The tightness of the US election tells us two things: Trump’s first win was not an aberration; and the plutocratic electoral system, with its roots in slavery, still grossly distorts outcomes. By Mike Seccombe.

One small hand clinging to everything except reality

US President Donald Trump on election night.
US President Donald Trump on election night.
Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP

Update: On Sunday, Democrat Joe Biden was named president-elect of the United States. “With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation,” he said. “We are the United States of America. And there’s nothing we can’t do, if we do it together.”


There have been so many indicators this election year of just how divided the United States really is.

The knee of the policeman on George Floyd’s neck. The riots, the boarded-up shops, the cops pepper-spraying peaceful demonstrators. The armed men in pick-up trucks trying to run a Biden campaign bus off the road. The maskless Republican crowds making a point of defying science and sense. President Donald Trump calling on violent white nationalists to “stand back and stand by”. Trump, again, pretending the pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of Americans would “just go away”. Trump sowing distrust in the electoral process and trying to stop the count.

We have never witnessed such an ugly American election campaign, in such desperate circumstances. And at campaign’s end, we saw an equally ugly outcome: a record 160-odd million turned out, proving the nation remains as divided as ever. It proved something else, too: that Trump’s victory in 2016 was not an aberration.

Trump will not go graciously. The closeness of the result – likely a few tens of thousands of votes across a handful of states – will encourage his deluded loyalists to believe they were the victims of electoral fraud.

Within hours of the close of the polls, Trump already was stirring up trouble, telling his 88 million Twitter followers: “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Poles are closed!”

That was a big lie, even by the standards of a man who, according to the fact checkers of The Washington Post, made an estimated 25,000 false or misleading statements in the four years of his first term in office. They say “estimated” only because, in the closing days of the campaign, they could not keep up with the sheer volume of falsehood.

No votes were being cast after polls closed: they were only being counted, as is the norm. The claim about stealing the election was actually an inversion of reality. It is Trump who is trying to steal it.

The one certain outcome of the national poll is that the Democrats have won the house of representatives. Republicans look all but certain to retain control of the senate.

As for the presidency: Biden will almost certainly finish several million ahead in the popular vote, just as Hillary Clinton did four years ago. But the structural gerrymander of the electoral college saw her defeated, and it could happen again. The presidency remains in the balance. A result could take days, or even weeks, to determine.

Yet at 2.20am on Wednesday, Washington time, Trump emerged on stage in the White House to declare victory, even though counting was far from done in a half-dozen close states.

“Frankly,” he said, “we did win this election.” The fact that counting would continue after polling day, he declared, was “a major fraud on our nation”.

He would petition the Supreme Court and call for an end to counting, he said.

It was a breathtakingly cynical ploy. Trump had been laying the groundwork for months by frequently, falsely claiming postal votes were unsecured and prone to fraud.

As a consequence of the president’s efforts to sow doubt in the electoral process, many more Republicans than Democrats chose to run the risk of catching Covid-19 and vote in person.

More than 100 million electors voted early but, given the complications of validating votes not cast in person, their ballots were slower to be tallied. So the early results trended towards Trump, and then shifted back towards Biden.

A premature end to counting would thus disenfranchise large numbers of people whose postal votes had not been recorded – or in some cases even been received – by election day. And those people would mostly be Democrat voters.

Fortunately, the bulk of informed opinion holds that such a challenge would not succeed, even given the fact Trump has stacked the court with conservatives. More likely, it will simply prolong the process and foment anger and division.

In contrast to the president, Biden urged patience and calm in his brief address to supporters just before 1am on Wednesday, speaking from his home town of Wilmington, Delaware.

He also projected confidence, assuring his people that the election would swing in their favour as the count progressed.

“It ain’t over until every vote is counted…” he said.

But in a sense it is likely over, at least as far as the prospect of a reformist Biden presidency is concerned.

Without control of the senate, the Democrats’ plans for a dramatic overhaul of America’s woeful healthcare system, for a big economic stimulus in response to Covid-19, for improving equity in the most economically unequal nation in the developed world and making corporations and the rich pay more, are dead. The US sharemarket jumped dramatically upon realising that corporate and top personal taxes would not now increase.

Most importantly of all, Biden’s ambitious plan to spend $US1.7 trillion to achieve a 100 per cent clean energy economy and net zero emissions by 2050 is toast. This is a tragedy of planetary proportions, for it will encourage other governments, including the Morrison government, in their recalcitrance.

“If Biden is elected, but doesn’t get a [senate] majority, I just think that will be hell. Just hell,” former Foreign minister Bob Carr told The Saturday Paper on election eve.

“It means that expectation of change, held by the majority, will be frustrated. There will just be deadlock and more polarisation.”

Moreover, Carr says, there will be no chance for the Democrats to redress the balance in the Supreme Court.

Dr David Smith, senior lecturer in American politics and foreign policy with the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, agrees. “The last time that a Republican-controlled senate actually allowed a Democratic president to appoint a Supreme Court justice was in 1895. Republican senates don’t allow Democratic Supreme Court appointees.”

From this perspective, the most enduring legacy of Trump’s four years will likely be the judiciary. Apart from the three conservative Supreme Court justices, 217 other judges were appointed.

One analysis, in September, found 85 per cent of these appointments were white and 76 per cent were men – the least diverse group of federal judges since Ronald Reagan. The study noted less diverse courts were more conservative.

Bottom line: even if, as appears increasingly likely, Republicans have not managed to keep their man in the White House, they have effectively nobbled the Democratic alternative. And they have done it through the profoundly undemocratic institution that is the US senate, where each state, regardless of population, is represented by two senators. Thus Wyoming’s 579,000 people have equal representation with California’s 39.5 million.

This institutional gerrymander flows through to the electoral college, where each state is allocated a number of voters equal to its representation in the house, plus its senators, giving lesser-populated, generally more conservative states greater power. Twice in recent times the Democratic candidate for president – Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 – won the popular vote and lost in the electoral college.

The origins of this inequitable system go back more than 230 years, to the invention by America’s founding fathers of a form of government that was nominally a democracy, but was in reality a plutocracy, in which the franchise was limited to white, property-owning men.

As Smith notes: “Even though they believed that the people should rule, they didn’t believe in direct forms of democracy.” Essentially, they did not trust the masses.

“That’s why there are so many counter-majoritarian institutions built into the US constitution,” Smith says, “from the electoral college to states’ representation in the senate to the role even of the Supreme Court.”

Back then, the southern states were particularly concerned that roughly 40 per cent of their residents were slaves, who couldn’t vote. If representation in the national legislature were proportionate to the number of voters, the northern states would dominate. Likewise, the south would be overwhelmed if the president was elected by direct, popular vote.

The southern states were eventually enticed into ratifying the constitution through the adoption of the “three-fifths compromise”, under which enslaved Black people would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating representatives and electors and calculating federal taxes – even though they couldn’t vote.

As Smith notes, while America’s founding fathers were very concerned to protect minority rights, they didn’t conceptualise minority rights as we do. “When we think of minority rights, we think of African Americans,” he says. “What they were thinking about were the people who enslaved African Americans.”

Even though the franchise has now broadened to include women and people of colour, America’s political system remains deeply undemocratic.

“Demographic change,” says Carr, “is rendering the gerrymander of the senate, the house and the electoral college ever more flagrant. You’ll soon have 70 per cent of the population represented by 30 per cent of the senate.”

This malapportionment of power in favour of conservatives, he says, is one major factor in what he calls the “tribalisation” of America.

Smith points to another: the growing penetration of partisan media, both mainstream and social.

Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network is the standout example, he says, but it is being pushed ever further to the political right, “because it needs to compete with others like Breitbart and One America News Network, and Infowars and any number of Facebook groups”.

And, of course, there is Twitter, Donald Trump’s preferred means of political communication.

Beyond that, another contributor to America’s tribalisation over the past couple of decades is the politicisation of religion.

A nationwide survey of more than 10,000 registered voters, released last month by the Pew Research Center, America’s pre-eminent social research organisation, underlined the importance of white Christians to Republican electoral success.

Among white, born-again, evangelical Protestants, support for Trump was 78 per cent, compared with just 17 per cent for Biden. Among other white Protestants, the split was 53-43; and among white Catholics, 52-44.

The report found that every other religious group – Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews and others – strongly supported the Democratic Party candidate. So, too, did the fast-growing cohort of people with no religious affiliation.

Among Black Protestants, Biden was preferred by a margin of 90-9; among Hispanic Catholics, it was 67-26; among Jews, it was 70-27; among those who identified their faith as “nothing in particular” it was 62-31; and among atheists-agnostics it was 83-11.

Religion in the US these days is very much a proxy for race, as well as political allegiance.

Inequalities of income and education also play a big role. White men without a college education are now a significant part of the conservative base, which is deeply ironic, given that the Republican Party in general and Trump in particular have done so much to entrench inequality by reducing taxes for the rich and services for the poor.

Then there is the refusal of the old white men of the Republican Party establishment to embrace the reality of an increasingly cosmopolitan society.

Says Smith: “Rather than going after Latino and Black votes, which was what the Republican national committee suggested they should do after the 2012 election ... instead, there was this idea of ‘No, we’ve got to keep the electorate white.’ ”

One exception is the Latino vote in Florida, which exit polls suggest strongly supported Trump. Part of this is attributed to Trump painting Biden as another Fidel Castro.

But whiteness remains incredibly important to Republicans and to the self-image of the America that Donald Trump was promising to preserve.

Towards the end of the campaign, a video emerged of a paunchy, elderly man, shaking his fist at Biden supporters and shouting, “White power!”

It was troubling not just for the words, but for the fact that the scene was so otherwise unthreatening. The guy was no gun-waving, pick-up-driving redneck; he was riding along in a golf cart. He wasn’t in the streets of Philadelphia, but an affluent enclave in Florida.

This man was a resident of the world’s largest retirement community, The Villages, home to some 78,000 people, none younger than 55, and 98.2 per cent of whom racially self-categorised in the US census as “white alone”.

The Villages is a place where America’s white middle class can play golf on one of the 50 private courses and pretend that the country is not moving away from them.

But it is, and one statistic powerfully makes the point: according to an analysis of census data by Pew, the most common age of white Americans in 2018 was 58. Among all racial and ethnic minorities, the most common age was 27.

“Racial and ethnic minorities made up 40 per cent of the US population [in 2018], an estimated increase of about 1,271,000 people from 2017,” the report said. “The minority population’s growth stands in contrast to the non-Hispanic white population, which declined by about 257,000 between 2017 and 2018.”

The demographic reality is that the political system set up 230 years ago to safeguard the privilege of the rich and white cannot protect that power much longer. Of course, not all members of this rising group are progressive in their politics, but the majority clearly are.

That is the change the Republican Party does not accept. In its desperate effort to hold on, it has adopted ever more unpalatable options.

The right’s efforts to suppress the vote for its opponents are blatant and inventive: by gerrymandering electoral districts, by imposing onerous voter identification laws, by purging voter rolls and removing voting places from unsupportive districts, by making working people wait hours to cast a ballot, by imprisoning Black citizens and denying them the vote, by fighting democracy through partisan courts.

To cite but one example: on October 1 this year, the state Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, decreed that each county in his state, regardless of size, would provide just one drop box into which early voters could deposit their ballots.

There are 254 counties in Texas, ranging in population from 164 to 4.5 million.

No prizes for guessing why he did it. Urban Texas has grown increasingly progressive over recent years, while sparsely populated rural areas remain Trump strongholds.

Abbott was intent on making it as difficult as possible for progressive voters to cast their ballot this time around. On the election day count, at least, Texas defied the opinion polls and voted for Trump.

But it cannot work forever. The moment is coming fast when the young, increasingly diverse and progressive electorate will assert itself. The old guys in their golf carts can shake their fists and yell “white power”, but the reality is that power is waning fast.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 7, 2020 as "One small hand clinging to everything except reality".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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