A House Divided — Thoughts on the US 2020 Elections

According to certain western media outlets, Chinese citizens are watching the US 2020 elections with “schadenfreude” but also secretly “envying” the Americans’ ability to choose their president. Well, here’s what one US-educated Chinese citizen thinks, straight from the horse, err, panda?’s mouth.

Disclaimer: I am a Chinese student who has lived in the US for quite a few years. I attended all four years of undergrad in the US and have a decent understanding of the US political system. Personally, I am closer aligned with the supporters of the Democratic Party (not to be confused with the ideology or current state of the Democratic Party). The observations and statements below are those of my own and in no way am I implying they are unequivocally true — they are simply thoughts for your reference, valuable or not.

And just so there are no misunderstandings, criticizing America’s system does not mean I think China’s is better, nor does it mean I have any better ideas. I believe there is no such thing as a superior political system because every country is different. I don’t agree that American democracy is the envy of the world, nor do I think that America should adopt China’s way of doing things.

I do not discuss it in depth here, so here are two very good introductions of how China does things.

I have been paying attention to American politics since the Obama years. I was certainly not watching as closely or had as thorough of an understanding, but I remember the divide between the left and the right was not nearly as deep or as painful. This year, I’m seeing a lot of personal attacks being thrown around in political discourse, justified or not. I see labeling every member of a group as X or Y, warranted or not. Decades-long relationships are being fractured, friends and family are turning against each other. Sometimes, when I walk on the streets of the US, I wonder if the person I see walking into a store or getting into their car hates me, or at least looks down on me for my political opinions. I wonder if they don’t believe in wearing masks. I wonder if they think I don’t belong in the US.

As a Chinese, it is difficult to imagine this kind of divide in a country. The people of the Chinese mainland all pretty much want the same things — economic prosperity, safety, health, happiness, and my impression has been that they don’t particularly care how we get there. I feel like the Chinese value utility over ideology — we tend to have no strong beliefs about the role a government should play in people’s lives (big or small, how much control they have, whether they are overstepping the power vested in them by the people), but rather we care about the end results — is there food on the table, can we afford to go to the hospital, are we in danger of being shot walking down the street late at night. This is not necessarily better. I’m sure the potential dangers of this attitude require no explanation — we have seen examples of its downsides throughout history. However, a united population makes getting things done a lot simpler and easier — for better or for worse.

I often wonder, is the current state of American politics what the founding fathers intended? When I learned about the three branches of government many years ago, it seemed intelligent and elegant. If none of the three branches could have too much power, surely that meant multiple voices and opinions could be represented and balanced. In the reality of the two-party system, I see the legislative and judicial branches being diluted down to “majority” and “minority”. Whoever gets the majority calls the shots, because they can outvote the other side (except in the rarer cases where a 2/3 majority is required — then nothing ever happens no matter whose idea it was). Then there’s the executive branch — which at the national level, only one party can hold at a time.

This creates an incredibly ugly reality that pits interests of half the country against the other half — urban vs. rural, coasts vs. inland, red vs. blue. I mean, sure, you have legitimacy because a majority (or an electoral college majority) voted for you, but when the other half hates your guts or even refuses to acknowledge you as their president, it’s really kind of a big mess. When the divide is so deep, why bother reaching out to those on the other side of the aisle — and when elected, why bother serving their interests, if they are unlikely to vote for you in the next election, anyway? Alternatively, do try to reach out to the other side — and then piss off the ones who voted for you, and get called a “sellout”, among other things. What is an American politician to do?

It is not a dilemma I, nor I think many Chinese, envy.

In America’s two party system and first past the post system of voting, people are often forced to vote for the candidate that aligns closer to their interests (or what they think are their interests) over one that truly represents them, or risk “wasting” their vote — see everyone who is telling voters for the Green Party that not voting for Biden is basically voting for Trump, AND everyone saying the opposite about voters for the Libertarian Party. And then there’s the major parties working to get third parties kicked off the ballot. Year after year of this happening, how many voices are being disenfranchised while they try to settle for the next best thing?

I see this settling happening on a significant scale on the left. I’ve heard the terms “harm reduction”, “lesser evil”, “push Biden left” being thrown around. This is really sad to me. Four years of the most powerful man in America, and the only comfort to these voters is “he’s not as bad as Trump”. I wonder, how will these voters’ opinions, such as support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, be represented in a Biden administration? Will he appoint top Democrats who are farther left of him to the cabinet? Or will he attempt to reach across the aisle and cooperate with Republicans, thus leaving his progressive supporters in the dust?

On the other side, voters who support fiscally conservative policies, for example, or deregulation, may feel like they have to put their support behind Trump, despite all the terrible things about him. I do wonder if Trump is radicalizing these people with his anti-science, discriminatory rhetoric — especially with the intense “us vs. them” state of political discourse in the US. That, I think, is one of the scariest, most harmful things he could have done.

And thus we return to the Catch-22 — how do you ensure every voice is represented when so many of them want different things? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that, and America’s solution seems more and more inelegant in practice. (In principle, Congress is supposed to help represent other voices. But Congress has its own problems with corruption and accountability. To the disappointment of many, including myself, Kentucky elected Mitch McConnell to the Senate…again.)

That’s not even going into the mess with the Supreme Court right now. In the end, how effective and how democratic is a government like this, really?

If you ask me how America can heal from a divide like this, I really don’t know. I’m just a chemist with a passing interest in politics. I don’t believe I’m qualified to tell Americans how to fix their shit. Biden said he wants to be unifying — but does either side want to be unified? Is that even what is best for America, considering some of the extremist rhetoric I see being thrown around? How do you unify people who are unwilling to listen? Or people who truly hold hate in their hearts?

I worry for America’s future. I worry about all the Democrats who think Joe Biden being elected means they can stop caring about politics. I worry about the Republicans who will do everything they can to oppose his agenda, and in whom Trumpism will live on. I worry about all the innocent people who will suffer, both in America, and across the globe, because of short-sighted, greedy decisions made by a few old white people in suits. I, and I’m sure many other Chinese people, want to see a prosperous America — but not at the cost of blood spilled domestically or abroad. Will this happen? Is it even possible?

The world’s eyes are on America, and they are wondering: is a system like this truly the envy of the world? Is it truly “exceptional”?

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