It is difficult to imagine a more volatile setting for the American presidential elections this November. Rolling news coverage relays the devastating social and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Anxiety is pervasive, amid escalating social and cultural tensions that have in some cities intensified into police-protester stand-offs and violent disorder. With public gatherings often off-limits, services suspended and many places of community closed, this month the main parties will confirm their candidates to lead a nation where vibrant public life barely exists.
Against a backdrop of public disquiet and often simmering anger, how will the public mood impact on the contest? And what are the important political trends to look out for in this most testing of elections?
Many critics question how the ageing candidates, divided political parties and hollowed-out party machines are equipped to navigate both the election and the coming challenges, which include economic devastation at home and deepening international tensions. With Trump’s presidency symbolised by a chaotic pandemic response and the often incoherent Joe Biden taking silent refuge in his basement, the late entrance of self-aggrandising Chicago rapper Kayne West adds a further tier of unpredictability. With West likely to stand in what many experts consider the handful of key states, will the presence of a maverick ultimately decide the outcome?
Another factor to consider is the escalation of the culture wars. The divisive impact of identity politics has been evident for some time in attitudes to immigration or responses to #MeToo. Recently, however, anger over the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter have helped crystallise bigger institutional and cultural questions. From the future of the police to the rise of woke corporations, how will political parties deal with the challenges to the legitimacy and authority of America’s rulers and their institutions? And with attitudes to all aspects of life, from statues to mask wearing and workplace etiquette, now framed by identity issues and an associated ‘cancel culture’, are these elections destined only to pour more fuel on an already brightly burning fire?
President Trump suggested last month that the elections should be delayed until people could ‘properly, securely and safely’ vote, post pandemic. Democrats, who are now ahead in the polls, rejected this move, although they too have previously expressed concerns over voter fraud. More broadly, what impact will the president’s handling of Covid-19 have on the outcome? Biden may be ahead in the polls, but in the context of the vicious culture wars, one recent poll found that 62 per cent of Americans say they have political views they’re afraid to share. Might ‘silent’ Trump voters mean this an election where all is still to play for?
What happens next in American politics? Have voters really given up on politicians and the political system more widely? Is there any possibility of the country rallying around the president or is politics simply hopelessly divided? Is America’s position as the leading global power under threat and what impact will this have on the elections? What is needed to inject political direction into the 2020 elections?
Speakers will be announced shortly.