It is not a mystery, except perhaps to Americans, that the United States though a democracy has a profoundly dysfunctional political system. This dysfunctionality expresses itself in several ways, even leaving aside the quite open and legal way in which political influence can be purchased by the super-wealthy (such as the infamous Koch brothers) through monetary contributions and lobbyists.

The major form of structural dysfunction is the so-called electoral college system, which has twice permitted since 2000 that a candidate with a smaller number of popular votes is deemed to have “won” the presidential election. Because of this system, once it has been determined that a state is more or less “safe” in the bag of a particular candidate, much less attention is paid to it during the election. Instead most efforts and attention centre on seducing the voters in states which may go either way: in the 2020 election, those include Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Arizona.

It is also worth noticing that no substantial efforts have yet been made to reform this patently defective process, by moving for example to a “one person, one vote” system of direct election, as is followed in more sensible presidential democracies, such as France.

The Big Two

A second and more complex aspect of dysfunctionality expresses itself via the so-called two-party system, opposing Republicans and Democrats. To be sure a variety of smaller parties do exist in America, but they are often seen as merely vanity parties, whose candidates usually know they are wasting their time and effort. But the fact remains that these parties taken together accounted in 2016 for 5.7 % of the vote, with the Libertarians and the Greens at the head of the “third party” list. At least potentially, they have the possibility of tilting the outcome of a close-run election, as happened with Ralph Nader in 2000, by drawing votes away from one or the other of the Big Two. But beyond that, they are doomed to failure from the start.

What ails the two-party system? The central issue lies in the internal incoherence of the two big parties, Republicans and Democrats, which are really nebulae rather than real parties with programmes.

Some decades ago, the Republicans were above all a fiscally conservative, centre-right party (with some far right elements), but they have over time become the party of extreme Christian beliefs (rejecting modern science and medicine, and espousing “Creationism”), marked by militarism, xenophobia and happy to implicitly support racist groups of various sorts. This means that older-style rationalist conservatives (in the Jack Kemp mode) often feel uncomfortable in the party as it has come to be redefined in the later 1990s and early 2000s. But they are also aware that given the two-party straitjacket, they really have nowhere to go.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the Democratic Party convention. Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The Democrats on the other hand run the incoherent gamut from moderate socialists and social-democrats to market- and corporation-friendly liberals, and even some right-of-centre politicians. Still many of them, but not all, are keen to espouse multiculturalism in some form, as well as affirmative action, whether from conviction or hypocrisy.

But the party runs the constant risk of internal disaffection, expressed through a decline in election participation rates. It does not have as stable a base as the Republicans, who will usually support a candidate no matter what he (or rarely she) does, both at the policy and personal level. It is this Democratic fickleness which makes it difficult, even in the end of August, to make a confident prediction regarding the outcome of an election that will take place in early November of the same year. This has effectively been admitted by someone like the political analyst Nate Silver, who runs the well-known website

On November 9, 2016, the Democratic Party in the US was already aware that – except in the case of a fatal eventuality – the opponent it would be facing in the 2020 election was Donald Trump. What they did not know was how things would turn out over four years of Trump’s presidency, in terms of the economy and its indicators, of social unrest, of foreign affairs, or the emergence of a pandemic that would claim something around 200,000 deaths in the US before the next election.

But in spite of this ample preparation time, the Democratic Party has over four years failed to throw up a powerful and credible candidate, falling back instead on a tired, confused and elderly politician, Joe Biden, who does not evoke enthusiastic support even among the party faithful and lifelong Democrats.

Biden apparently has two qualities as candidate, namely his past association with the Obama presidency, and his notably wishy-washy record. Over a rather brutal Democratic primary process, it became clear that the centre and right of the party would not accept the nomination of those on the left (Sanders and Warren), both on ideological grounds and for the pragmatic reason that they would almost certainly have lost a national contest with a Republican, even Trump. Of the rest, Biden was chosen because of his simple name recognition, and convenient lack of programmatic definition. In other words, the internal dynamics of the Democratic nebula locked them into the unhappy outcome they now have.

The Trump phenomenon

But this was also the result of a refusal to analyse what the Trump phenomenon is with any clarity. Rather than doing so, there has been a morbid fascination with the loud personality and erratic behaviour of Donald Trump, which is shared by the media and his political opponents. Precious time and energy were wasted on an impeachment process which was doomed to fail and could not even yield political dividends.

The difficulty from the start has been that Trump is not a normal politician like John McCain or Mitt Romney and does not have a coherent ideology or strategy, or even a firm entourage, beyond his family (on whom he depends inordinately). It is well-known that he changed party affiliations five times from 1987, and only joined the Republicans in a somewhat lasting manner in 2012. In short, with him, everything is based on tactical manoeuvring and short-term advantage, what he himself thinks of as the “art of the deal”.

This is a visionless way of doing politics which is peculiarly well-suited to a society where many people are bombarded with a surfeit of noise through the social media and other means, which Trump adds to through his tactical use of Twitter as a weapon. Coherence is the least of considerations here, when support by Trump of the right-wing in Israeli politics can be combined with the coy endorsement of a movement like QAnon, whose core beliefs read like a mildly updated version of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.

But the gamble is that this will not matter, because few among the electorate will probably even remember what the administration did in 2017 or 2018, drowned as they are in the sea of trivia.

US President Donald Trump talks to reporters aboard Air Force One on August 29. Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

The real unanswered question therefore is which one of two possible elections will be fought in November 2020. One election would be a straightforward plebiscite on Trump and his personality, rather in the manner of a television game show or reality show. This is the election that the Republicans would prefer, because they rather fancy their chances of winning it.

The other possible election would be one where different policies and programmes would be compared, and choices made on that basis. Here, the Republicans would be poorly placed, for two reasons: first, anger at their recent track record regarding Covid-19, race, policing, and related issues; second, the absence of any real policy pronouncements that go much beyond tired slogans of “making America great again”.

But the difficulty is that the Democrats have not produced an attractive set of programmes or policies either, at least on the evidence of their “virtual” national convention; nor have they admitted or analysed their own role in the militarisation of police techniques, with the widespread use of helicopters and surplus army weapons in American urban settings. They are apparently hoping that the widespread hatred and contempt for Trump alone will see them through, even if they fear a nasty “October Surprise” in the form of a skirmish with China or Iran to boost the president’s late poll numbers. If that were to happen, it would not resemble the politics of a healthy democracy, but of a banana republic, but would that be a real revelation?

As the election approaches, some Democrats and some Republicans seem at last to have come to the conclusion that the two-party system cannot properly represent the real diversity of political opinions that exist. Some rare Republicans have even broken ranks and openly called for a vote in favour of Biden. At the same time, it would not be a shock if some elements among the left-leaning Democrats send discreet signals to their supporters to remain at home on election day, out of anger and frustration at the Biden candidacy.

It is easy enough to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The difficulty is finding the means to break out of the sclerosis of a dysfunctional system.

The author is Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles.