US Elections Untangled – EP 2: The determining factors with Charly Salonius-Pasternak

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Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.

The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.

Episode 2 – The determining factors with Senior Research Fellow Charly Salonius-Pasternak

What will determine whom the Americans vote for in November? In 2016 President Trump was able to appeal to many Americans’ identities. Joe Biden might have a harder time using that strategy this year.

Joe Biden’s pitch to voters is: “Do we want to have another four years of Trump? If you’re answering in any way ‘no’, then you must vote for me even if you do not like me, even if you disagree with me,” says senior research fellow Charly Salonius-Pasternak from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“And that is a hard pitch to make, to get people really fired up to go to vote.”

You can also listen to the series on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Listen to the previous episodes here.

Read more about the US elections:

Covid-19 pandemic threatens US elections: The pandemic adds significantly to the risk of a contested result and a constitutional crisis, FIIA Briefing Paper 285


Read the text version of the episode

Intro starts.

The host Maria Annala: Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Audio recording of Donald Trump: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America first, America first.

Audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often led to America alone.

Maria Annala: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series.

Intro ends.

In today’s episode we’ll be discussing what will most likely determine who the Americans vote for in November. Will it be the same old factors or might there be surprises this time around? Our guest today is Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Senior Research Fellow from The Finnish Institute of international affairs.

Annala: Hi Charly, thanks for being here.

Salonius-Pasternak: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Annala: From your perspective, what is at stake in the 2020 elections?

Salonius-Pasternak: Well, from international relations research your perspective probably which direction US global leadership will take. I think it matters greatly whether or not Donald Trump gets a second term or Joe Biden is elected president and most likely would then return the US more towards the role that it has held for much of the post-world War two era even to the Cold War. Then maybe more personally I think it matters a great deal. It’s maybe a little dramatic to say the soul of America is at stake, but to some degree it is in a way.

There have been many revolutions. The country was born out of Revolution but I think what we’re seeing now, the societal changes, which Trump is rather effectively trying to use and manipulate, aren’t taking the country in a good direction. I think you see this in polls also when people are asked “Is the country heading to a good direction?” A lot of people clearly do not think so. They do not think so not because of one specific issue, but more broadly a sense of something is more deeply wrong in society or life in a way. So I think without sounding too dramatic I think a lot is at stake now.

Annala: I agree. It feels like every election is getting more and more dramatic. This feeling of very strong polarization and this feeling of there being a fight for the soul and heart of America seems to be getting more and more intense.

Salonius-Pasternak: Who gets to define what it is to be American or an American and who gets to come into America? These very fundamental questions of “Is it okay for an American to kneel if you’re a football player or is it not?” and “Can you wrap yourself in the American flag or can you burn it?” may seem like silly symbolic questions, but they are actually very much about who gets to decide and define what it is to be an American in America.

Annala: Those are very very profound questions indeed. Now it’s just the question of who wins the election, I guess. That will be the determining factor. Some people claim that the American elections are all about the economy. How important do you think the economy will be in this particular election?

Salonius-Pasternak: Interesting question. On the one hand yes it is central. Everyone knows the “it’s the economy, stupid” quote. Certainly that is important. In poll after poll, before elections and after elections, economy, and more specifically of course a sense of personal economy, jobs and so on, is important. It was probably going to be an even bigger theme at least for Donald Trump. What we saw in his kind of first version of what his campaign was going to be about this great roaring American economy that he had produced. Of course the facts of the matter are slightly different but that was none the less going to be what he was going to get himself row re-elected on was look at the Economy, you’re all doing much better under my term. Now quite clearly Trump’s campaign at least have shifted to law and order. Quite predictably and of course then again taking a page from campaigns we’ve seen decades ago, but I do think economy will be important and it’s also a weak spot in fact for Trump now that we’ve looked at their state of the US economy in the last months. Not because of anything that Trump specifically has done in a way, it was of course COVID-19 and everything related to it which caused the unemployment drops in and so on, but since Trump’s argument was “look I’ve created this great economy, re-elect me because you’re doing so well”. Now that the economy isn’t doing well and so many more people are unemployed, It will be interesting to see how he twists this and how he attempts to make it other people’s fault, but yes, the economy will be central.

Annala: Even though the economy was doing well before COVID-19 happened, people weren’t benefitting from that equally, isn’t that right? There was a lot of inequality.

Salonius-Pasternak: Absolutely not. If you look at any graph, any measurement of economic equality or inequality, the inequality has grown in the United States since the 60s 70s onwards. Just looking at for instance, income salary of workers in many cases has effectively being flat. Yes they’ve been able to buy a nicer bigger better TV, but their income has remained fairly static compared to especially the top earners, the CEOs, as it were, of America. They see their income in total increase up to 200%-400% over this time, so quite clearly the distribution of income is unequal. But also the cost of education or healthcare, two things where if you’re middle class person and effectively your income has not increased, how much money you have to put into insurance and education if you have children is mind-boggling.

Annala: it seems to me that when Trump has been dealing with the pandemic he’s mostly being focused on the economy and probably on his re-election chances and that hasn’t necessarily made him always make the right calls. In this particular situation the cost of trying to get the economy growing again can be really high, we’re talking about human lives. Do you think this will end up hurting him in the in the general election or maybe benefiting him if he can get the economy to be on the rise again before November?

Salonius-Pasternak: I think that has to be his strategy. To say “look the economy, these historic unemployment figures and especially the quick drop compared even to the great Great Recession happened because of others”. They happen because of the Chinese and the incompetent democratic governors and basically everyone else except him. It was only because of his leadership that the economy is now coming back. He has to kind of recalibrate and say the economy was great, then an external set of circumstances caused it to go down and you to suffer. Now you need me again to bring it up. I’ve done the trick once, I’m going to do it again, which is fairly effective argument. Whether or not it’s true again is completely separate but it is a fairly effective argument for his supporters. Now if you take your average democratic or democratic-leaning voter, of course they’re not going to buy this. They’re going to say look you were too slow you you endangered lives and clearly are unfit to be president. This has just strengthened that line of argument that Trump is simply unfit to be president. Now in terms of the economy, one thing is of course the numbers we have looked at. Unemployment being 15% maybe even 20% in April and then improving. The other one is consumer confidence and a sense of future and there you do see a rebound something called the Bloomberg Consumer comfort index. In the early mid March it was about 60 in with down to about 35 in April and now it’s back about 40 so you do see a rebound already. How that changes if there’s the famous potential second-wave, we don’t know but you clearly see a rebound and that is more likely what’s more important for your average voter in terms of the economy. What is my sense of the future less than what happened in the recent past or what is my economic situation right now and is the person I’m voting for going to bring to reality this positive hope I have.

Annala: You mentioned law & order. Different people have such different ideas of what law & order might mean. I’m sure that for some voters it’s about the second amendment and about the right to bear arms, which of they support and Trump has promised to support. And then for other people that is not at all the definition of law & order. I guess that applies to pretty much anything in the US right now. People have these very profound identity is on these very profound and understandings of what things mean. What it means to be a family what, it means to be religious, what it means to be a nation of immigrants and pretty much anything can be spun one way or the other depending on the ideological perspective of the speaker.

Salonius-Pasternak: I agree. It’s also quite interesting to see some rapid shifts in, I’ll call identity, the things that are important and what opinion one should be if you were to be a successful politician for instance. You mentioned gun rights, same-sex marriage, in fact if you look at how many for instance democrats identify themselves as Christian there there’s been a huge shift just since Barack Obama was first elected in 2008. So in terms of societal cultural identity changes we’re seeing quite a lot of shifts and these impact of course then voting behavior. If you look at Oregon where white evangelicals identify as republican 80% of the time and then you look at Hispanic Catholics and 70% democrat. Black women are 90% democrat, so how you identify yourself, what things you believe in very strongly draws you into one camp or another and that very clearly almost defines who you’re going to vote for.

Annala: Yes. I think for a lot of people their mind was made up before they even knew who are the candidates were because they’re going to vote based on their ideology and this very deep-rooted identification with standing with one party and opposing the other. Trump was successful in 2016 because he was able to play into a lot of these identities. He was able to appeal to a lot of people perhaps even on a subconscious level. Racism for example is something that I don’t think many Americans would advertise themselves as “That’s part of my identity, I’m a racist”, but there’s a lot of this subconscious racism that Trump was able to tap into and appeal to. Now that the black lives matter protests are raging it’s possible that some people are again drawn to Trump because they feel that his law & order message is actually kind of a racist message that they welcome, this message that I’m going to keep white people safe from these scary black people. People wouldn’t phrase it like this but this I fear is the subconscious thinking a lot of people who are drawn to Trump have.

Salonius-Pastenak: And a sense of someone is behaving in a politically incorrect way. Someone is speaking truth to power – of course it rather ironic that Trump is probably the most powerful person in the planet in terms of the powers of the US Presidency, so how much he speaking truth to power is amusing – but there is this absolutely perception, and said he quite well used and always brought things out to a kind of crystallized extreme. Hillary Clinton was going to take away everybody’s guns, when as far as I know no democrat has actually said “We’re you going to take guns away.” Are we going to seek legislation that would limit or restrict it, yes. Taking away guns, no. Donald Trump knew that that was a simple message, which was going to drive people to be angry and vote and he made it very clear instead of discussing should we allow high-capacity magazines. It was about guns away if you vote for Hillary Clinton or keep your guns if you vote for me, which is of course not a way to have a policy discussion. It is about identity rather than the policy matters because if you look at in fact numbers, there are strong majorities in the US for more stringent gun control if we just take this one particular issue. Even among Republicans a little more than half or half support banning assault weapons. 80% support having background checks in private gun shows. That’s republicans, so there is clearly great support for these small policy changes Donald Trump doesn’t care about that at all. It is again about keep your guns or someone’s going to take them away. He uses the same language in many other cases whether it’s migration, same-sex marriage or judges. Either you get real good judges or then you get these evil liberal non-constitutional nearly socialist communist judges. In terms on campaigning it’s clever in fact because he recognizes the most Americans don’t generally want to go into the nit picky details. They want someone who represents more of their identity or they think represents that.

Annala: And that’s interesting also from the perspective of the Biden campaign. He is much more a details policy-oriented person than Trump is and he’s made a very long career in politics, where he’s actually had to deal with the weeds so to speak, the nitty-gritty. Now he is running against Trump and I feel that for him the identity part of the campaign is “I’m not Trump.”

Salonius-Pasternak: It is exactly. Because he is already known he doesn’t have to introduce himself. There’s a challenge for that which I can get to, but yes it is about do we want to have another 4 years of Trump and if you’re answering anyways no then you must vote for me even if you do not like me even if you disagree with me. The challenge Biden does have is he’s been in politics for so long that he has taken positions that are nowadays anathema to being a democratic politician. It made sense then and Trump campaign has has obviously pounced on this regarding policing for instance. What was done in the 90s seemed reasonable now it may not be, but Trump doesn’t have any of this baggage. Joe Biden does and one place where I think you can see this clearly is same-sex marriage where only say 15 years ago about half or a little less than half of democratic voters favored same-sex marriage nowadays its about 75% or three quarters. If you were a democratic politician who’s been around for decades like Joe Biden, you quite reasonably from a political point of view would probably have said no I think marriage between a man and a woman in the 90s, early 2000. Now it would be nearly impossible to be a fresh young democratic politician, with the exception of a few states, and say you do not believe in same-sex marriage. There is this challenge of the society changing around these politicians and it’s a question can you explain how and why you changed. Sometimes you could say, if it’s a strong identity thing, “No, I still think people should be allowed to have their guns, it’s in our constitution, but I have changed my mind regarding same-sex marriage,” for instance, “and I changed it because of these things.” It is a challenge that Donald Trump does not have, partially because he doesn’t care. He can deny he said something that is on tape so to speak two hours ago and not care about the discrepancy. Joe Biden actually does care about the truth in that sense and he has this historic baggage to explain things were society around him has changed and what is acceptable to be a Democratic candidate but despite all of that, it is as you suggested, it is about do you want Trump or not and if you do not accept all of Joe Bidens baggage his gaffs and so on, you will get Trump.

Annala: That is true – and also accept the fact that he is an old white man. When we’re talking about identities, that is not actually an upside for a democratic candidate at the moment. I think many people in the base would prefer someone younger and possibly a woman, but that is his pitch so to speak: “I am not Trump, so regardless of if you like me or what I represent, I represent the lesser evil.”

Salonius-Pasternak: Yes, effectively that is what it is. Of course that is a hard pitch to make to get people really fired up to go vote. While there are few different camps on this I’m of the opinion that there actually very few undecided independence in the United States at this moment. It is more about ensuring that every single person who has ever thought a democratic thought is going to go out and vote whether or not they voted last selection or have always voted. It would have been easier even to see another older white male Bernie Sanders getting people fired up, than Joe Biden. So in an election where it is about getting out the vote and getting people fired up to do a lot of work, which ultimately will boil down to most likely just a handful of states and parts in states. Then to say, “well why am I doing this?” Because I don’t like the other guy. It might work, but of course it would be easier if you could at the same time say I despise Trump and I really love my candidate. I think as the democratic establishment and what Trump would call the extreme do-nothing left have had to accept that now it is a matter of trying to get Trump out of the White House and let’s see how we can get people excited. Will it help if Biden chooses a VP candidate, who reflects the party more than he does.

Annala: You mentioned expertise earlier and one thing that I feel it might be a factor in this election, even though it hasn’t been in the past elections, is this attitude these candidates have towards experts and expertise and science. It’s not usually something voters care about but right now with the COVID-19 pandemic and with Trump’s very unusual exceptional attitude to any kind of expertise that has been brought to the fore in a way it hasn’t been in the past.

Salonius-Pasternak: Right. Trump represents non-expertise. He’s also by now probably the world’s most famous example of the Dunning-Kruger effect and yet he now finds himself and the United States in a situation where expertise and particularly medical expertise is the one thing that can help. We’ve seen the struggles Trump has with this. Somewhere he clearly recognizes that you would rather have a good doctor than someone who has no idea what they’re doing if they are a surgeon. But then when it has to do with a pandemic where there aren’t clear answers and the data changes, it’s something we’ve seen in Europe also. The best effort guesses made by experts in March or February were in some cases wrong or proved wrong by April, May or June, which contributes to this sense of look the experts told us this in February or March and and they were wrong, so therefore experts must be wrong or untrustworthy, is one string. If you look at how Americans view medical expertise, PEW research asked about this. They said confidence in scientists to act in the best interest of public, they also have a separate question about medical scientists or doctors but the numbers are very close to each other. 87% have a confidence or high confidence that scientist act in the best interest of the public. This has actually increased by about 12% or 13% since Trump was elected. Now not surprisingly there is a fairly large gap between Democrats and Republicans, it’s about 20 percentage points, but it still means that a majority of Republicans or Republican leaning voters actually have a high confidence in scientists. A majority, 60% or so of Americans, think that these very scientists should participate in public policy debates and policy should be informed by this expertise. So it is fascinating watching Donald Trump speak and this general sense you were describing, kind of the death of expertise and yet you see an increase at least in some parts of this. I don’t know enough about the background of is it the hard sciences, doctors or scientists who send rockets to space, where people recognize that yes should probably be able to do good math to get the rocket to actually go where you want it to. Contra then social scientists who talked about maybe questions of biology and how much biology versus society impact gender identity and so on. There might be a difference in those too, but PEW at least hasn’t asked questions about kind of differentiating what kind of experts are scientists are talking about.

Annala: I think that here again we’re seeing this kind of polarization. it’s not exactly the same polarization where the Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and Liberals are becoming more polarized. It’s more about how these people who are anti-science, they’re becoming more vocal and more self-confident. It’s got something to do with the internet and how people feel that they have access to all the information, the same information as the experts. We’re seeing parents who think that they know more than their child’s doctor about if their child should be vaccinated or they know more than the child’s teacher about watch the child should be taught in school. They do all this with a lot of self-confidence, even arrogance. I think that’s something that contributes to this sense we have of the death of expertise. Even though at the same time as you say most people, most Americans, still value expertise.

Salonius-Pasternak: It is a balance and I agree with this. That probably the super easy access to medical research and the ability to quickly just find some piece of research where the research question might have been very narrow about some vaccine and then there’s an abstract and then a person who has not been trained to read those papers and studies to understand what is actually saying takes a sentence from that abstract and all of a sudden says “This proves vaccines are horrible for children.” Then they link to this piece of research and we know from other research that a fair number of people even somewhere like Twitter will retweet something without actually reading what’s behind the link. Never mind having the ability to fully comprehend the implications of what’s behind the link and the research. Anti-vaxxers are great example of this. It’s not just less educated cohorts that believe they know the best. Here I have to say this is an interesting again confluence of things, because of course some social science is saying parents actually do know their children very well and there are cases where a parent could say I know my child learns better in quiet non-classroom environments or so.

The sense that parents should have a different agency, than maybe they had before vis-a-vis teachers, has been kind of hijacked. That therefore parents know also the best about science and how one should teach anything. Again, this confluence of “I know a little bit, I can do a little googling and now I’m the expert, what do I need these other people for” and “I definitely don’t need journalists, because they just mix things up here in the middle. I can go to the source even if I don’t actually understand what the source is genuinely saying”

Annala: It’s going to be interesting to see how all of this plays out in this election because Trump is clearly the anti-science, gut feeling, intuition kind of candidate, who likes to tout that he follows his instincts and not his experts. On the other hand we have Joe Biden who represents a more common and typical politician’s attitude towards experts and expertise where he actually values experts. Let’s say on foreign policy for example. I’m sure that he would listen to the different experts who have a lot to say about Iran or North Korea or China and he would value what they can bring to the table. This deeper understanding of a certain region, that he should take into account when making decisions about how to proceed with these countries, whereas Trump, we keep hearing about how he dismisses briefings, that he’s not really listening to people who work for him who are trying to brief him on these kinds of topics. And I think previously, in previous elections, Americans haven’t really considered this to be a factor at all but now with Trump it’s just becoming this very salient question that is on top of everyone’s minds. It’s going to be interesting to see if science wins or if the end anti expert attitude has more appeal to the American people.

Salonius-Pasternak: It will be interesting and of course it has been kind of crystallized in the last decade or so. Through most of American history there is this love for usually the good guy sheriff, who works on his gut and kind of wheels and deals and you see this in how frequently climate change should be addressed to technology. The sense of if there’s a big challenge, thinking it through and planning, a science is actually needed. When you need to connect the East and the West Coast you have this Railway built, you want to get to the moon you of course trust scientist to do the calculations and so on. There is this balance and not to be too dramatic about it, but in a sense it is these two parts of America that are now balancing. There’s the extreme side of go with your gut that Trump represents and then there’s the Biden aspect, which certainly has the sense that is far more grounded in the idea that there are people who have deep knowledge about something and they should be Listened to. Ultimately that is how iPhones are developed, how the internet is developed, all of this stuff requires science and knowledge and expertise. It doesn’t just appear. Certainly it isn’t produced just my gut feelings.

Annala: Most definitely not. I think we are about to run out of time. If you could wrap things up and describe us one nightmare scenario and one really good scenario about how this selection might turn out.

Salonius-Pasternak: Nightmare scenario, it would be easy to say maybe that having Donald Trump re-elected would would be that in some ways. As a researcher, I’d be more worried about the nightmare scenario where the outcome of the election is not just unknown for a while, we’ve seen that in 2000, but it is so deeply contested that you would actually see not just online but physical violence in state capitals or something like that. That I think is a nightmare scenario because it goes into the heart of what it is to be a democracy. Quite frequently you’ve seen in the news “Oh well, this is a young democracy.” In the US they’re often describing Central or Eastern Europe or Africa or somewhere far away, that they haven’t quite learned this. But if you see one of the oldest democracies in the world, one that many aspire to, returning to not just a contested election but one which would have violence built into it. That I think would be far more damaging in fact in some ways to the idea of US democracy than if Trump were to win.

Now something positive, I think again from a societal perspective. A repudiation of trump. We’re unlikely to see one but if there were a landslide victory by Joe Biden, where quite clearly a majority of Americans would say yes, many of us did want to see an outsider someone who would come drain the swamp, try all of this. We’ve now seen the results of it and we do not want to continue down that path. So that’s maybe why I see this as positive, not just because Joe Biden would win, but it might have this broader sense of hey collectively this is what democracy is about. We wanted to try something different we saw it didn’t really work and now we peacefully shifted to another direction again because that’s more fundamental than ultimately who the individual is who wins.

Annala: Agreed. Thank you so much Charly.

Salonius-Pasternak: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.


Thank you for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll take a look at the different ways foreign countries can try to sabotage a democratic society and talk about the risks of outside interference in the American elections this year. Our guest will be Global Security Program director Mikael Wigell from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.