When Will I Celebrate

Several long, long days ago, before we knew that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had secured the number of electoral college votes needed to win the Presidency, I was asked if I planned to celebrate a Biden victory, through a big event or party or demonstration. I was exceedingly cautious in my response, not wanting to jinx it, no matter how much I might like to think I’m not superstitious. And when we found out on Saturday late afternoon, while I saw that some in Sarajevo celebrated with beeping horns, it was more with quiet relief that I began to believe that we can start to turn the page on this recent threat to the American – and global – norms and principles that so many had once taken for granted.

As I obsessively follow the “what next?” news, it’s heartening to see that the Biden administration has been doing what is it legally required to do in terms of having a transition team in place, so the next 2 months of handing over the reins of governance can begin. The Trump administration famously ignored the handover process that had been well-organized by President Obama, the first of many signs that he does not believe in study or homework. Yet the Biden team, in line with the basic brand of competence he made core to his campaign – and in marked contrast to the fact-free grievance rallies of President Trump – is moving already to begin appointing the experts that will help to guide the US out of the hole it has dug for itself, beginning with the pandemic response that has been lacking since the beginning.

I realized that my hesitance to publicly celebrate is likely born of the understanding that electoral democracy and liberal democracy are two very different things — a point on which there’s been a growing academic and popular literature since the end of the Cold War. There was a period when many in “the west” conflated the two, or blithely assumed that one would naturally and inevitably bring the other. That was one of the reasons that elections were held so prematurely in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina – the illusion of free, fair and competitive elections in a country just coming out of a 3 ½ year war was ludicrous, but necessary for a west (then definitely led by the US) that wanted to show it had “fixed” Bosnia, and not only that, could quickly leave after having seen that “ballots = democracy.” (Neither scenario has turned out as many had hoped in the late 90s.)  

The less sexy part of resuscitating liberal democracy in the US will (hopefully) now unfold less ostentatiously, on the interwoven threads of an independent civil service, the legislation and institutions that form the public administration, and – hopefully – a US citizenry that is ready to stay engaged after coming out to cast ballots in the greatest numbers the US has ever seen.  There are already roadmaps out there.

One book outlines the reforms needed to plug the gaps exploited by Trump, most notably related to his own exploitation of his office through corrupt self-dealing and the open flouting of constraints on the executive office. There is a list of 277 steps President Biden can take without requiring formal congressional approval, ranging from stopping Trump’s own executive orders, to reinstating committees and expert bodies (including those related to pandemic response), to ending the Trump administration wars against science, fact and transparency.

And in terms of the community rebuilding needed – the social capital that has been so torn over these past 4 years but which had been fraying long before that – another recent “what next?” discussion pondered how and where Americans can once again meet with and interact with “the other,” to stop seeing each other as some alien enemy, but to begin to find some common ground. One commentator noted,  “[P]eople are beginning to say, okay, what is the civic infrastructure of this country? Things as simple as public spaces in which people who don’t look like each other, and don’t think like each other can be together. There are more libraries in this country than there are Starbucks.” The infrastructure of elections, governance and civic engagement are three legs of the proverbial stool.

Without a process and progress like this the long-term victory of a Biden agenda will be far from certain. The fact that 70 million Americans voted for a president who was demonstrably ready to embrace authoritarian ends to maintain his own power base is chilling. Biden knows this, and made it clear in his victory speech that he intends to represent all Americans, not just those who voted for him.

I’m cautiously hopeful that this learning process in the US will translate into more mature democratization policies abroad, including better identifying and supporting partners who share the values we’ve now seen are so critical to a liberal peace. As a Biden administration sets out to rebuild American diplomacy, as a part of that process they would do well to recognize that rebuilding democracy at home should have  implications for democratization policies abroad. It’s a good opportunity for a shift in how the US engages in its democracy and human rights programming, towards one that is more constructive, more humble and reflective, and more willing to embrace two-way street approaches. (I personally would like to start by sending at  least 20 Trump voters who have expressed that they think more robust social safety net policies would turn the US into North Korea off on a study trip to Sweden.)

We’re lucky that it will only be 4 years of Trump to clean up, though one cannot discount the extent to which decades of inattention to these elements of governance have been ignored. However, I hope that in 6, 7 or 8 months, once it looks like the pandemic is no longer flooding the American map in red, once the US re-engages with the world on climate and other global challenges, and once I see that people are indeed getting engaged in libraries, town halls and local community centers, then I may drive around Sarajevo and beep a few cautious, hopeful times.