Biden’s win this morning did undeniably give me a spike of joy. Yet …it wasn’t the happiness that I remembered feeling when Obama was elected in 2008.
I still remember the morning when the UK’s decision to leave the European Union was announced.
The night before, I had gone to bed with a sense of slight but not quite genuine trepidation, the type you might get when you look over a railing at a very long drop below, close and clear enough to be unnerving, but without a sense of any real danger.
When I walked downstairs in the morning and my mum, sitting wide-eyed at the breakfast table in her dressing gown, gasped the result – “We’re out! – I was shaken.
To my eyes, it had seemed obvious that the pro-Brexit campaign was riddled with inaccuracies, unsubtle racism and outright lies. How could half of Britain’s voters have been taken in by something so invalid? Moreover, how could those who called themselves leaders have been so utterly irresponsible as to allow it?
The sense of betrayal, shame and anger I felt, particularly when I saw the expressions of shock on the faces of those who had spearheaded the Brexit campaign, is hard to describe. It felt like a giant step backwards, as if the democratic system had fundamentally failed at its job of giving power to the people, instead manipulating many of them into making an uninformed decision that was bad for everyone.
Five months later, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
This time, faced with the same unbelievable popularity of something that, to me, was so obviously harmful to American and global livelihoods, I just felt an overpowering sense of disillusionment. The world had gone insane, and I was powerless to stop it.
Since November 2016, and especially since moving abroad to teach English in China in 2018, I’ve watched the increasingly bitter polarisation of American society and the slow-motion train wreck of Brexit with a growing sense of despair.
Impeachment, race riots and virus conspiracy theories have plagued the US, while their president uses social media like a soapbox from which to spew infantile insults and over 20,000 lies. The UK has floundered endlessly in negotiations with the EU, first forcing out one prime minister and then rallying behind an incompetent clown as her successor, known for his casual racism and homophobia.
Both countries have botched their handling of COVID, despite having highly advanced health systems. The UK’s response has been a catastrophic combination of sluggish reactions, confusing information, and ineffective yet still economically ruinous lockdowns. The US failed to persuade people to wear masks, the bare minimum of prevention, let alone effectively enforce lockdowns or quash rumours that the entire pandemic was a hoax. In the rankings of global per-capita deaths, the UK and US now hold 10thand 11th place respectively (according to Statista).
Meanwhile, the authoritarian country I live in, in which the virus originated, sails on in a practically post-COVID state, having weathered the storm that has left the US and UK in divided, bickering tatters.
Many point the finger of blame at China’s initial handling of the outbreak and underreported death figures. To come close to the UK per capita mortality rate, however, China would have to have hidden close to 1 million bodies; and to me, it seems rather rich to call out China for an initial mishandling when western countries single-handedly failed to take the virus seriously in its early stages. Even when the first UK deaths had been confirmed and the WHO had long declared an international health emergency, it was weeks before any large British sports events were cancelled.
Biden’s win this morning did undeniably give me a spike of joy. Yet, it wasn’t unadulterated. It wasn’t the happiness that I remembered feeling when Obama was elected in 2008, which felt like proof the world was moving forward, becoming a more tolerant, more representative place.
Biden was more like the sense of relief you would get after spitting out a mouthful of glass you had been forced to chew on: the worst of the pain may be over, but there’s a long way to go until the sores are healed. And half of the people you know are still screaming that you never should have spat it out in the first place.
Trump will file lawsuit after lawsuit, and continue to hog headlines in the coming months, trying to smear the election’s legitimacy. As ridiculous as his claims may be, as much as it might benefit the population as a whole to silence him, he has a such a huge support base that it is impossible to do so without contradicting the central beliefs of liberal democracy.
Until now, I thought that my own principles were firmly rooted in these beliefs, in the importance of the everyman’s opinion and right to free speech.
Having witnessed a seemingly endless cycle of vicious and poorly informed public debate in two of the world’s leading democratic nations, in which both sides seem deaf to the other, leaders of pathetic caliber have been elected, and progress of any kind has stalled or even gone backwards, I’m not so sure anymore.
I’m immeasurably relieved that America has voted out such a harmful leader. I doubt, however, that my trust in the institution of democracy will ever recover.