Today, America is more divided than at any other point this side of the Cold War’s end. When Joe Biden is inaugurated as the next US president on 20 January, he inherits a nation wrecked by a public health and economic crisis that could quickly become ungovernable without a concerted effort to restore and repair its many fractures.
By historical standards, the 2020 US presidential election was not a close one. At the time of writing, Joe Biden is on track to win 306 electoral votes and leads Donald Trump on the popular vote by more than four million in a race that saw more than 148 million Americans vote in the strongest turnout for more than 100 years. He is also leading in Georgia, a state that has not voted for a Democratic president since 1992.
But Donald Trump secured more than 70 million votes and, although the Democrats maintain an overall majority in the House of Representatives, they lost four seats, and control of the Senate hangs in the balance, dependent on two runoff elections in Georgia on 5 January. The message is clear — Americans are polarized and will continue to be right across the country, and especially in Washington.
In this context, the fact Biden has called for unity and has demonstrated his commitment to working towards this over the course of a lifetime of public service could not be more important. He offers the United States the hope that it can make strides towards what today looks beyond reach to many.
For four years, President Trump played on partisan divides. Even on issues such as investment in infrastructure that dangled like low-hanging fruit ripe for bipartisan consensus, Donald Trump made no real effort to build bridges.
Instead, he stoked division. The pandemic worsened inequality as African-Americans suffered its health and economic effects at rates far worse than white Americans. Blue collar workers suffered high levels of unemployment and often cannot work from home, while women shouldered a greater childcare burden.
Young Americans may have been healthier than older ones but suffered the economic and educational impacts of the pandemic much more. Although the election is concluded, the future remains uncertain. For democracy to work, the loser must accept the results of the election and allow for a peaceful transition of power. Many onlookers feared a close or slow result at the polls would lead Trump to contest the result.
On 5 November, he spoke to the American public, delivered a range of unsubstantiated allegations of fraud, and once again claimed victory. Three major US television networks cut away from the president’s speech, and even some of his closest supporters called for Trump to use evidence to support his claims. These allegations do run the risk of stoking unrest among some of his supporters.
Even after the major networks called the election for Biden, Trump refused to accept the result. Instead, he launched a range of unsubstantiated legal challenges and continued to allege via Twitter that the election was ‘stolen’ by the Democrats.
For the first time ever, the United States listened to the president-elect speak in Delaware while world leaders extended their traditional welcome to him, all still in the absence of a concession by the sitting president.
Biden will face considerable challenges as Trump’s base has remained steady at around 40 per cent of the population. Their passion for his leadership is heartfelt and many of their concerns are real. Whether they continue to support him through the transition and into Biden’s presidency will depend on what Trump does, what the president-elect does, and how the Republican party and Trump supporters, including those in the media, respond to the attempt to contest the electoral result. But it is encouraging that Fox News and Rupert Murdoch-owned US outlets have acknowledged the Biden victory and urged Trump to accept the result.
One essential focus for the president-elect is inequality. Over the past four years, income and wealth inequality have continued to grow and, without a clear plan, the future is not bright for low-skilled workers. Persistent racial inequality and the demand for racial justice is also a defining feature of American politics.
Leadership is more important than ever before in the face of such grave divisions and inequalities. And there are clear signs that leadership and united action are indeed possible.
By any measure, the move to grant almost $4 trillion worth of economic benefits in the early days of the pandemic was an extraordinary bipartisan achievement that demonstrated the power of the US government to preserve unity and social safety for the American people at a time of great crisis.
But many Americans are once again living on the brink, and many of these benefits have come to an end. Desperately-needed economic support has been stymied by partisanship resurfacing with a vengeance, preventing Congress from agreeing an additional package of fiscal stimulus.
If elections deliver a Republican majority to the Senate, the work required by President Biden to achieve compromises will be even harder, not least because the results of the elections show that many Americans are calling for moderation, and an important part of the president-elect’s own party demands a far more progressive agenda. So the challenge is great, but if the effort succeeds, America will be stronger.
Material reforms alone are not sufficient for restoring unity to America’s shining democracy. Words matter and the next president must choose his words — and his team — carefully to inspire and unite, rather than to divide.
Building bridges across the United States is an extraordinary task. Physical infrastructure is desperately needed in America, but the only bridges that can really save the nation are those built between the country’s divided communities.
This is a version of an article originally published in The Telegraph.