“A trying period for America”: The Nation’s uncertain future

13 mins read

The US has seen one of its most turbulent periods in decades with the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic killing more than 235 000 Americans whilst the death of George Floyd has sparked mass civil unrest in cities across the nation. President Trump has claimed that voting for him and the Republican Party is “a vote for the American dream!” whilst former Vice-President Joe Biden has prophetically claimed, “We are in a battle for the soul of the nation”.

The nation sits at a crossroads as one of the most heated, controversial, and tightest presidential races drags deeper into November.

With such a pivotal race going through the motions, Brig has put questions on the economic and social aspects of this election to Dr. Sean Vanatta, a lecturer in US Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow.

Dr Sean Vanatta – Univeristy of Glasgow
Image credit: University of Glasgow

Joe Biden has set out the target of the US having a “100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050”. Is this economically feasible for such an emission-heavy country?

I think it is possible, but it’s a question—in my view—not so much of economic feasibility as political feasibility. Fossil Fuel interests represent a very powerful lobbying group. In some parts of the country, there are deep cultural attachments to the energy economy and the ideals of independence it represents. Part of this has to do with the United States’ long energy dependence on foreign oil producers and the enthusiasm for hydraulic fracking in recent years. Part of this is also a nostalgia for blue-collar work, like coal mining, which resonates with elements of both political parties. So there are stout political impediments. And if current election forecasts hold, Biden would likely face a Senate that is not especially friendly to clean energy policies.

But there are also reasons for optimism. Because of the United States’ federalist structure, states can take the lead on important issues, like decarbonization. California, for instance, has instituted a number of policies recently aimed at driving down carbon emissions, and these policies can both demonstrate viability and induce green innovation. And while the so-called “Green New Deal” is a little too lefty for our center-right national leadership, its core idea—that green innovation can drive innovation and create well-paying working-class jobs—is a natural fit for either party. But politics here, more than economics, is the key, and I don’t think Biden has enough of a mandate yet to achieve his clean energy goals.

What are the potential economic and social consequences of such a closely contested and drawn-out election?

Let me break this question down a little bit. I’m not especially worried about the economic consequences of a drawn-out election. It looks like we will have a winner soon (maybe today!). While continued uncertainty may cause some jitters in financial markets, I think even if it takes a few more days, a drawn out vote-count is unlikely to have a significant economic impact. I worry much more about the upsurge in Covid cases, which will drive down economic activity, especially if local governments reintroduce lockdowns.

That being said, there are a few scenarios that worry me. If current trends hold and Biden eeks out a close victory, several unpleasant things might happen. Trump may continue to argue that the outcome is fraudulent and refuse to concede power. That could cause much more significant economic damage, especially given the social unrest that would surely follow. Alternatively, Trump might accept defeat, but in doing so slouch toward the exit, leaving a vacuum of economic and public health leadership. This would halt any potential economic stimulus from Congress and leave Covid to run rampant. Bad news all around. Third, Trump might accept defeat, but vow to carry out mini-vendettas on the way out. You could imagine tariff hikes against China or other disruptive policies (alternatively, if Trump wins, you could imagine a similar scenario, declaring victory through cut-throat executive actions).

And then there is the long term possibility of continued political deadlock, if Biden wins the presidency (as seems likely) but Republicans maintain the Senate (as also seems likely). In that scenario, we will reenter the austerity fights of the Obama administration, where Senate Republicans remember their situational hatred of federal deficits and debt, and limit the ability of the Biden administration to revive the economy with public spending. The recovery from 2008 was inhibited by just these partisan politics, with enormous damage to the lives of millions of Americans. The Covid crisis is worse, as will be the consequences if these political dynamics reemerge.

With significant social unrest throughout 2020 linked to the death of George Floyd, BLM protests, and counter-protests from the far-right and white supremacist groups, will a Biden or Trump presidency be able to quell the tensions and heal the divides across the nation?

No. Obviously, Trump has shown no interest so far in healing the deep racial divides that plague the nation, and a second Trump term would only further empower white supremacist groups and enflame racial and ethnic tensions. 

But I don’t anticipate that Biden will have much success resolving these issues either. The fact that Trump managed to generate such high turnout despite continuously inflaming racial animosity shows how deep that animosity runs and how powerful the politics of white resentment are. Other Republican politicians will learn from that example. I also don’t think that Biden or most other centrist Democrats have the courage to address racial and economic inequality head-on. We may see some much-need criminal justice reform and other small victories on this front. But the calls during the Democratic primaries for reparations for generations of white supremacist public policy in the United States are unlikely to gain traction in a Biden White House.

President Trump has claimed the economy “is growing at the fastest rate EVER at 33.1%. Next year will be the GREATEST ECONOMIC YEAR in American History!” Are Trump’s claims correct and what would be the potential impact of a Trump presidency for a further four years?

I can’t speak to the veracity of this claim—I think I saw that second quarter GDP had grown by around 7 percent, which gets an annualized number close to Trump’s claim, but that’s also from the very steep fall after the lockdowns earlier in the year. 

I will say this, Trump has taken a lot of credit for the economy, and without Covid, I am fairly certain that he would have won reelection on the strength of the economy. But there are three factors to remember. First, that the growth trend under the Trump presidency was merely a continuation of that begun under Obama. Trump’s policies did not change that. Except that, second, the Trump economy got a huge amount of fiscal support from the federal government, which has run eye-popping deficits, especially this year. Part of that is a result of his tax cuts, and overall, that certainly made the American economy great. However, those deficits can’t run forever, and the Republican Senate, under either a Trump second term or a Biden first, is going to put the breaks on at some point. Maybe, in the case of a second Trump term, that point would be in 2024, but when that happens, growth will slow significantly unless some other financial engine can replace federal spending.

Trump and Biden have both managed to appeal successfully to sections of the working and middle classes throughout this election. Are we seeing a shift away from social classes having an inherent preference for one or the other political party?

That is a hard question to answer, for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not certain that the Trump coalition will remain intact after Trump. We may be in the middle of a larger-scale realignment, the scope of which is not yet apparent. Part of that shift is evident in the Democratic party, which is increasingly split between culturally liberal, pro-market business elites and suburbanites on one side, and a left, culturally-liberal and increasingly market-skeptical faction on the other (not to mention economically and culturally conservative Black Americans and union constituencies). What this portends for the future is unclear, and I think the election results will tell very different stories in different states.  

With Biden and Trump neck-and-neck who do you think will win the election?

I think when all the votes are counted—including my absentee ballot in Georgia—Biden will be the winner. I am hopeful that he will win convincingly enough so that we are not dragged through weeks of legal challenges and so that Trump’s base can be convinced—to the extent that it can be convinced—that the results are legitimate. 

Final Thoughts

The Trump presidency has been a trying period of America and the international community. I don’t need to recount the reasons why. But Trump also represents a deep dissatisfaction among many Americans with the status quo, and in a sense reflects the country’s failure to live up to its full promise. Many will want to look away from and past Trump—as an aberration, as a mistake—but this year’s election proves that it is anything but. Enthusiasm for Trump has grown, not diminished. So we need to face up to it—and I mean the “we” here as a global “we.” The dissatisfaction and anger of Trumpism is global and also growing. The problems that he promised “only I can fix” are global and growing. Democratic societies need to face these realities and find inclusive solutions, and quickly. America has sounded the warning. 

Featured image credit: Brig Newspaper

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Journalism Studies undergraduate at the University of Stirling

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