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From Trump to Biden
After a long divisive campaign at the end of a longer, even more divisive presidency, it looks like Donald Trump will no longer be the president of the United States come January 21st 2021.
Trump’s election was treated as an apocalypse by most people I know. He was the most racist, climate change denying and inequality increasing president we could imagine. But that just tells you about the bubble inside which I live, since he got about 48% of the vote, including doubling his vote share amongst African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
In the Trump vs Biden tussle, Biden was the conservative candidate - not in the sense of left wing versus right wing, but in the sense of a rehabilitating an earlier idea of a neoliberal elite running the show. As a friend said on Facebook, people in developing countries might well prefer Trump to Biden because:
he didn’t start any new wars and
because he was awesome at taking an axe to the sources of American power
he made it harder for the US to start new wars of aggression.
For let’s not forget the basic fact of American foreign policy:
Will Biden return to warmongering and making deals with Republicans - perhaps even appoint Republicans like John Kasich to cabinet positions - or will he listen closely to the energy on the left wing of his own party?
But Biden did run to the left of Obama and Clinton. The Democratic base skews left, and young people are much more progressive. Biden won Georgia because of the untiring efforts of people like Stacey Abrams and Native American and Hispanic activists in Arizona are likely to have propelled him to victory there. He acknowledged the contribution of African Americans in his victory speech but he will have to back his words with policies. This interview with AOC will give you a sense of the interesting times ahead.
Interestingly, it looks like Biden did better than down-the-ballot Democrats, i.e., people fighting state, house and senate elections, while Trump did worse. Republicans gained seats in the House and lost only one seat in the Senate even though they were projected to lose a lot more. The results are consistent with an anti-Trump election. The poor performance in the house and the senate has prompted finger-pointing among the Democrats (read the AOC interview for one side of the story). I will leave you with an image:
M4A == ‘Medicare for All’ is a form of socialized healthcare that’s been demonized by the Republicans but everyone who supported it has won. Then again, did they win because they supported M4A or are they representatives of highly progressive districts?
Anyway, why am I saying all of this?
Coming up Next
Trump did waaay better than the polls predicted. Not enough to win 🕺🏾 but still. Biden got the highest number of votes of any presidential candidate but Trump wasn’t far behind: he got the third highest number of votes of any candidate ever. Like many others, I was too caught up with polls and predictions to understand what’s happening to the ground beneath my feet.
Why is Trumpism so popular?
I have lived in the US for much of my adult life - 20 out of the last 27 years - but I am an Indian citizen. Americans are a warm, generous people. I love the energy and optimism I encounter here. At the same time, the United States is an imperial nation that can’t stop bombing others. It also has creaking infrastructure, climate change is breathing down our necks, and conflict with China is rising.
What’s Biden going to do about all these contradictions?
There’s also some uncertainty over what a Biden presidency will mean for India. A surprising number of Indians like Trump and were more than happy to spread his falsehoods.
Once upon a time, Mohandas Pai was a leader at an iconic Indian software company. Pai is an accountant by training but that hasn’t prevented him from making elementary book-keeping mistakes about the difference between registered voters and eligible voters.
It’s not just private citizens. I was shocked when the Indian PM endorsed Trump at a ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston. Apart from the fact that I don’t like the politics of Mr. Modi, why make a move that could backfire? I guess we’re about to find out. Envision an American president traveling to India and endorsing Rahul Gandhi. The horror!
Meanwhile, the US has reported over 100,000 new cases of COVID the last few days. Biden has to handle a recession and a pandemic from day one. Trump might never concede; chances are he will announce his candidacy for the presidency in 2024 even before he leaves office. Biden will try his best to project an aura of normalcy during the chaos ahead.
I don’t know if he will succeed in projecting trust and confidence in a bitterly divided country, but I want to understand the thinking behind the transition. I have somewhat selfish reasons for doing so, since I want to understand what the US will do in terms of climate action in the new administration but I can’t understand that without understanding the political landscape. Biden faces a series of wicked challenges in the coming months and understanding how his administration hits the ground running will tell us a lot about how to solve wicked problems.
The American Mind
Complexity theorists and propagandists often talk about the Overton window, the
range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time
At the end of the Cold War, when Francis Fukuyama wrote his infamous book about the end of history, he was saying that the Overton window had settled for ever on capitalist liberal democracy. Boy was Fukuyama wrong: we have seen not one but two alternative windows emerging in the last three decades. There’s the authoritarian window through which Trump, Modi, Erdogan, Putin and Xi look at the world and there’s the (much smaller) left-wing window through which Bernie and others shout their slogans. A subtler version of the Overton window is the Foucauldian concept of the Episteme:
In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.
In his senatorial past and during his Vice-Presidency, Biden stood for the neoliberal episteme, but I am not sure that bubble can be sustained. Further, I think Overton windows and Epistemes are flawed concepts, that collective cognition is much more dynamic with new branches and pathways bubbling up and ever so often causing a breach in the epistemic wall.
Makes the American Mind all the more interesting object of investigation! The collective mind is best studied in motion and transitions are among the best opportunities we have to do so.
We live in interesting times. The next seventy five days are going to be among the most interesting of them all, starting with the possibility that Trump might refuse to leave office. He might come back in 2024, and even if doesn’t, Zeynep Tufekci and others worry that Trump will be replaced by a cleverer, more strategic politician like Tom Cotton, who wrote an infamous NYT piece about sending troops into American cities. Back to Joe and Kamala, the NYT reports:
On the website, buildbackbetter.com, Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris pledged to be ready on Day 1 to tackle four main priorities for the new, Democratic administration after four years of Mr. Trump’s rule: Covid-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.
Those four should be important priorities everywhere. Every single one of them is a wicked problem in which I have both personal and professional interest. With collective cognition (what I call ‘cosiety’) in the background, I am going to write a quick daily update on the transition from Trump to Biden, highlighting important people and ideas, new developments worth tracking etc. It’s a rapid biography of the American Mind in a moment of transition and my way of acting as a two way mirror between the US and the rest of the world.
TLDR; short daily updates for the next ~ 75 days
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