At 3:00 AM on Wednesday, November 4, shortly before a police cruiser drove Milwaukee’s 169,000 absentee ballots to the city’s election officials, I called a friend and former colleague in India. Almost everyone I knew in the U.S. was now (somehow) asleep. But it was early afternoon in Delhi, which meant that my friend would certainly be following the American tallies. Joe Biden trailed Donald Trump by 107,000 votes in Wisconsin. The next hour would probably tell us if Biden had done well enough with mail-in ballots in the upper Midwest to win the presidency. Whether America was about to hand Trump his second shock victory hung heavy.
“I’m calling to let you know just how incredibly manic I am,” I told her. She laughed.
Puja Sen is an editor at The Caravan, a major Indian politics magazine. She knows as well as anyone what it is like to have the populist right win back-to-back victories. In 2014, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, became the first politician in thirty years to win an outright governing majority in India’s large, factitious parliament. Before becoming the country’s prime minister, Modi led the Indian state of Gujarat. Under his tenure, rioters and police killed as many as 2,000 people—mostly Muslims—in a 2002 pogrom. Experts continue to debate Modi’s role in the violence, but it’s clear that, at a minimum, he did little to stop the bloodshed. In the aftermath of the violence, George W. Bush’s state department banned him from entering the U.S. The Obama administration lifted the restrictions after Modi won the 2014 national election. In 2019, the prime minister overwhelmingly won again.
The 2014 victory was expected. A 2019 rout was not. Most polls suggested that Modi would squeak by in his second turn before voters, with his party losing seats. Many forecasters estimated he would need to create a cross-party coalition to stay in power. But despite high unemployment and a slowing economy, Modi’s party picked up 21 districts after a campaign spent demonizing Muslim immigrants. Indian liberals were shocked. So were political observers outside the country, including me.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. If there’s one transnational election takeaway from the last six years, it’s that right-wing nationalism is extremely difficult to defeat. In addition to Modi’s two wins, in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro won a commanding presidential victory in Brazil. In Poland, right-wing nationalists have been ascendant for roughly five years, and Viktor Orbán has governed Hungary for more than ten. Benjamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister of Israel for over a decade, despite many close calls. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2015. In many of these races, including the Brexit referendum, nationalists stunned observers by over-performing polls and expectations. It happened here in 2016.
As Sen and I spoke, it seemed entirely possible that it would happen once again. We discussed Trump’s earlier press conference, where he lied about voter fraud and effectively declared victory. We followed the news frantically until results from Milwaukee began to scrawl across my computer screen here in Washington. The new numbers were overwhelmingly favorable to Biden. It would take time to call Wisconsin, but by 5:00 AM, it seemed effectively settled. Biden was going to win the state and then, probably, the presidency.
“That’s huge,” Sen said. Giving the results such weight felt premature, and not just because Biden hadn’t yet claimed a nationwide, or even statewide, victory. If the Obama administration is any guide, it is unlikely a President Biden will be able to pass anything significant without Democratic control of Congress. And although the odds of a President Biden were going up, the odds of a Democratic Senate were going down. As of this writing, to win Senate control, the party will likely need to carry both of Georgia’s seats.
Sen, who endures the consequences of American elections without getting a vote (the U.S. remains the world’s most powerful country), pointed out that a Biden win would have big, international ramifications. “It would mean that the U.S. will rejoin the Paris climate agreement,” she said. “There are all sorts of other international agreements that matter.” She’s right. Under Trump’s tenure, we’ve withdrawn from the Paris agreement and the Iranian nuclear deal. We have plans to leave the World Health Organization. We seem to have as many trade disputes with traditional allies as we do with traditional opponents.
She also reminded me that, when Modi won again in 2019, he made the country far more exclusionary. Emboldened by his victory, the prime minister revoked Kashmir—India’s only Muslim-majority state—of its constitutionally enshrined autonomy (he has been helped, so far, by a friendly judiciary). He then shut down the state’s internet for more than seven months and detained thousands of its residents. Not too long after the lockdown began, the government announced policies that could render millions of India’s many Muslim citizens stateless.
The United States is not India, and there’s a whole lot for liberals to dislike about the 2020 election results. In many key states, Biden only won very narrowly, and it is unclear if he won because of his talents as a politician or because Trump is undisciplined. Democrats will need a flush to take the Senate. The party performed poorly in statehouses and will be at a serious disadvantage in redistricting. Trumpism remains very much alive in America, and progressives will face formidable, frightening barriers for the next decade.
Yet considered comparatively, there really is something impressive about Biden’s victory. He underperformed his polls, but he outperformed his peers in countries governed by the nationalist right. Unlike Sonia and Rahul Gandhi (both dispatched by Modi); Isaac Herzog, or Benny Gantz (defeated and enlisted by Netanyahu, respectively); or the myriad challengers to Hungary’s Orbán and Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Biden unseated a nationalist incumbent. That is notable anywhere, and especially notable in the United States, where presidents are usually reelected. His popular vote victory will be sizable, and that itself is a statement.
It will take a lot more organizing before progressives can build the coalition they need to truly govern. But political U-turns are extremely difficult, and in an era where demagogues are ascendant, Sen said, “any victory is worth celebrating.”