Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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Lessons of Biden's victory for Nigeria and the world 08 Dec 2020

Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the 2020 United States presidential election he repeatedly characterised as the 'battle for the soul' of the nation. He conceived that his presidency would help in healing a bitterly divided nation. Biden has imagined his administration as the antidote to that of Donald Trump, who has consistently sowed division in the country and undermined America's key role in forging global cooperation.

Biden is expected to lead by demonstrating moral and empathetic leadership. His victory can be viewed as the triumph of the politics of decency over Trump's politics of post-truth. Trump's politics is about debasing factual truths in public discourse. He makes outrageously false claims with not only the intention to misinform but also to whip up sentiment against the opposition and direct attention away from his failings.  

For instance, he has claimed without evidence that the November election was rigged. And his supporters believe him. According to a Monmouth University survey, 77 per cent of Trump’s supporters said Biden’s victory was due to fraud. Trump is a fact-denying populist who exploits and weaponises popular discontent as well as racial and religious biases for his personal political advantage.

But the facts don't comport with his conspiracy theories. Biden received the most votes – over 80 million – of any presidential candidate in US history, based on results certified towards the end of last month. At 74 million, Trump received the second-most votes of all time. The voter turnout rate is estimated to be 66.7 per cent of eligible voters, the highest since 1900, according to the United States Elections Project.

Modern populism – as championed by Trump and many adherents including Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari – is seen as inimical to democratic politics. The rise of populism over the last few years has also come with great economic and social costs. The five countries with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths globally – US, Brazil, India, Mexico and United Kingdom – have one thing in common: They are governed by populists.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, said, populist politics in those five countries has made it very difficult to implement rational policies that are necessary to effectively tackle the pandemic. "Populists by nature ... have a disdain for experts and science that are seen as part of the establishment," said Shifter.

In the UK, Boris Johnson's Brexit brinkmanship has shown little regard for the economic and financial impact for businesses in the country and UK citizens living in the European Union. The Prime Minister has consistently showed his willingness for Britain to leave the European Union without successfully negotiating a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU.

Buhari's populist agenda of anticorruption, securing the lives and property of Nigerians and providing economic opportunities for the youth has been proved to be nothing more than blusters. More than five years of Buhari's administration have now featured two recessions straddling a period of weak economic growth; unprecedented poverty and economic hardship; as well as insecurity.

Last October, Nigerian youth who were peacefully demonstrating against police brutality were shot at by military forces, leading to death and injury. The president responded by bristling at the youth for their refusal to end their protests after he showed good faith by disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) as initially requested by the youth.     

In many cases, populist leaders have exacerbated the very societal ills that they sort to correct. All the while democratic traditions are imperiled as populist leaders simply seek to solidify their bases. With the victory of Biden, populism is expected to recede as the US renews international cooperation and champions the need for objective facts in shaping public opinion. Biden will rejoin the US into the World Health Organisation and major accords such as the Paris Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Trump withdrew the country from, bringing much relief for Americans and for the world.

Before and after the election, Biden has been imploring Americans to listen to scientific experts on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed over 270,000 people in the country as of the end of November. As German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said, “the pandemic can't be fought with lies and disinformation, and neither can it be with hatred and agitation."

Joe Biden
Joe Biden during his campaign for the 2020 US presidential election

Right from the beginning of the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries, candidates and commentators talked about democracy itself being "on the ballot" in this year's election. Many people warned that under Trump, US democratic traditions have faced an existential threat. Electing him for a second term would be devastating for the country. A recent national survey conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture shows sixty-six per cent of Americans believe the country is in decline.

Biden strung together a coalition of voters who saw the election as a fierce urgency to stem the decline of the country under the current president. A lot of people who voted for Joe Biden, including disaffected Republicans, said their vote was more a repudiation of Donald Trump. The so-called Biden coalition included first-time voters, young people and women from multiracial backgrounds.

Black voters were a key voting bloc for the president-elect. Exit polls showed that 87 per cent of blacks voted for Biden compared to 12 per cent who voted for Trump. Black women even more overwhelmingly (91 per cent) voted for the Democrat. This was the result of the hard work of activists and organisers such as Stacy Abrams whose grassroots coalition made Georgia become a swing state, voting a Democrat for the first time since 1992.

One of the key perspectives and lessons to be drawn from Biden's victory for Nigeria is the importance of grassroots mobilisation. Combined with issue-based politics, political campaigns in Nigeria should aim to mobilise mass participation as the key to salvaging the growing voter apathy in the country. Political mobilisation should not begin when elections are already around the corner as has often been the case in Nigeria.

Get-out-the-vote campaigns began around the US months before this last election. Many of them were issue-focused. Candidates for the elections up and down the ballot in Nigeria should not appear and disappear only during elections. They should support the political mobilisation efforts that are led by political parties and civil society organisations.  

The EndSARS protest proved that Nigerians can organise themselves around a cause to move the country forward. If the country's myriad economic and social issues must be tackled effectively, now is the time for Nigerians to start mobilising, including registering and collecting their voters' cards, to vote in the next election for forward-thinking candidate.

Nigeria, not just its democracy, faces an existential reckoning. Like it was in the US, the future of our democracy hinges on the electorate who would come out en masse to vote against impunity. Candidates should be carefully scrutinised by the electorate in order to elect informed and empathetic leaders who would discuss concrete policy solutions on developing human capital, technology and innovation, tackling climate change, among other policies. The voters must beware of half-baked ideas that are spouted by populist candidates.
Despite Biden's victory, the prevalent economic, social and cultural factors driving public discontent in the US still remain. Hence, there is a need to effectively and transparently address the discontentment and distrust with institutions to forestall the rise of another populist leader in the US in the near future. Biden is already taking some steps in the right direction with his key appointments so far. Together with Kamala Harris, the first US Vice President-elect – in a vaunted democracy that has not produced a female president in over 230 years compared to the less-celebrated democracies – the Biden administrations looks set to inspire the return of politics of normalcy.

Martins Hile is the Executive Editor, Financial Nigeria Publications.