Much of the commentary on the US election has focused on the personalities, the contest, the likely result. Will it be Biden or Trump again? But is this the nub of the question?
The temptation to indulge in instant drama is understandable. What could be more titillating than Trump on stage as he staggers between tragedy and farce? But the theatre is emblematic of a deeper ailment that afflicts the entire American body politic, with far-reaching implications for the rest of the world.
The inescapable reality is the sorry state of the American nation – think Covid-19, climate change, racial tensions, law and order, polarisation, populism, militarism on the rise, tensions with China. . . the list goes on. These ills are not of Trump’s making, though he has made things worse through neglect, incompetence, and self-serving rhetoric.
There can be no question that Trump the man is a narcissist of epochal dimensions, whose vulgarity and quackery have greatly demeaned the office he occupies. But this sad state of affairs does not mean that a Biden presidency holds the answers to America’s multifaceted crisis.
In his acceptance speech, Biden declared: “Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency is on the ballot.” These are no doubt attractive qualities that can help tone down the acrimony and arrogance that have recently overwhelmed American public and political discourse.
But the signs are much less promising when it comes to policy. Very little of what Biden has said during this election campaign suggests that from bland commitments will emerge substantive outcomes. The know-how, intellectual drive and organisational capacity needed for the purpose seem in short supply.
The more immediate tasks are daunting enough: to restore public trust, address social and economic inequalities, reduce poverty, unemployment and homelessness; remove the racism that colours the conduct of law and order agencies, and encourage the growth of renewable energy industries.
Short- and medium-term steps will no doubt be taken to address some if not all these issues, be it via legislative or administrative action. This is the easy part. Larger questions have been swept under the carpet.
The marked shift towards a highly conservative, not to say reactionary, High Court has already exposed the limits of what a Biden administration hopes to achieve. Some have interpreted Biden’s refusal to commit to a specific course of action as a sign that he may be contemplating changes to the composition of the Court. A more plausible explanation is that he is not confident of getting the legislative or public support he needs for such a strategy and is inclined to relegate the issue to the too hard basket.
None of this should come as a surprise. If we cast our minds back to the Obama era, much the same happened then. Despite the soaring rhetoric, the ringing assertion “Yes, we can”, and the widespread enthusiasm his candidacy inspired among many Americans, eight years later his presidency had little to show for it. When he vacated the White House in January 2020, he may as well have said “No, we can’t.”
Expectations are inevitably tempered by another consideration, namely the pervasive influence of the US security establishment. Though its military and civilian arms are far from monolithic, the security establishment has gradually coalesced around a renewed Cold War mindset.
Countering China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence is now at the heart of US policy. To this end, the US military and intelligence community are intent on confronting America’s adversaries across the spectrum of conflicts, notably in Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific region.
The strategic direction appears firmly set. American armed forces have embarked on far-reaching modernisation programs. Training and joint military exercise are focussing more and more on high-intensity conflict with major adversaries. At the same time, the United States is busy consolidating ties with allies and partners with a view to strengthening the military, diplomatic, and, where possible, economic, containment of China.
It is difficult to see how a Biden win would alter what is now America’s well entrenched geopolitical agenda. Biden, it is true, has spoken of breathing new life into multilateral institutions. But this new-found interest in multilateralism appears motivated more by a desire to stem America’s decline and thwart China’s and Russia’s resurgence, rather than to reform institutions that are struggling to fulfil their respective mandates.
The United States – and with it the rest of the world – is in the midst of an epoch-making transition that calls for thorough-going analysis. The multifaceted crisis that presently confronts the American Republic is not just national but international, indeed planetary, in scope.
Moreover, the different strands of the crisis, be it the pandemic, climate change, or economic inequality, are closely interwoven. And there is yet another complicating factor. US hegemony, both economic and diplomatic, is in decline. In coming years, the trend will almost certainly gather pace. Will America’s political and military elites accept and constructively adapt to the rapidly changing landscape? Or will they put on a tantrum with as much effect as King Canute ordering the waves to stop?
All of which raises the question: are there any lessons in all of this for Australia? One lesson stands out. It is time to take stock as a nation of the powerful currents now sweeping across the globe.
Australia can no longer look to the United states to provide protection in the hour of need, or to shield it from financial and economic turbulence. Nor can it look to the United States to provide leadership in the management of geopolitical and civilisational dilemmas, be it engagement with China or conflict in the Middle East. The same holds true when it comes to devising responses to major transnational threats to human security, be it pandemics, climate change, racism, xenophobia, or mass surveillance of citizens.
Sadly, there is no reason to think that our political parties as presently constituted can rise to the challenge. They lack the necessary ethical, intellectual and organisational foundations for such an enterprise. This is a task that calls for wide-ranging, sustained civic engagement. And conversation holds the key to effective engagement.
Several recent initiatives are contributing to this process, which thought still at an embryonic stage, hold great promise for the future. Pearls and Irritations is a notable contributor.
Another initiative Conversation at the Crossroads* will be launched on 5th November, in the immediate aftermath of the US election. It describes its mission as creating congenial physical and virtual spaces where people can meet across the generational and cultural divides and make an informed contribution to the national conversation.
The approach is distinctive and ambitious. It seeks to go beyond the symptoms of our present predicament and explore its causes. The intention is to seize the big picture within which particular problems or crises assume their full significance. Importantly, it stresses the need to identify roadblocks to constructive social change and review existing mindsets and institutions. to see if they are fit for purpose.
To participate effectively in conversation of such depth requires knowledge, access to reliable sources of information and a range of learning and other skills. It also requires effective engagement with the professions, business, unions, community organisations and a range of other social networks.
Is this doable? Is such an in-depth approach to conversation likely to strike a responsive chord? Only time will tell. But the experiment should be worth watching.
* Details of the Public Launch can be found here