This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s 24/7 coverage of the US election results as they come in, with brief dispatches from correspondents and analysts from around the world. The America Votes page is free to all readers.
“Life’s a cabaret, old buddy,” sang Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret. Indeed, so many Americans and others have treated their democracies in recent years: US President Donald Trump and many others, for all ideological reasons, have treated it as a show. But under Trump, this approach led the United States to a cliff over which real authoritarianism and chaos beckoned. Now Democratic candidate Joe Biden has been elected president, and the United States appears to have stepped back from that fringe for the time being. But the choice should be a wake-up call – and not just in the United States.
Across Europe, the reaction to Biden’s victory was instant and ecstatic, with screams “May America never again have a child ruling the White House” and a feeling that a nightmare is over. The vast majority of Europeans and many others had cheered Biden – not because they particularly supported his policies, but because, like many Americans, they were afraid of America’s course under Trump.
Yet, while deciphering Trump’s vulgarity during his presidency, many of the same people engaged in precisely this behavior: mud fights, ad hominem attacks, attribution. People of all political beliefs did it. Highly educated people who consider themselves experts have done it. Some Americans – on both sides – carried out violent attacks when they could have peacefully protested. After all, life was a cabaret until Election Day, when many people realized how close the United States was on the verge of chaos. This democracy does not survive by itself: people have to take care of it.
In the 1930s, at the same time as the fictional Sally Bowles was singing her songs in Berlin, the real Austrian writer Stefan Zweig watched the events that cabaret represents: the imperceptible descent of their country into the abyss, with the people making their well-functioning ones Society took for granted it slipped away. And because they did not see it slip away, they wrote, they did not act. The veneer between a functioning democracy and the decline in Hobbesian is very thin indeed.
With the choice of Biden this veneer is available again. European leaders have a long wish list that includes a US return to the Paris Agreement (Biden has promised this will happen on the day of inauguration), a commitment to European security and simply a negotiator who acts like a Adult behaves. But there is no reason for Europeans to be complacent. A trump card could also appear there.
Although Biden said he would like the United States to heal, he cannot do it alone. Division and, worse, suspicion of the other side are common – perhaps unsurprisingly after so many hours denouncing each other. During this election campaign, the two candidates for governor of Utah filmed a video together pleading courtesy, but rare voices that build bridges.
Ultimately, it is not just the act of voting and the relatively smooth counting of votes that make a democracy. It is also a peaceful protest when votes are really stolen, as in Belarus, where protesters march for fair elections week after week. It’s about engaging with the other side on Twitter rather than responding with degrading gifs. It is hard work learning the ABCs of elections, like the East Germans did before their first free elections in 1990. Indeed, perhaps it is time for Americans and the rest of the world to relearn what popular rule really means. Democracy isn’t just a cabaret, old buddy.