America changes course, while remaining very much the same

America changes course, while remaining very much the same

A familiar election story unfolds

Liu xiaobo, China’s heroic anti-Communist dissident, was a great admirer of American democracy. “What interests me most”, he once wrote, “is the obvious evidence of how the American democratic system can correct itself…especially in moments of great crisis.” Shortly after he made that observation, Liu was imprisoned for the rest of his life. Yet the point stands. Viewed from sufficient distance, American voters seem to have again acted decisively in a moment of crisis and removed an incumbent president, something that has happened only once in the past 40 years.

Viewed from up close, the conclusions to draw from the results of the elections on November 3rd are less sweeping. Opinion polls, which showed Joe Biden with a vast lead going into election day, conditioned Democratic hopes and Republican fears for what would happen. Those polls turned out to be off—maybe even more so than they were in 2016.

The result is tight enough that even though Mr Biden seems likely to win enough electoral-college votes to make him the next president, there will be legal challenges, and the cathartic moment when one candidate wins and the other concedes still looks far off. If this is a repudiation of the president, the mechanics of the electoral college meant it is a marginal, equivocal one, which shows the grip of partisanship on the country.