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Living in the U.S. during the 2020 election cycle

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

The rollercoaster of emotions continues with uncertainty about what's in store under Biden

In climate change circles the term “tipping point” is used to indicate a point of no return. Witnessing the progression of the current U.S. electoral cycle feels like we are dangerously encroaching on a democratic tipping point. The polls show President Donald Trump facing an uphill battle if opponent Joe Biden wins the vote in Florida. Unfortunately, the divide between Democrats and Republicans has led the average population and perhaps the international community to believe that U.S. citizens exist in a highly polarized society, devoid of intersectionality. It is either Biden or Trump; Liberal or Conservative; Love or Hate – unrealistic dichotomies. This election cycle has proven that only a wealthy minority have direct access to our system of governance and that for them, empathizing with the needs of the average person is near impossible. But before exploring the implications of a Biden-Kamala victory, let us revisit the past four years of the Trump-Pence administration.

For people living in the U.S. right now the fear of their reproductive rights, right to asylum, right to healthcare, and ultimately, right to live - being threatened makes for an unpredictable future. In my hometown of Boston, teachers recently lost a court case demanding the option for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 to work from home, as the concern mounts over rising cases of infection. In Texas, the State Board of Social Work Examiners is now allowing LGBTQ and disabled clients to be turned away by social workers across the state. Nationwide, The Affordable Care Act, which provides more people in the U.S. with healthcare than ever before stands on fragile ground, especially in a Supreme Court ruled by conservative justices. In education spheres, it is now common to hear teachers and administrators lament, “It’s a lose-lose situation” - when referring to virtual learning; or could it be true for the election as well?

The international community has made minimal comments about human rights being ignored or even blatantly denied in the United States. The U.S. is rarely contested in its position as a global superpower. Moreover, despite many well-known flaws its democracy is somehow seldom questioned in liberal discourse. If Trump is victorious in the 2020 election, it could become impossible to continue ignoring the atrocities happening on North American soil. While the U.S. has never had a perfect human rights record on immigration, Trump has recently put unprecedented limits on asylum that reflect a blatant disregard for human life. The risk of spreading COVID-19 has been used as an excuse to completely halt asylum while some children are being separated from parents who are forever “lost” to the system. One of my Italian professors sarcastically commented that we would never refer to the U.S. as lacking rule of law, however; despite being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the U.S remains to ratify seven international human rights treaties (as of a 2009 Human Rights Watch report). Notwithstanding its relatively short tenure as a nation and the widely televised chaos since the 2016 presidential elections, the U.S. seems to have maintained its reputation as a place where people aspire to live, and governments try to emulate.

The widely televised scenes of police brutality and violence against BIPOC have perhaps been the hallmarks of Trump’s presidency. The phenomenon is reminiscent of what transpired during the civil rights movement with fervent actors standing on either side of the pendulum. This time around, the president has failed to condemn and sometimes encouraged far-right hate groups, which bodes poorly for the normative effect of human rights in the U.S. and on the minds of citizens if re-elected. Trump’s challenge against the universal nature of human rights weakens their normative power and encourages the skewed view that national sovereignty supersedes rule of law.

On the opposite side of the pond, the democratic party wants U.S. citizens to support a Biden-Kamala ticket, but his foreign policy proposal teeters between an aggressive arms control plan that threatens retaliation if deterrence fails and vague promises to “Renew American Leadership To Mobilize Global Action on Global Threats” while simultaneously asserting U.S. global military force and contradicting this assertion with a promise to “elevate diplomacy”. Both candidates ironically make no mention of the growing number of international human rights treaties their nation is yet to ratify, including the most recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Although preferable to a second Trump term, a Biden victory could have a couple of negative implications on global human rights.

Firstly, the U.S. may be even less inclined to sign future agreements or to implement recommendations from existing treaty bodies if it nurtures the idea that other states are predatory, providing an excuse to continue building military power and justifying existing racist and anti-immigrant sentiment among U.S. citizens. Secondly, with the bar for presidential conduct already set so low, a Biden victory could create a false sense of security and normalcy. With the added distraction of the pandemic and its wake of economic turmoil, even avid human rights advocates may have other concerns and not feel the pressure to monitor Biden’s actions as closely as they did Trump’s. Because Biden is a centrist and Kamala is a long-time prosecutor of Black and Brown people, this could mean a total halt in human rights progress, at least within U.S. borders. Additionally, any small sign of “progress” may placate citizens and derail the intense and often painstaking work required to truly advance human rights. Even at best, a Biden presidency could mean a return to mid-2016, which was by no means an idyllic time.

This article assumes that there will be a peaceful transition of power and no change to the existing electoral system before election day. Much focus is placed on contemplating a Biden victory, but we must reformulate the question and ask, “What will happen if President Donald Trump loses the election on November 3rd?” According to commentators, the weaknesses of the American electoral system and constitution leave the United States vulnerable to any number of possible scenarios this year. In a few months you could be reading an article examining how human rights can be preserved under total anarchy.

Written by Nicole Hicks

Edited by Christine Nanteza

Per leggere in italiano, fai clic con il pulsante destro del mouse in un punto qualsiasi di questa schermata e seleziona "Traduci in italiano".


Nicole Hicks is in her 2nd year of the MA in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance at the University of Padua. She has experience working in various positions for NGOs in the USA and Mexico, and is a longtime civil rights advocate. Follow her on Instagram @candyandgreens


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