The left urgently needs to lose its inferiority complex | US elections 2020

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This week Joe Biden – few people’s idea of an outstanding candidate – won the biggest presidential vote in United States history. Seven times in the last eight such contests, the Democrats have got more votes than the Republicans.

You could see this latest popular-vote victory as further confirmation of a theory that’s been promoted by some political scientists and journalists for a quarter of a century, most notably in The Emerging Democratic Majority, a 2002 book by John B Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The theory says that American social trends, which are making much of the country more diverse, urban and better educated – all characteristics associated with voting Democrat – are slowly but inexorably shifting the US away from the Republicans.

This might sound like liberal wishful thinking, but it’s a view that has also been held by senior Republicans. In 2012, Senator Lindsey Graham warned his party: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Combined with the horror that many Americans feel at Donald Trump and how disastrously he has governed, this long-term leftward drift was widely expected this week to become an irresistible electoral force.

Instead, it met a series of seemingly immovable objects. First, Trump’s infamous aversion to ever being “a loser”. Second, his immense and again underrated appeal to conservative voters. Third, his party’s reluctance, which has intensified dramatically since the early 1990s, to accept any Democratic president as legitimate. Fourth, the Republicans’ willingness to use gerrymandering and voter suppression to tilt elections in their favour. And finally, the US’s rickety old election system itself: the electoral college and the system for choosing the Senate, with their seemingly ever stronger pro-Republican biases.

The result was deadlock – a weirdly frenzied deadlock in keeping with the mania of Trump’s presidency. Even if Biden eventually wins with some comfort, as looks increasingly possible, the result in the electoral college will probably be close, late and contested enough to be misrepresented as “a fraud” by Trump and millions of other rightwing Americans for decades to come. And the Republicans will probably have enough senators to seriously obstruct any Biden presidency.

Once more, the great Democratic breakthrough seems to have been postponed. Particularly left-leaning and anxious Biden supporters may be tempted to quote the melancholy Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Watching from Britain, it is possible to see the past few days as a uniquely American saga. If you can temporarily forget about the implications for the entire planet, you can even follow it as a sort of political box set, an addictive multi-level drama to binge on as our national lockdown and our greyer politics grind on.

But to exoticise this crisis is a mistake. Versions of the American battle, between left-leaning parties backed by rising social groups such as the young on the one side and entrenched rightwing governments backed by older voters on the other, are under way in other countries. They will decide what sort of societies many western democracies become: how they distribute their assets and liabilities between the generations; how they respond to long-term threats such as the climate emergency.

In Britain, the 2017 and 2019 elections and the Brexit referendum exposed and left unresolved many of the same divisions as the current US election. And the Conservatives have become almost as aggressive as the Republicans in their efforts to prolong their dominance, launching culture wars, suspending parliament and gaming the electoral system, for example, by making it harder to register to vote.

Like the US, Britain has an admired old constitution (though ours is unwritten) that has proved easier for a shameless government to work around than many political traditionalists expected. And, as in the US, Britain’s two main parties currently have similar levels of support. Whenever our next general election comes, the third hung parliament since 2010 is a distinct possibility. Britons shaking their heads at the US’s election chaos probably shouldn’t gloat.

What can the left do about these deadlocks? One obvious but difficult solution is to reform the electoral systems that are biased against them – or at least make many more voters uncomfortable with how unfair these systems are. Another solution is to have more charismatic leaders, more effective election campaigns and more popular policies than the right. That’s a tall order, but stubborn rightwing ascendancies have been broken in Britain and the US before: by Labour in 1945, 1964 and 1997; by the Democrats in 1960, 1992 and 2008.

The enemies of conservatism also need to shed their inferiority complex. After Trump was elected, many liberals and leftists argued that he would be impossible to beat in 2020, as an incumbent with supposedly so much dark charisma. When Trump took an early lead this week, the same pessimistic mindset spread an expectation that Biden would be defeated, despite the well-known fact that many Democratic votes would be counted last. And once Biden went ahead, the pessimists started predicting that any presidency of his would be doomed before it began, and that Trump could even win next time.

Some of this pessimism may turn out to be justified. But it also suits the right’s political narrative: that they are the US and the west’s natural rulers, and that any periods of government by anyone else are temporary aberrations.

Twenty years ago, the Republicans captured the presidency in even more contentious circumstances, through the supreme court. George W Bush went on to govern as if he had decisively won. He was re-elected. The Democrats, and liberals and leftists everywhere, could learn from that.

• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist

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