The election and swearing in of a president is now more than just another four-yearly American ritual. As Joe Biden is sworn in tomorrow, it will be seen as a test of the strength and durability of a system which leads the “free world” of liberal democracies.
I have spent much less time in the States than in western Europe, Africa or India. But I recognise that our defence, our economy, the technology we use – plus our political and cultural fashions and tastes – are massively influenced by the US, mostly for the better.
However, I am struck by the smugness British commentary on the crisis in American democracy, reflecting on the presidency of Donald Trump and its ugly, dangerous end.
After all, nobody in Britain would ever dream of suggesting that an election has been “stolen”, would they? Except that many sensible, reasonable people, whose prejudices I generally share, thought that the Brexit referendum was also fraudulently won – stolen by a mixture of lies and Russian hackers.
And imagine the stink if Jeremy Corbyn had won the 2017 or 2019 elections? We would never have heard the end of attempts to disqualify the result with allegations of “postal voter fraud”, “unfair” constituency boundaries, threats to the monarchy or any manner of other things. And those who imagine that Britain is coup-proof forget the attempt by powerful – but thankfully incompetent – establishment figures to oust Harold Wilson who they imagined could be a Soviet agent.
I wish the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris team well and really hope they succeed in implementing their modest programme of reform, and in making American politics less polarised and more rational. But there are some booby traps ahead which may be more visible from a trans-Atlantic distance.
The first is impeachment. I can understand the argument that Trump "must be held to account" for the Capitol invasion. But any credible prosecution can only come from politically independent law enforcers, not from those who have a transparent political agenda of disqualifying Trump and dividing the Republican Party down the middle.
There is a real risk that Trump is able to build a narrative around becoming a persecuted victim, silenced by the establishment. At the moment when he is least popular among the public, he will be able to claim he was kept out of office by "rigged" processes rather than by his own electoral shortcomings. Impeachment could then become the default party political weapon of choice in future with majorities of one political party forever censuring presidents of the other even where there is no hope of conviction.
Another trap is "identity politics". I get a sense that most of those millions who think the election was "stolen" don’t really believe that there are people stuffing ballot boxes or fiddling with voting machines. What they may think, but don’t say, is that the election was "stolen" because large numbers of black voters managed to cast their ballot despite all the obstacles thrown in their way.
Race is at the heart of it. It is a problem not uniquely American, but certainly a large enough one, given the history of slavery and discrimination. Biden’s immensely tricky problem is to confront the racists who think that black lives don’t matter while still establishing a connection with those poorer white voters who just think that Democrats don’t care about them.
Progressive parties, notably the Democrats, have got into identity politics to compensate for crumbling class-based identities and for the honourable reason of fighting historic injustices. But the risk is that the many also finds a common identity, railing against that idea and its political cheerleaders. The world’s other great democracy, India, now finds itself dominated by a party with a majoritarian (in their case, religious) popular identity. Trump has come close to doing the same. Identity politics is dangerous.
A third booby-trap is the seductive appeal of "radical" policy. I see that Biden is already being denounced by his more zealous supporters for adapting his appointments, his stimulus package and legislative priorities to the inconvenient fact of a wafer-thin Congressional majority and the need for compromise.
It may seem bizarre to us that Biden’s barely socially democratic agenda and the seemingly innocuous Green New Deal are being portrayed by Republicans, with some effectiveness, as "extreme left socialism". But Biden's caution is an understandable response.
Biden will also know that the most successful post-war Democratic Party president, in policy terms at least, was Lyndon B Johnson who delivered more by cynical wheeler-dealing than by grandstanding on his own side. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the institution of Medicare and Medicaid are among his achievements. If Biden accomplishes half as much he will be a hero.
The final traps are abroad. If Biden runs into impassable obstacles at home, he will be tempted to become a "foreign policy president". His "big idea" is to form a popular front of democracies to stand in opposition to the uncompromising but competent and prospering autocracy of China and the corrupt pseudo-democracy of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In doing so, providing a beacon of light and hope to beleaguered democracy campaigners in Belarus, Uganda, Russia and Hong Kong.
The membership rules for the "Democracy Club" are unclear. Even if we refrain from pointing out the limitations of American democracy, there are so many flawed democracies and partial democracies that it is difficult to see who should be in and out of the club once we get past Germany, other (mainly Western) European nations, Canada, Japan and Australasia plus a few serious converts like South Korea, Tunisia, Chile and Ghana. Is India still in, despite what I would see as an anti-Muslim government? Does Nigeria make the cut, despite shooting protesting students? What about populist governments in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina?
It will be uncomfortable for the new president but, if democracy is the test, he would presumably support semi-democratic Iran against the autocratic Saudi Arabia. Conversely, to that end, Biden might have to abandon nations with whom the US has had good relations with until now. Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Vietnam and Thailand are just a few that come to mind.
Biden is onto something in recognising a faultline in the new world order and to want to promote the values of liberal democracy. But to be the leader of the world’s liberal democracies, the USA has – first and foremost – to demonstrate for itself that the concept is alive and well at home. That means not just Biden assuming office – as is his right – but widespread acceptance of his legitimacy. To achieve that he will need to offer a listening ear to his opponents: magnanimity in victory.
Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought about western civilisation and after reflection offered the view that it was a good idea. American democratic capitalism with its constitutional checks and balances and its freedoms is undoubtedly a very good idea. Biden’s awesome task is to show that it still works.
Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015