The most heavily-armed superpower in the world today is now less than three months from a general election that local journalists call one of the most important in the past hundred years. Americans elect their president not just through a popular, democratic vote, but through an indirect system of "electors", who can conceivably hand victory to a candidate who wins fewer actual votes than a competitor.
Sixteen years ago, the country's top court halted a recount amidst a contested election amidst accusations of collusion and corruption. The Republican candidate, who won fewer votes than his opponent, became president. Today, politicians openly seek to disqualify citizens from voting, and volatility in the two major parties has made the country highly combustible. The outcome of this election is uncertain.
The Democratic Party has been in power for the past eight years, the outgoing President taking credit for partly restoring a crumbling economy. While the growth of white nationalism as a backlash to Barack Obama's presidency has generated racial antipathy toward the president, he remains generally popular among the electorate.
The party's candidate, Hillary Clinton, is the wife of a former president, and served for eight years in elected office as the representative of the nation’s financial region, dominated by elite banking interests who live dramatically different lifestyles from the citizens scattered across the nation’s “heartland.” She represents the return to power of the “neo-conservatives”, the jingoistic imperialist faction that favors the violent projection of American power. She also represents continuity with the liberal social and economic policies of her predecessor. [“Liberalism” is a loaded term for America’s historically ignorant electorate, members of which frequently confuse the term with “socialism,” “fascism,” “communism,” "vegetarianism," and other unrelated terms.]
Clinton’s campaign has been plagued by accusations of collusion with the party during the primary--when the supposedly neutral party machine expressed support for Clinton against her social democratic challenger Bernie Sanders. Sanders drew his support from leftist activists, traditionally apolitical segments of the electorate, and the country’s youth, which faces widespread unemployment and constant attacks on its “sloth” from older generations who received benefits like free education that have since been denied to later generations.
Having overcome the challenge from the left of her party, Clinton remains dogged by a history of well-documented flip-flops when it comes to energy, the environment, financial, and economic policy. Her campaign recently hired a disgraced party official, and demonstrates palpable impatience with the media. Clinton also represents America’s dynastic politics--out of step with what many would describe as the meritocratic values of the 21st century world--which have left many Americans questioning the vitality of their democracy.
However, her campaign has been strengthened because she faces a Republican nominee who has deeply divided his party. Housing magnate and entertainer Donald Trump inherited vast wealth and expanded his empire over the years, in part through a series of bankruptcies and collusion with unsavory domestic and foreign investors. Critics have pointed out that by simply investing his money, the unstable television personality could have made even more wealth, but this reality hasn’t stopped him from selling himself as a business expert to voters across the deeply-divided country.
Trump took advantage of popular discontent with the country's economic fortunes to present himself as the savior of the country's shrinking middle class. His task was undoubtedly aided by the extraordinarily ill-educated voter base, many members of which are ignorant of much basic science from the past 150 years, possess literal belief in ancient mythology, and learn a patriotic if wildly misleading version of their country’s history in schools that suffer from neglect. Educational standards--and basic scientific and historical content--are determined by the governments of the country’s many regions (“states”), which have strong identities, and the management of which varies widely in terms of competency, modernity, and economic viability.
Trump appears to share his party's faith-based convictions about the intrinsic wisdom of markets, a quaint deviation from a wider global consensus about the need for the state to regulate markets in the public good. But he also rails against internationalism, and the country’s large trading partner to the south, seemingly ignorant of the fact that a huge western swathe of his own country is land taken in a violent war of expansion from its former owners.
But his campaign's signature feature has been his extraordinary racism, outlandish commentary, abject ignorance, and threats of violence.
Trump will need to hold together his party's coalition of white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, and affluent sociopaths to triumph against Clinton, who is backed by most of the country's ethnic minorities, middle-class white Americans, and a sizable chunk of the country's diminishing blue collar working class, who receive oddly outsize attention during elections in spite of the service-oriented nature of the overwhelming majority of the country's workforce.
Other challengers include the cultish economic fundamentalists known as the Libertarians, and the Greens, who are fielding a doctor who appears to advance outlandish ideas about the dangers of vaccinations.
Marginal internal critics complain that a personality-focused campaign pays little heed to significant challenges: climate change (the government of some American regions prohibit civil servants from mentioning the words); a de-industrializing economy; and the international sphere.
American party primaries are staggered over several months, and for most elections candidates rely on private sources of funding which deeply corrupt the political process. Many candidates receive endorsements from elite celebrities and sports figures.
This election has illustrated the poor state of the country’s indulgent, self-referential, and uninspired media, much of which is concentrated in a few hands. A characteristic feature of American journalism involves putting anywhere from two to twelve “talking heads” on screen--many of them employed by political candidates--and inciting shouting matches. Reporting, according to many Americans, has taken a back seat to entertainment.
International observers have reason to be troubled by the country’s election. Democrat Clinton is known for having pursued deeply destabilizing violence abroad, and has supported illegal conflicts. As the country’s foreign minister, she shielded war criminals from prosecution.
Donald Trump has expressed affinity for the authoritarian leader of another of the world’s political basket-cases, Vladimir Putin. He has also expressed ignorance about the country’s enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons, and has openly pledged to pursue policies of state terrorism.
Trump has also declared that if he loses he will encourage his volatile supporters to take to the streets. His supporters have predicted a bloodbath if Clinton wins, and the candidate recently appeared to endorse the assassination of his opponent. This is comparatively feasible in America, where many citizens, prey to historic paranoia, go about heavily armed.
Observers worry that America--its democracy long under strain, and its courts under-staffed due to the Republicans’ rejection of executive authority--will succumb to post-election violence.