Op-Ed: Why the US election might nonetheless signify a triumph for American democracy


People react as the media announces that Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden won the 2020 US presidential election in Los Angeles, California, the United States, on November 7, 2020.

Patrick T. Fallon | Reuters

It is now likely that former Vice President Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States. He will do so with the largest number of votes ever cast for an American presidential candidate in history after the turnout was the highest since 1900.

While it may not feel like it now, that outcome would mark a triumph of historic significance for the country's democratic process and institutions. It would be one that would come despite the brand new unsubstantiated indictment of President Donald Trump on Thursday of election fraud and despite a number of legal challenges that are about to play out now, but are unlikely to change the outcome.

Although one would hope the Republican chorus will grow louder against Trump's disruptive efforts, significant voices join in. Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose state is a major battlefield, described the president's indictment as "troubling to me because he made very, very grave allegations with no evidence". Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger tweeted, "STOP Spreading exposed misinformation."

Biden and his team realize that if they choose, history will force them to be more than just the winner. America's internal divisions and a rising tide of international challenges call for the kind of unified leader America has enjoyed in times of dangerous division.

The challenges may seem daunting, but they were also daunting when Gerald Ford stepped in after Richard Nixon stepped down. And the current rifts in the United States are nowhere near as bitter as those faced by President Ulysses S. Grant after the Civil War of 1869 when he succeeded Andrew Johnson, the first US president to be indicted.

Johnson refused to attend Grant's inauguration, and Grant refused to ride in the same carriage as Johnson. But President Grant brought a divided country together and healed the post-war economy. His new Justice Department was pursuing the Ku Klux Klan.

Obstacle and opportunity

Vice President Biden was consistent as a candidate that he wanted to play a unified role as president for all Americans – and alongside the country's traditional allies.

It won't be easy, but it can be done.

The Republican achievements in the House of Representatives and the likely continuation of the Senate majority by the party would be both an obstacle and an opportunity for a Democratic president. In the early days of his tenure, Biden was able to close deals across the aisle to help manage the potentially unifying dangers of COVID-19 and the economic downturn through more productive stimulus spending and infrastructure investments. With Kamala Harris as the nation's first black woman as vice president, a Biden government would be well positioned to support an inclusive new civil rights movement.

It is also well beyond time for the United States to bring together its democratic partners around the world to meet the growing systemic, authoritarian challenge posed by China and others – an issue against which US political differences are becoming less important .

Maybe a Trump concession to Biden is coming that would help the healing. It's hard to imagine at first.

Under no circumstances could anything be expected to come close to the power of Senator John McCain's concession to Barack Obama in 2008. McCain's speech went viral across the country this week, underscoring the national yearning for that kind of elegance.

"In a competition as long and difficult as this campaign," McCain said at the time, "Obama's success dictates my respect for his skill and perseverance. But that he did it by sparking the hopes of so many millions of Americans I deeply admire and recommend anyone who mistakenly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president. This is a historic election and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. "

Profit margin

Still, Vice President Biden would take office after winning a record nearly 74 million votes and still counting, surpassing the previous high of 69.5 million reached by President Barack Obama, on whose administration Biden served. The national turnout will exceed 66% of registered voters, the highest since Republican President William McKinley was defeated by Democratic challenger William Jennings Bryan in 1900 with a 73% turnout.

It has become popular among American adversaries and allies alike to argue that the long period of US global leadership after World War II, in which the international institutions and rules that have ruled for the past 75 years were created, are theirs The end is approaching. Some critics point to the divisions, malice and disorder of our 2020 elections as crucial evidence of this.

"The US is in bad shape," tweeted Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times in China, who is often seen as Beijing's unofficial spokesman.

There are still difficult days ahead of us. This transition couldn't be compared to any we've ever seen. However, this year's election results offer more cause for hope than for despair.

Our current thinking depends on how we got the results, but the profit margin over time could allow a President Biden to move from campaigning to government with a tone and content that has the potential to be transformative. Remember, President George W. Bush's 2004 victory, which gave him a strong foreign policy mandate, earned 286 votes and a 2.4 point lead in the referendum. A Biden win could grow to over 300 votes and a lead of 4.5 to 5 points.

A Biden victory would provide Americans with an opportunity to regain their appetite for compromise at home to meet the country's most pressing challenges and for the international common cause to secure the achievements in democracy and prosperity of the past 75 years.

A gracious concession would help. Fortunately, however, our democracy is not based on the actions of the vanquished, but on the votes of our citizens and our constitutional transition process.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the most influential US think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place in the World" – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.

This column was originally published on the Atlantic Council blog.

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Katherine Clark