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Joe Biden’s real challenge

OK, I am assuming now that Joe Biden will on January 20 be sworn in as the next President of the United States of America. If it is Donald Trump, then what I say here will still be necessary to save the world’s oldest democracy.

Biden received the most votes in US history. But he did not do better than Hillary Clinton in 2016. She was ahead of Trump by 3 million votes, which means that Trump did much better in 2020 than in 2016. Those who hoped for a “blue wave” are disappointed, but they should have been more realistic: the country is deeply divided. People tend to only talk to other like-minded folks, which isn’t unusual, of course. But these days they also tend not to want to to anyone else, and especially, any opinion makers and news media other than those that confirm their world views.

Biden’s biggest challenge is making the necessary reforms to make America really democratic again. (If it ever was, I hear you thinking…) The last time we had a major reform, it required the deaths of over 600,000 Americans to resolve it.

Lincoln’s reform

We all had to learn the Gettysburg Address in school. Despite its brevity, Lincoln changed the course of the understanding of our democracy. Remember, the first people allowed to vote after the Revolution were white men of property. The enfranchised were a minority, despite the lofty Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People” was not nearly all of us by a long shot.

His address concluded: “…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish”… “Of, by, and for” that people is the reformer’s creed.

That idea has continued to inspire Americans to attempt to make the original ideal of the Declaration of Independence a reality (the battle of Gettysburg was won on July 4, which may have inspired the President).[1] We each have an equal value, simply because we are members of the same human race, and this confers upon us certain rights that no monarch or dictator or tribe or clan may take away: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.[2] The heart of Dr. Martin Luther King’s transforming message was that all Americans should be able to live up to those ideals, in a way the original minority of propertied white men did not.

Today’s challenge

It is commonplace to say that the United States is the richest nation on earth. Actually, we are behind Switzerland and Hong Kong, in terms of wealthiest people. If you look at wealth per capita, however, we are well down the chart.[3] Americans can feel this. One of the reasons that Donald Trump did so well in the recent election is because he promises to enrich the great many people left behind economically in the past thirty years. He is believable because he doesn’t act like a typical politician: he flouts the conventions his supporters see as elitest, namely, those of the elites who have governed the nation. Joe Biden, the old Washington hand, has to convince a lot of those people that he is one of them, despite his long political career.

The heart of the matter goes deeper. The American democracy has regressed, as it has become more and more the organ of the wealthiest. If you have a lot of money you can get elected, and if you don’t have enough (some $12 billion spent in this election alone!), why, there are plenty of people willing to underwrite your campaign in return for favors down the road. It’s almost as if we are back to the country being run by propertied white men again.

Certainly, the current party calling itself “the party of Lincoln” has worked hard to reinstate something like that model. The good news is that, judging from the turnout of the election, Americans have not given up on believing that each vote counts. The first reform that Biden and his administration must institute therefore is making voting much easier, and making it much harder to devalue each vote. If we must keep the Electoral College, then return it to the form the Founders intended: a court of last resort in case a really unworthy person is elected president in the popular vote. This means that all fifty states must allow their electors to vote their conscience, not just for the winner in their state. Better yet, get rid of the College altogether.

Election Day must move to a Sunday or become a national holiday, which is what I prefer. Make mail-in ballots and online voting much easier. Outlaw any factors of the process that intentionally or unintentionally make it more difficult to vote. There are lots of ideas for change being bandied about: choose the best and make them happen.

Second, reform campaign financing. The Supreme Court decision has had a terrible effect on government of the people, by the people, for the people. A lot of the cynicism expressed by the Trump movement relates directly to the fact that politicians can be bought — or even look to be bought. In the present system, anyone running for office cannot forego raising large amounts of money.

Much stiffer regulation of online political advertising is also needed. There need to be penalties for hate speech (yes, including attacking Trump supporters). It should always be open season on ideas, programs, platforms — that’s democracy — but not on race, religion, ancestry, etc., all the instigators of tribal conflicts.

The biggest challenge of all

Finally, the Biden administration needs to create jobs, education, and training opportunities for the great number of Americans who are not in the 1% or the 10% or even the 40%. To do that will require leadership not only at home but in foreign policy, to reform the global economy that concentrates more and more wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. There are just way too many people who have no hope: the huge death toll of the opioid and suicide epidemics is a powerful indicator.

It may well be that “the tyranny of meritocracy” is to blame. The “invisible people” who have kept us all going during the COVID pandemic have suddenly become visible. They need more than money: they need respect. Biden is from Scranton, Pennsylvania — he should know how to communicate that esteem.

The country must be convinced again that we are in this together. What is killing us all is the ideal — if you can call it that — that getting mine while the getting’s good is what America is all about. Biden and his administration have to make the case all over again that we each have an equal value, simply because we are members of the same human race, and this confers upon each one of us certain rights. How to achieve that consensus in the face of the deluge of propaganda that inundates us every day will be, I think, the greatest challenge of all.

If Donald Trump is duly re-elected, without stealing the election (which is in fact what he is calling for), then the same challenges remain. If in fact he is, well …

[1] Here is a good analysis of the Address.

[2] Of course, I would assert that this principle requires that a Creator “endue” us with those rights, but let’s not argue here about that.

[3] The annual Crédit Suisse report is the gold standard of worldwide wealth tracking. 2020 figures will be different, of course, but the richest people are still getting richer despite the pandemic’s economic effects.

Written by

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married.

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