strongly centrist Democratic incumbents including Donna Shalala lost congressional seats they first flipped from the GOP back in 2018. Centrist Abigail Spanberger (D, VA), who repeatedly touts her credentials as a former CIA officer, reportedly whined on a recent party conference call that the rhetoric of some members of the party’s left had hurt the centrists in their races…
13. The CPC has become a real force in the Democratic Party nationwide, and will have to be listened to and treated with respect. The Wall Streeters can’t just ride roughshod over them or treat them like irritating outsiders any more.
14. And, foreign policy? Well, the old adage that “all politics is local” has felt very true here in the United States in recent weeks. And one crucial aspect of the election– the balance in the Senate– will not even be finally resolved till mid-January, since the two Senate seats now up for grabs in Georgia have to go to run-off elections then. Those seats will be decisive in determining whether the upper house stays Republican or goes 50-50– in which case, VP-elect Harris gets to decide.
15. So with the election and its aftermath still “in play” for much of the next 10 weeks, and the pandemic raging on, there will not be much oxygen in the U.S. political system to deal with foreign policy, for a while. But the war of ideas within the Democratic Party will certainly have considerable impact on the kinds of foreign-policy decisions that Biden is able to make. As will the final balance in the Senate.
16. Biden’s own long-honed proclivities in the foreign-policy field are well-known. He is a classic, “U.S. must lead the world” type of Democrat, as has been clear since (and before) the end of the Cold War. In 2002-03, he supported the invasion of Iraq– which Obama notably didn’t. During the Obama presidency, Biden reportedly argued against launching the “surge” in Afghanistan– but we never heard any whiff of criticism from him for decisions like overthrowing Qadhafi, trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, extending US drone killings to numerous countries around the world, the green light Pres. Obama gave to Saudi Arabia’s horrendous killing spree in Yemen, etc etc. And he and VP-elect Kamala Harris have both been unshakeably stalwart supporters of Israel.
17. But, um, the United States no longer commands the pinnacle of the international system to the extent it did in 1945, or again in 1991. Biden and whoever is in his foreign-policy/defense team may want to just pick up where Pres. Obama and his team left off in 2016,with a high degree of unilateralism, militarism, and globe-girdling arrogance tempered only somewhat (but also bolstered) by some commitment to alliances– provided these latter always remained US-led. But there will be clear limits to the ability of the Biden team simply to pick up where Obama left off.
18. There are some parts of the Obama agenda it could be easy to re-instate. Others will be harder– or indeed, impossible. I gather that rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, the WHO, and some other international organizations might be achievable through an early executive order by President Biden? Reinstating other parts of Obama-ism will be harder. The JCPOA with Iran is not a simple matter to just “re-join”. The TPP economic pact with all the Asians nations except China is dead in the water, over-taken by China’s surging economic power and its continuing economic intertwining with its Asian neighbors at many different levels.
19. Biden’s expected pursuit of a return to “U.S. global leadership” will face other constraints, too. In 2020 and still next year, one big criterion of effectiveness of all national leaders will continue to be the effectiveness of their fight against Covid. On this score, the United States, its allies in Western Europe, and the countries in the U.S.-dominated areas of Latin America have performed extremely poorly. As today’s latest update on CNN’s global Covid-tracker shows, all the countries with death counts of greater than 55 per 100K of population are either NATO/Europe or Monroe-Doctrine countries. (This NYT reporting on how Trump and his ally Bolsonaro actively undermined the Covid-containment efforts of numerous Latin American countries is also an important record.)
20. What is more, Covid transmission looks set to continue at a high pace in all the badly affected countries, which means none of their leaders will have much bandwidth to be able to help Washington rebuild “global leadership” any time soon. Read through that list of the “over-55s” above and see which countries I’m talking about… Of the G-7 countries, only Canada, Germany, and Japan are not there. (As for Washington’s key longtime ally, Britain, it is currently also dealing with the chaos of Brexit.)
21. My view is that rather than aspiring to “reassert American leadership”, the incoming leadership in Washington should much more appropriately seek to “restore respectful American membership” in the community of nations and the various international organizations. This would mean steering a course firmly away from the “manifest destiny” view of the United States’ place in the world that has underlain the foreign policies pursued by both major political parties since 1945– and which came to a bizarre head with Trump’s talk of “Make America Great Again.” It means starting the patient work of (re-)building relations of mutual respect with all the world’s other nations– including, or perhaps especially, those with which we disagree. It would also mean, of course, a return to respecting the rules of international behavior rather than flouting them at will, as the United States has done with shocking frequency since 1945, but even more so in the present century (q.v. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Venezuela… )
22. In this context, it is certainly relevant to re-up this blog-post “Reviving Westphalia”, that I penned here 18 months ago– and also this guest contribution to the “vintage” Just World News blog that was penned by my friend Dominic Tweedie back in June 2009.
23. There is, obviously, a lot more that I could and should write about the (currently, rapidly growing) constraints on Washington’s freedom of action in world affairs, that will have to await another opportunity. Suffice it to note that this would also include a look at the U.S.’s declining share of global economic activity; the extreme limitations of the effectiveness of the military-only or military-dominated approach that has marked all U.S. foreign policy since 1991; and the massive costs that military spending and maintaining the country’s military-industrial complex impose on the “real”– that is productive and people-serving– economy of the country.