Is this election about to break America?

The 'city on a hill' is laying siege to itself

The 2020 question bigger than Donald Trump or Joe Biden is whether the last four years and a bruising campaign have broken American democracy, that over-200-year-old experiment that – at least in its own eyes – sets the US apart.

The US election was once watched around the world as an example of what democracy means, a shining specimen that America could hold aloft to dictators and detractors, as it encouraged the fledgeling post-Soviet democracies or assisted transitions elsewhere, that it could nurture as an ideal to be perused around the world.

But from the outside, there is little to look upon in the 2020 campaign and envy.

This year, America has faced some fundamental questions that might bend the very essence of what it is as a country.

Unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud have now become so common that they are treated in some circles of the press and Mr Trump’s followers as an established, self-evident truth. Worries abound of violence, of attacks and of armed militias intimidating voters. Questions are even being raised now that no other US election needed answering – what happens if a president refuses to step down?

These aren’t fringe ideas or the musings of hypothetical thought experiments. In August, Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the US military – the single most powerful-armed force on the planet – would have no role in the election process or resolving any electoral disputes.

BANGOR, ME - NOVEMBER 03: Voters fill out and cast their ballots at the Cross Insurance Center polling location on November 3, 2020 in Bangor, Maine. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans head to the polls on the last day to cast their vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.   Scott Eisen/Getty Images/AFP
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So it is fair to ask, is American democracy broken? Has that shining city on a hill gone dark?

As of Election Day itself, that answer is no – but there’s still time.

2020 has been a lively race, perhaps more so than any other in living memory. Even before the polls opened, lawyers were litigating who, how and when people could vote – and very few saw arguments either way as an endeavour to improve the democratic experiment rather an attempt tilt the favour through technicalities.

But lively democracy is still democracy. Votes are still cast, a rule of law still applies and – as yet – there are no substantiated claims of the kinds of ballot stuffing, disenfranchisement and violence that millions of voters must contend with from Baghdad to Minsk.

There will be a winner after November 4 and – even though Mr Trump may not say it openly – whoever wins will, in all likelihood, enter the White House on January 20 without a new civil war, without military intervention and quite possibly without the Supreme Court being consulted.

But none of that diminishes the very fundamental questions for whoever occupies the White House next year but also the Senate and House of Representatives – also up for election on Tuesday.

How do politicians return to a time when the system was more important than who won? How do you ease the burning existential dread that means winning must come at any cost?

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How do politicians return to a time when the system was more important than who won

Unfortunately, there is little sign, yet, that this campaign has done anything to heal the deep divides between right and left, rich and poor, between generations, between those who believe in racial equality and those who see no issue that needs resolving.

It is fairly clear that if one side wins on Tuesday, that question won’t even be raised. But, if the other side wins, there’s no indication of how they might go about doing it.

The question that is more worrying from the outside is not whether 2020 broke American democracy but whether the next four years will.

If he wins, as the polls tip him to, Mr Biden has four years to prove that there is something to inspire unity in the sort of diligent, hand’s on sensible talking president of old that he portrays himself to be.

Otherwise, hot on the heels of Mr Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip populism, a truly terrifying populist force could emerge in 2024 to shred any remaining convention and not just undermine the straining system but pull it down wholesale.

In its weakened, divided and uninspiring state, such a force could very well snuff out that 200-year-old American democratic experiment.

James Haines-Young is foreign editor at The National

James Haines-Young

James Haines-Young

James is foreign editor at The National and was previously the Lebanon and online editor at The Daily Star in Beirut.