ELECTIONS in two-party systems are meant to provide the voter a clear choice, ie alternative paths to the future that the electorate must choose between. Rarely, however, has there been an election where the choice has been so stark. Tomorrow, the US will elect as its next president either Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or Republican nominee Donald Trump. A bitter, divisive and lengthy campaign season has exposed both candidates in a manner that is both remarkable and alarming. Both candidates are manifestly flawed at a personal level — Ms Clinton because of her closeness to a moneyed American establishment; Mr Trump because his garish life as a television celebrity and high-profile businessman has exposed a predatory mindset against women and entrenched discrimination against minorities and special-needs groups.
It is at a policy level, however, that America does have a meaningful choice between the two candidates. Ms Clinton represents a worldview that America is not fundamentally broken and on the wrong path, but it does need to adjust its economic, trade and social policies to nudge the state towards a fairer, more equitable place on the back of a strong economy. She is in many ways a continuity candidate, perhaps a sensible, safe approach in a deeply divided polity. Mr Trump is a protest leader, a candidate who has explicitly positioned himself as an avatar of the general discontent that America is suffering from. The answer, as with so many other countries suffering from economic slowdown and a reconsideration of liberal immigration and social policies, for Mr Trump is straightforward — a return to a nativist, nationalist politics built on a rejection of free trade, a return to a muscular American military posture abroad, and a social vision that returns so-called old America, read as white America by critics, to the centre of national politics. Ms Clinton is still the favourite to win, but the very fact that Mr Trump has the support of at least four out of 10 Americans and the warning by experts that polling forecasts could be wrong suggests how bitterly divided America is. It would be wrong to assume that had either party chosen another, more liked candidate, victory for that party would have been assured tomorrow.
What, though, of the day after? It is a tradition in American politics for the winning candidate to pledge to work for all Americans and to heal wounds. But the deep, gashing wounds of this extraordinary election will be difficult to heal. If Ms Clinton wins, she will still be confronted with an America that is the most divided since perhaps the Civil War. Where President Obama had to try and rescue the economy and America’s standing in the world, a Clinton presidency will have to try and salvage the very fabric of American democracy from the destructive forces that have grown inside it. If Mr Trump wins, he will have to prove he is a completely different man to the candidate who has violently marched towards the presidency. The world anxiously awaits the results.
Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2016