“This election will be a historical one”, moderator and head of the Political Sciences department Naná de Graaff starts off. Not only has a pandemic this year increased the use of alternative ways of voting, it is also an election where few people trust the polls. “2016 is still fresh in our memories. Although Biden is in the lead, the idea that we can rely on those numbers is outdated.”
And with that, De Graaff invites the speakers to voice their own wishes, concerns and expectations to the students attending. “I know historians don’t like to speculate, but we pressured them to do so.” The event is structured around three questions addressed to the speakers: what is at stake, what will happen if Trump wins, and what will happen if Biden wins.
Thijs Bogers invited the following speakers to give their expert opinions: George Blaustein, professor of American Studies at the University of Amsterdam; Alessandra Bitumi, doctor in the field of Modern European History; Bastiaan van Apeldoorn, head of the department and senior lecturer of International Relations at VU; André Krouwel, teacher in Political Science at VU and founder of Kiescompas (election compass, ed.); Mark Zonnenberg, Political Science alumnus and corona Policy Advisor for the government.
Can these elections still be called a democratic process?
The online event on Thursday afternoon October 29 is hosted by coordinator of first-year Political Science students Thijs Bogers. In a little over two hours, the speakers he invited discuss what ramifications these elections may have.
In discussing what is at stake, they quickly begin speculating which outcome will have which result for the future of the US and the rest of the world. Questions arise such as what the future of the Republican party will look like, what the effects will be on global governance, on the environment, and on health care. Can these elections still be called a democratic process?
Fear of aggressive protests
That last question is something people from all sides tend to speculate on, with Trump himself perhaps being the biggest culprit in undermining the process. He has continuously threatened to not accept defeat if the vote count turns out in Biden’s favour. Now that many votes are being sent in by mail, Trump worries – or says he worries – this will facilitate voter fraud. Not taking the mailed votes into consideration, however, would highly affect the outcome of the election.
But whatever the outcome, the speakers agree that the chaos that encases the US, will continue. It’s about an hour into the event before the word ‘polarizing’ is used. “Trump is not a cause, he is an effect: the effect of the broken promise that if you work hard and pay your taxes, your kids will have a better life. Things are not working for the middle class anymore. That puts democracy at risk.”
‘They can’t ignore the younger voices that are rattling at the gates’
The speakers agree that these underlying, systemic problems are not easily solved, certainly not just in these upcoming four years, and not with either one as president. “If Trump loses, Trumpism will not be gone. His sons are still important players.” Others fear a Belarusian outcome with aggressive protests, from both sides.
The term gerrymandering is used to refer to different ways of establishing an unfair political advantage for a party or group. One example is to draw lines within states in such a way that many voters of one type are packed into a single electoral district, resulting in fewer electors. Grassroots movements and organizations use bottom-up strategies to provoke economic or political change. They encourage people in communities to take their own responsibility and action, steering away from more traditional power structures.
In between speaking of gerrymandering, the decline of liberalism, and mourning the fact Sanders wasn’t elected as candidate, participants share personal stories. “My grandma in California who grew up as a daughter of a NASA engineer, has a Master’s in Chemistry and loves the environment, is a hard-core Trump supporter.” A student living in Charlotte, North Carolina joins the event during his two-hour car ride to vote – a result of the extensive gerrymandering in the swing state. “There’s a tropical storm coming in, so lots of people are voting by mail.
The conversation takes a more hopeful turn when the future of the Democratic party is discussed. “American politicians are too old and stay in their positions too long. We need a new Congress.” According to one of the speakers, in the eyes of young Democratic voters, Biden could just as well have been a Republican. With younger party members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed by a grassroots organization, the party is slowly reinventing itself. “They can’t ignore the young voices that are rattling at the gates.”
While four years ago the unexpected doom came to a climax in just one night, this year the vote count will take a lot more time. That is, if Trump doesn’t decide to cut off the count of more votes coming in late by mail.
‘It’s a shame that Americans have so little to choose from’
First-year Political Science student Erik Sjoers had his fourteenth birthday on the day Trump was elected.
“I had hoped to have Hillary’s win as my present, but no such luck.” He worries most about the effects of the new president on global politics. “The US stepped out of the Paris Climate Accord, there’s talk about them leaving NATO. They risk getting into a conflict with half of the world. I wasn’t yet born during the Cold War, but I sometimes fear another one is coming. International relations are on a hair-trigger.”
“Politically, I would consider myself a right-wing liberal. So in that sense, both candidates would suit me. But Trump’s ideas on abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and gun control are absurd. It goes to show it’s not a healthy form of democracy to have just two parties. In the Netherlands, multiple parties form a coalition. Parties with differing ideologies working together – now that’s what I would call ‘politics’.”
People are angry
“It’s a shame that Americans have so little to choose from. It facilitates polarization, something you see very clearly now in the States and emphasized on social media. I frequently post content that shows my political colour, and even here in The Netherlands, that provokes a strong reaction. Things are getting out of control. Just today, Trump supporters tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road. People are angry.”
One positive development, according to Sjoers, is the choice of Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mate. “A woman, and of colour. Imagine if she were to take Biden’s place at some point. She would be the first female president ever.”
‘It’s like watching a reality show’
Kamala Harris as the first female president, it’s something Noa Bakker (19) second-year student Political Science, also likes to fantasize about.
“It’s like we’re choosing between two grandpas. You can’t even say with certainty that Biden would outlive his term. The fact that he chose a woman with a diverse background as his vice president, is very important, especially in a country as diverse as the US. But at the same time, it could be troubling for him if people didn’t like Harris for those exact same reasons. Would they elect someone as president who might get replaced by her in a few years?”
American politics have always interested Bakker. “We discuss it a lot during my classes. But it still surprises me how much other people know about American politics. A lot of them can’t even name politicians in our neighbouring countries of Belgium or Germany, but they’ll know everything about the upcoming elections in the US. It feels like Dutch people are less consumed by politics in their day-to-day life than they are in the US. There’s a lot on the line.”
African Americans and LGBTQIA+people not safe
“If Trump would get another term, I doubt African Americans and people within the LGBTQIA+-community would even be safe in that country. Trump avoids subjects like racism and equality – he plays dumb. He never openly spoke up about the crisis that ensued after George Floyd’s murder. As a president, you should be able to set aside your own beliefs and be the leader a country with such a diverse population needs. I don’t think he can do that. He doesn’t treat everybody equally and it shows.”
Although the electoral college has been under pressure for a while, yet another outcome in which the candidate with the popular vote loses will not result in the government choosing a different electoral system anytime soon, Bakker thinks. “The judicial system is nowhere near flawless. Neither is the police system. When the Black Lives Matter movement took off, I thought: ‘Maybe something will actually change now’. But those processes take forever it seems, no matter how much critique something gets.”
She’s going to stay up Tuesday night to watch the vote count unfold. Four years ago she was fifteen and doesn’t remember being really engaged. But now with her studies and personal interest, she is completely involved. “It’s like watching a reality show.”