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Nation-Building at Home: How Far Can Biden Go?

Discussion between Thomas L. Friedman and Soli Özel

INTERVIEW - 3 February 2021

On Tuesday, January 12, Institut Montaigne hosted a webinar in which our Senior Fellow and expert of American politics, Soli Özel, spoke with The New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman, recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes, and author of seven best-selling books. The following article is a transcript of Soli Ozel’s questions to Thomas L. Friedman. They discussed prospects for the Democratic and Republican parties in light of the storming of Capitol Hill and Joe Biden’s imminent inauguration.

It is a tremendous opportunity to welcome you, Tom Friedman, just a week after the incidents which occurred in Washington. My first question will be: how can we explain that American democracy, a symbol of democracy for decades throughout the world, is so profoundly weakened?

We have been abusing this country for a long time. As a New York Times Wednesday columnist, for the last 40 years, I get to write the first column following every election. My 2016 Trump election column started with a quote from a dear friend of mine, Leslie, an immigrant: "You Americans kick around your country like it’s a football but it is not a football, it is a Fabergé egg. A Fabergé egg could break and fall". Following last week's event, we can now say: we almost broke it.

What happened at the Capitol last week is the result of multiple factors, and can first be traced back to a real diminishment of the American middle class. The American Dream is not the reality it was 30 years ago, when low-wage jobs Americans had higher living standards. This country today is not divided between the 1% and the rest, but between the 40%, who are doing well, and the 60% who are struggling.

What happened at the Capitol last week is the result of multiple factors, and can first be traced back to a real diminishment of the American middle class.

The United-States is also witnessing a gigantic socio-cultural transition of its demographic composition: 2020 is the first year where we witnessed more Afro-American, Asian-American and Latino children starting school than white children, suggesting the progressive evolution towards a majority minority country. We cannot marginalize those populations. In addition, these events would not have been possible without the booming rise and power of social media, whose business models are built upon division. 

Finally, the American political landscape is suffering from the decomposition of political parties. There is a tiny liberal Republican group and tiny conservative Democratic group, and they’re both getting smaller. All those factors, as well as Donald Trump’s immoral character have pushed the system beyond its own limits. 

This event also put forth the failure of the economic and media elites, why couldn’t the system respond to this gradual decay?

The only reason why the wealthy and powerful were not able to prevent this tragedy is because the system got paralyzed. Since Obama’s midterm, nothing has been done in America. We cannot point to a single new bridge under Trump’s administration, apart from a dividing wall. 

In the light of last week's incident, American democracy has been deemed more weakened than ever. Was that a lasting display of fragility or is a bounce back still possible? 

I am pessimistic in the short term, optimistic in the long term: the only thing we can be sure of is that Donald Trump is going to blow up the Republican Party. The Republicans fall under 4 categories today: 

  • Principled Republicans, who have acknowledged Biden’s victory since the start, such as Mitt Romney. 
     
  • Pragmatic Republicans, who would not recognize Biden’s victory at first, but then switched sides when the electoral college voted - such as McConnell.
     
  • Unprincipled Republicans, such as Ted Cruz, who know better. They understand what’s going on and know that Biden won, but they want Trumpism without Trump. These are power-hungry and cynical characters wishing to inherit Trump’s base. 
     
  • Trump-cult Republicans are the individuals that really believe that this election was stolen, they bought the "Big lie" and stormed the Capitol. We witnessed the most democratic election in the history of the Milky Way: more Americans voted in this election than at any time in the history of America. This was a gigantic testimony to Democracy. Yet, Trump repeated over and over again that it was a fraud, and about 25% of the American people believed it. 

I do not believe that they can go on co-existing, and I believe that they will splinter in some way, and it will be a blessing. 

The main domestic agenda is bringing prosperity to the middle class, additionally Biden also wants to promote democracy throughout the world - why should we trust him after witnessing the domestic turmoil we all observed? 

The US is clearly not in a position to lecture anybody, the reason we are where we are today is because democracy is built on two structural pillars: Truth and Trust. Why are we in that crisis? For two decades we have been monetizing and normalizing the attacks on those two pillars (like Facebook or Fox News).

That’s why right now, we in the US need to focus on the US. But we know that if we go South, we will all go South. What is happening in the US is dramatic, nonetheless we must not exaggerate: Joe Biden will be sworn in, because Republican officials, judges appointed by Republican Presidents including Trump, and state officials from the Republican party, all made Biden’s election possible. 

Finally, the American political landscape is suffering from the decomposition of political parties.

Technology and the environment will be two main focuses of Biden’s mandate - firstly; is the Green Infrastructure project feasible ? Secondly, how is Biden going to handle the growing influence of GAFAs? We know that Facebook and Twitter recently banned Trump, but they still own too much power and are disrupting the democratic equilibrium. 

The idea that one man controls Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram is a tragedy. We won’t have a healthy democracy for as long as that’s the case for sure. As for the environment, when I coined the term Green New Deal, I advised strong incentivization of the market to produce and promote green-tech. I believe that we will observe government spending and the setting of market goals in that direction. Biden is surrounded by a fantastic environmental team: he appointed a terrific cabinet composed of moderate, diverse men and women. 

What about the events that occurred in Georgia? 

I think what happened in Georgia was dramatically overlooked by the simultaneous putsch in the Capitol. This success is partially linked to a huge African-American turnout, as well as the fact that many suburban Republicans decided to stay home, because they no longer wanted a gridlock. A lot of wisdom can be found in that election. Principled Republicans will still vote for Biden if they agree on his position.

 

Copyright: Salwan Georges / POOL / AFP

 

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