U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes notes as he meets with members of the coronavirus disease "Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board" he announced Monday. PHOTO BY JONATHAN ERNST /REUTERS

U.S. election shows the strength – not the weakness – of American democracy

But betting against the economic or political resilience of the U.S. is never a winning wicket. And lamenting the narrowness of Joe Biden’s victory margin is overstated and ahistorical. The 1960 Kennedy Democratic presidential margin over Republican Richard Nixon was even tighter. For Canadians, the 1972 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Liberal margin over Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives was as tight as Biden’s is. History does not predict but it can add helpful perspective.

The delayed vote count reflects the best of the state-by-state U.S. electoral system and its unflinching commitment to count every ballot, in this case heavily influenced by mail-ins due to the presence of the novel coronavirus.

Other democracies whose systems call for runoffs to ensure a 50-per-cent-plus-one result to choose parliamentary and presidential winners take just as long, if not longer, to sort out results. The many European countries with proportional representation often take weeks to determine who forms a government. Condescension from any source about the American process is unwarranted and baseless.

As to the narrative about how allegedly divided the United States is, as evidenced by the election process and result, it is important not to let Trump’s rhetorical excess unduly reflect on the country as a whole. Americans who voted in historic numbers appear to have acted with surgical acuity: electing the Biden/Harris team while not yet giving the Democrats a Senate majority. This is one way of ensuring the need for parties to negotiate while setting aside more extreme proposals on the either the right or left.

American voters seem to have embraced Biden’s experience at successful cross-partisan negotiation. Moreover, when Senate runoffs are complete in January and the role of Senate Republican moderates from Maine, Utah and Alaska are joined by Vice-President Kamala Harris in the Senate, the room for flexibility may well expand. Republicans in the Senate, liberated from Trump administration intimidation, may embrace a more moderate tone. Opportunities for infrastructure spending and relief for hard-hit families and small businesses will be possible. So, despair and condescension about American democracy is both counterfactual and overstated.

It is clear from contrasting vote results on the top and bottom of state-wide ballots that many Republicans voted for the Biden/Harris ticket while choosing Republicans for Senate, congressional or statewide offices. American voters seem to have known precisely what to do and how to do it. And they did so in remarkably high numbers.

European leaders in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and elsewhere might wish to reflect on their own divisions and intense polarization before looking down their noses at their U.S. ally.

American politics is a worldwide spectator sport – as befits a robust, economic and military power, for many decades the guarantor of global support for democracy, trade, stability and anti-authoritarian resolve. The last four years were evidence of Trump’s skepticism about that role and its costs. Biden reflects the opposite view and has committed to renewed engagement and a more civil approach to international diplomacy and cooperation.

Democracy is messy and made even more complex by the current rampant pandemic. But America’s performance as a collective of citizens, states and election administrators reminds us of the durability and resilience that has characterized large swaths of U.S. history.

Prime minister Brian Mulroney said in his first speech in New York City after his 1984 sweep, that Americans should wake up every morning and give profound thanks for having Canada as their northern neighbour and closest ally. He went on to say that Canadians should give the same thanks for their southern neighbour, and its strength, vitality and resilience.

Whatever America’s imperfections, its central place of leadership is a remarkably better option for the world than having Russia or China and their intrinsic authoritarianism take its place.

The broad, widespread electoral participation by Americans of all ages, colours and walks of life is more than just noteworthy and encouraging. It rebuilds America at the centre of the two core freedoms – from fear and from want – in a way that signals that there is a light in the window and bridge for the world’s democracies to a viable and sustainable world.

Authored by Hugh Segal, Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University

(Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen – November 9, 2020)

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