The biggest fears of the United States’ political establishment – which had banked on a landslide victory for Joe Biden in Tuesday’s presidential election – have materialised. A scenario of institutional crisis, uncertainty and the inevitable and an eventual and inevitable judicialisation of the results has now come into focus.
Donald Trump was more competitive than the polls and analysts predicted, he has drawn the match level and pushed it into extra time. Now, the 2020 US election will be defined by penalty shoot-outs in a handful of states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona.
Biden needs to win in three of those to be elected president and it seems that he will do so thanks to mail-in votes. Nevertheless, the suspense looks set to last until at least Thursday, when Nevada and Pennsylvania conclude the counting postal ballots.
If Biden's is to be a pyrrhic victory, the United States as a nation faces a complex future. The 77-year-old former vice-president is supposed to be in the White House for only one term. With Trump denouncing fraud – once again, without any evidence – Biden's triumph will be seen as illegitimate by half the electorate.
But the biggest obstacle will be the Senate, which it seems at present will remain in Republican hands. If the political polarisation evident in the US today escalates during the transition, the GOP is sure to continue its rejection of Democratic legislation, especially those bills Biden will need approval for in order to stimulate and reactivate the United States’ economy, hit badly by the coronavirus pandemic.
Alongside potential problems such as street protests, court battles and outrageous statements and inflammatory tweets from Trump, Biden will have another problem too: internal tensions within his party will not subside with this victory, they will only worsen.
This dispute between the establishment, of which Biden is a faithful representative, and the Democratic Party’s progressive wing threatens to wear down his mandate and erode his power base. And that’s before a battle for a potential presidential succession in 2024 kicks in, a race that could see the candidate's running-mate, Kamala Harris, battling with progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for control of the party.
Biden, already weakened by the election result, could be a lame duck from his first day in the Oval Office.
The ex-vice-president arrives to the presidency seeking to re-establish the liberal international order, unite the country and to turn back the clock to November 8, 2016. But his presidential re-birth instead will serve only to deepen polarisation, achieving the exact opposite and accelerating the decline of the United States’ power. The pre-Trump world now seems like a lost paradise.
The Democratic Party now owes itself a deep internal debate, with many questions pending. Why did it lose the industrial workers of the Rust Belt and its famous’ Blue Wall’ in 2016? Did Biden win them back now this time around, or will those votes now be forever up for grabs? Why did many Latinos in Florida and Texas back Republican candidates? How will the Democrats recover those segments of society, at a time when workers and minorities perceive the party as being made up of an increasingly cosmopolitan elite locked in large cities, like New York, disconnected from the rest of the country?
A Biden victory may delay that discussion, but if answers to those questions are not found soon, it may already be too late for 2024.