By Manuela Shklanka (’25)
The world held its breath on the evening of Tuesday November 3rd, 2020. The United States is facing more crises than it has ever had in living memory, and much of what the next 4+ years will look like rests on the shoulders of the next president.
It is undeniable that everyone was paying attention to the presidential election in the United States of America. But why is it so confusing to get to the facts? And in a moment where truths are twisted and lies are thrown out left, right, and centre, what even are the facts anymore? The results of the election have already been called, and though more headlines will undoubtedly come up between my time of writing and your time of reading, the purpose of this article is to help you understand the current situation in the US.
Only someone living under a rock would not know who the two contenders to the presidency were: on the Republican side, the incumbents President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence; making up the Democratic ticket, former Vice-President Joe Biden and Californian Senator Kamala Harris. The ultimate winners of the election are now President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris.
Before we dive head first into the messy, polarized world that is American politics, some background. The US has a two-party system, with the conservative-leaning Republicans on one side and the more liberal-leaning Democrats on the other. There are three parts to their government: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch.
At the federal level, the legislative branch is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives (together known as Congress). Congress drafts and passes laws and considers nominations for federal agencies and federal courts.
The Executive branch—the President, Vice-President, and their advisors (known as the Cabinet)—is supposed to enforce what Congress legislates. The President is the most powerful person in the country and can only serve 2 terms maximum, with 4 years per term.
The judicial branch consists of courts, the most powerful of which is the Supreme Court. There are nine Supreme Court Justices, who hear cases on crucial policy issues. They are appointed by the President, confirmed by vote by the Senate, and serve typically for life.
Each state also has their own systems of running elections. In presidential elections, each person votes not for who they want their President and Vice-President to be, but for their electors in the Electoral College: a group of people who casts ballots for the President and Vice-President, based on how their state has voted.
This is how CNN explains the Electoral College: “[The electorate] are technically voting for 538 electors who, according to the system laid out by the Constitution, meet in their respective states and vote for President and Vice President. These people, the electors, comprise the Electoral College.” Basically, this means the people vote for who they want their electors to vote for President and Vice-President. Each state has a certain amount of electors based on population, which is why California (the most populous state) has 55 electoral votes and Alaska only has 3 (the minimum), for example.
There are many other elements of the American political system, but these are the basics. This system has stayed virtually unchanged for 200 years, and over that time, many cracks have shown in the strength of their democracy. The polarization of American politics hasn’t helped, with one’s political party often becoming ingrained in one’s identity.
In 2016, real-estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump shocked the world when he beat former First Lady and Obama’s Secretary of State (the equivalent of the Foriegn Minister here in Canada) Hillary Clinton for the White House. The next four years were undeniably a whirlwind of scandal after scandal. Regularly taking to Twitter to express his opinions (and quite often to spread misinformation), President Trump made sure he was on the news every day for something he had said or done. He has arguably caused more chaos than keeping the promises he made to be elected; for example, he failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) which provides millions of Americans health insurance and has not fully followed through with his administration’s promise to build a wall on the US/Mexico border. Some of his policies he has put in place include banning transgender people from joining the military, starting a trade war with China, rolling back workers protection and environmental protection acts, and pulling many of the US troops out of Afghanistan. President Trump has also been criticized for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the US having the highest case and death count in the world.
More recently, Mr. Trump has been criticized for refusing to concede the presidential election for weeks after it was called. In the first few weeks, he blocked the presidential transition team, whose job it is to make sure the transition from president to president is as smooth as possible. Even from election night itself, Mr. Trump’s team of lawyers started legal battles to “disqualify votes on technicalities and baseless charges of fraud” (The New York Times). Most of these arguments have been thrown out by state courts. The fact that an unprecedented amount of people voted by mail caused conspiracy theories about wide-spread election fraud to flourish, not helped by the fact that President Trump spread or even started them before, during, and after the election. It is important to note that these conspiracy theories are false and are not backed by facts.
Meanwhile, it was obvious the Democrats were and are celebrating a difficult victory. The Biden/Harris ticket won many states the Democrats had lost in 2016 (such as Michigan and Wisconsin) and won others Democrats hadn’t won in years (such as Georgia and Arizona). The margin in some states was incredibly slim, like in Georgia where the former VP Biden and Senator Harris won by 0.2 of a percentage point, or about 13,000 votes. President-Elect Biden and Vice-President-Elect Harris won 51.1% of the popular vote (80,117,578) while President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence won 47.2% (73,923,495) (the Associated Press).
The Democrats have unsurprisingly won the House of Representatives, but it seems likely Republicans will win the Senate, depending on the outcome of two Georgia Senate run-off elections in January. This could make the next four years very difficult for the Democrats to achieve anything policy-wise.
President-Elect Biden and Vice-President-Elect Harris won 306 Electoral College votes to President Trump and Vice-President Pence’s 232, with the amount needed to be elected being 270 votes. Predictably, many late night TV hosts and comedians pounced on the fact that that is the same margin that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by, which Trump had called a “landslide” at the time.
But what does this election have to do with Canada?
It should come to no surprise that Canada is incredibly close to the US. Our two countries share the longest border in the world, and it could be said the best relationship between two countries in the world. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joked in his speech at a state dinner at the White House in early 2016, “We’re actually closer than friends. We’re more like siblings, really. We have the same parentage, though we took different paths in our later years. We [Canada] became the stay-at-home type. You [the US] grew to become a little more rebellious.” (BBC News)
Though Trudeau said this all in jest, there is a lot of truth to it. Many issues that have originated in the US, such as the extremely relevant Black Lives Matter movement and the baseless conspiracy group QAnon, have become prevalent in Canada (the former for the better and the latter for the worse), along with many more.
Then there are policies. Here are three examples:
Under President Trump, tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum were introduced. (A tariff is a tax on something that is imported or exported.) They were called off in September of this year, but many analysts were worried that after the election, President Trump would reimpose them. Whether or not he will do so in the time between now and the January 20th inauguration remains to be seen.
There is also the extremely complicated issue of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels (Michael Spavor and Micheal Kovrig). The US’ actions on this issue will have significant ramifications on US-China relations.
Then there’s climate change. The US is one of the biggest polluters in the world. President Trump has denied the existence of climate change, and has rolled back climate-friendly policies and left the Paris Climate Agreement. The President-Elect has promised to return the US to the Paris Agreement and to bring back and put in place firmer policies against climate change.
There are many other ways a Biden/Harris administration would affect Canada. This article by the CBC lists 5 other ways— immigration, defence, trade, China, and energy.
All in all, the US is currently an incredibly complicated and fragile country, and though I only scratched the surface in this article, I hope I gave you a deeper understanding of what has happened, what is happening, and what might happen.