US Election Week worries about the world’s most powerful democracy

As 2020 draws to a close, FRANCE 24’s François Picard digs into his reporter’s notebook to talk about the prime-time jitters as he covers the US election on November 3 when the world saw democracy tested.

The declining feeling was back.

It’s US election night 2020, and when the first return seeps in, our Jowharcrew immediately feels that once again the votes have gone wrong. Should democracy in the world’s most powerful nation be put to the test, as experts had warned in the worst case?

A road sign for election time in Washington DC says it all. © Francois Picard / FRANCE 24

Although we are sent to an outdoor beer garden in Washington, DC, the atmosphere is, well, sober when patrons sit in socially remote clusters to participate in the older spectacle of watching returns coming in from all over the country. The partisan crowd in the highly democratic capital greets encouraging early return with restrained cheers.

Unspoken is the shell-shocked feeling we had witnessed four years earlier when a bell tower in Alexandria, Virginia was emptied as soon as Hillary Clinton lost Florida to Donald Trump, the candidate who had dropped the birther theory and called Mexicans rapists.

At 22:00 ET, Joe Biden had also lost Sunshine State. Despite the record turnout, Democrats knew their hopes for the kind of “pure death” needed to silence conspiracy theorists had been dashed. The choice would be narrow, protracted and go to court.

François Picard is hosting the 2020 American Election Special from Washington DC. © Anthony James Dowdeswell / FRANCE 24

Morning-after blues

After a few hours of restless sleep, we wake up with the gnawing fear that the ghosts from 2016 returned. With the long number of voting votes barely underway in some states, Trump still leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, while Biden sticks to an uncertain lead in Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada.

Why is it even competitive? With turnout much higher than in 2016, how could Trump broaden his constituency this time around? He then stunned the Republican Party in the primary by giving energy to citizens who do not normally vote. Can he really get more votes?

“People are desperate, people are scared,” was the disappointing assessment of a Democratic party operator who had voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary. “The initial surveys were correct when the citizens listed Covid as their main issue, as long as we misinterpreted it,” she added.

At work, elections cover the world’s most powerful democracy. © Anthony James Dowdeswell / FRANCE 24

In a nation where health coverage often depends on the employer’s plan, Trump’s opposition to face masks and social distancing seemed to be part of the message that Democrats were the party to shut down the economy.

But it’s not just the economy.

Sunshine during the day, anxiety at night

More than 74 million Americans voted for the incumbent, with votes showing that 77 percent of them believed his baseless allegations of voter fraud.

The pandemic had accentuated the growing gap between ports and those who did not, between city slickers and country people. The system felt awkward, and as an insider from Biden camp admitted, “for the excluded, the Democratic Party has become the party for the establishment.”

In the country’s capital, where Democrats and Republicans tend to be of the establishment type, the vote reflected the strangely unpleasant weather.

As the days returned from key states began to crystallize in Biden’s favor and Washington sunbathed in DC in bright sunshine, officials and agents in both camps calmly predicted that Republicans would quietly push Trump toward recognizing the will of the people.

FRANCE 24’s François Picard and Kethevane Gorjestani report from Capitol Hill November 2, 2020. © Anthony James Dowdeswell / FRANCE 24

But night time is the first time for cable news channels where manic anxiety is the business model, especially during a pandemic. If Republicans for the most part were still loyal Trump supporters who wanted to reduce the transition, how far would they go? How about the likelihood that a Republican-controlled Senate under President Biden with Trump will refuse to go?

Saturday public party in the square

The Saturday after Election Day, as Pennsylvania predicts a slowdown in voting, our Jowharcrew begins packing for a drive to cover the Rudy Giuliani-led legal show in Philadelphia.

It’s late in the morning when CNN and then the Associated Press call Keystone State the native son Joe Biden. Supporters grab face masks, signs and musical instruments to converge on what has been renamed the Black Lives Matter Plaza opposite the fenced-in White House.

The release of pent-up joy is epic for those who flocked to 16th Street, a rare moment in the midst of a gloomy pandemic.

On the way, Biden’s followers march past all the installed shop windows. Plywood had gone preventively before election day, a nod to previous wars during the long, hot Black Lives Matter summer of 2020 and a reminder of the tensions that are still simmering in America.

FRANCE 24’s François Picard reports on Black Lives Matter Plaza near Lafayette Park in Washington DC on November 8, 2020. © Anthony James Dowdeswell / FRANCE 24

“Is Trump really playing golf right now?” asks an incredible street party. The answer was “yes”. The US president was at one of his private courses in Sterling, Virginia and still insisted on Twitter that he had won the election “a lot”. The power play was far from over.

Euphoria at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC. © Francois Picard / FRANCE 24

Victory numbers and standing by the system

The 78-year-old Biden was the clear winner with a popular voting margin that then climbed to seven million, but how does he handle the 77 percent of Trump voters who do not agree?

Most surprising to a visiting European is that Americans still have faith. The long-simmering cultural war caused by a long relaxation of the social fabric that journalist George Packer returns to after the Watergate Reagan Revolution may have been a beacon under Trump, but Americans still believe in the exceptionality of their 240-year-old constitution.

One after another, players and viewers from both sides of the divide insist to me that they stand by the system and its institutions.

During one night, the manic anxiety of the cable news channels gives way to relief and euphoria.

At the Delaware Chase Convention Center, before President-elect Joe Biden delivers his 2020 victory speech, it’s his driving buddy. Kamala Harris explains the challenge to a nation that is more tribal and politicized than ever in memory.

“America’s democracy is not guaranteed,” said the elected vice president. “It’s just as strong as our will to fight for it.”

An uplifting line, but does it inadvertently offer the admission that America’s exceptional may not be eternal, that no constitution is sacred and no democracy is guaranteed?