By Sam Portillo
This November, Americans will cast their votes in another presidential election, with a choice between two candidates offering very different futures for the country should they win the next four years in the White House.
Any discussion in 2020, let alone a national democratic exercise, is bound to be defined by COVID-19. The U.S. has lost over 200,000 lives to the virus in the space of nine months. Not since 23rd March has the country recorded less than 200 COVID-related deaths in a day. For a country with plentiful medical resources, scientific expertise and a relatively healthy population, the extent of damage has been surprising. Just last year, the Global Health Security Index ranked America as the country “best prepared to deal with a pandemic”: the evidence disagrees. Its deaths per 100,000 figure – 66 – is comparable to Mexico, Ecuador and Brazil. The success of countries like Vietnam and Senegal suggest that America’s plight is not a “money” problem; quite simply, the U.S. pursued the wrong strategy.
The economic crisis that comes with closing businesses and asking consumers to stay at home has the potential to cause wider damage than the virus itself. The estimated 40 million American workers that have lost their jobs must depend on unemployment benefits, and the charity of other citizens, to get by. In many states, workers struggle on the measly federal minimum wage of $7.25 (less than £6) an hour. Millions sit somewhere in limbo, grappling with job insecurity, their employers ready to cut losses in the event of another coronavirus closure.
The public health crisis has also exposed racial inequalities sowed deep into American society. Black Americans – more likely to work in frontline jobs, live in poorer areas and have pre-existing health conditions – have died at an alarming and disproportionate rate: as of mid-September, 1 in 1,020 of all black Americans had fallen victim to coronavirus.
Running alongside the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, catapulting into the limelight after the police murder of Minnesota citizen George Floyd, seems to have grasped an equal hold of the national psyche. Polling suggests that over 15 million people participated in the subsequent protests, a larger number than the inaugural civil rights movement of the 1960s ever pulled. Protestors and activists point towards the discriminatory nature of the justice system, both on-duty police and the judicial process itself. Despite the black American population constituting around 13 percent of the country, black Americans account for 40 percent of the prison population, and 22 percent of police shooting victims over the last three years.
While a majority of voters could argue that racial injustice does not personally affect them, one issue that does not discriminate – alas, posing a risk to everyone – is climate change. Global temperature is forecast to rise between 1.4 and 5.5°C over the course of the century. America’s own Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that “the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and increase over time”. Higher temperatures mean more frequent droughts, emboldened wildfires and higher sea levels. The Southwestern part of the U.S. – already notoriously hot and dry – will become even more so, becoming an increasingly hostile place to live and increasingly prone to natural disasters. Crucially, twenty-first century climate change is not an inevitable, or even natural process. “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: climate-warming trends […] are extremely likely due to human activities,” NASA says.
In November of last year, the Trump administration gave official notice of its intention for the U.S. to abandon the Paris Agreement on climate change action. The leaving process takes twelve months, meaning the U.S. will have obliged by the internationally-agreed regulations for the duration of Trump’s first term. America’s future obedience to the accord depends on the result of the election: Trump will proceed with leaving, Biden will re-join.
During his first term, President Trump has consistently moved to withdraw the U.S. from binding international agreements. The U.S. has exited from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, resigned from the UN’s Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and Human Rights Council, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty among other agreements. The current White House administration continues to impose tariffs on goods from China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union, who in turn retaliate with tariffs on American exports. Most economists agree that this form of “America First” protectionism hampers economic growth, especially in comparison to free trade. In response to the international community’s apparent failure in controlling the spread of coronavirus, Trump intends to withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organisation next year.
Political scientists often frame presidential elections as referenda on the incumbent Commander-in-Chief. In many ways, voters make a choice between change or “four more years”: never in modern history has this been more profound. Trump is a radically different candidate for president, having never before served in public office. He rejects conventions time and time again, refusing to participate in a third television debate (even if virtual), touting himself as the greatest president in American history, bemoaning liberal democracies and praising the strength of dictators. Joe Biden meanwhile is a political veteran, having served as senator for over thirty years and vice president for eight, holding reverence for traditional institutions and values and emphasising the importance of “truth” and “democracy”. This November, voters will make a choice that represents more than subtle Democrat-Republican differences on financial regulations or social rights: it has been used as a provocative campaign slogan in the past, but this time – it is hard to resist the feeling that this election really gives voters a choice between different ideas of America.
By Will Jones
America is completely divided. The nation finds itself occupied by two starkly contrasting groups that have been interlocked in a very public semi-war over the past four years.
President Donald Trump of the Republican Party proudly stands for his half of the population. Born in Queens, New York City to a wealthy real estate tycoon, Trump inherited the family company and turned it into a multi-faceted empire. After obtaining an economics degree, his hereditary business acumen soon saw him personify the American Dream on steroids. The Trump Organization built skyscrapers, casinos, hotels and golf courses. Think of a product in your head… the Trump name has probably been applied to it at some point.
For all his failings, President Trump perhaps best represents his side of American society. His followers have taken their often-Christian beliefs to the next level by interpreting Trump as a demi-God. In their eyes he can do very little wrong – which means he can do almost everything wrong and get away with it. He tapped into the disenchantment that many Americans felt towards the career politicians of the Washington elite. Since then, his unrelenting and unapologetic approach to governing has captivated the portion of the population who care very little for contemporary social change and political correctness.
In the eyes of Trump supporters, he will have had a highly successful first term. He has reaffirmed America’s global position and whilst they are not necessarily respected by other global superpowers, they are feared. Trump is unhinged and wastes no time in acting on his impulses – pulling out from the Paris Climate Agreement and threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea only validates this.
Moreover, Trump’s tough approach to immigration and outspoken disdain for foreigners has been to the liking of his supporters. Whilst the infamous Mexican border wall hasn’t reached the metaphorical and physical heights that he promised, at face value it looks as though he’s protecting the U.S triumphantly. In a country that places such emphasis on the capitalist ideals of self-accomplishment, Trump’s business prowess and status as a magnate is something for Americans to aspire to and makes him a leader in the eyes of many.
Biden differs to Trump in almost every way imaginable. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, there were times in his childhood where his father failed to find steady work. They ultimately settled in Delaware after living in a cramped apartment for multiple years. However, he, like Trump, embodies the American Dream narrative – albeit at a more modest scale. Biden’s father eventually made a success of himself as a used car salesman. Whilst he wasn’t the most academically gifted adolescent, professors noted his determination and natural leadership ability in both the classroom and on the football pitch. He graduated from the University of Delaware in 1965 after studying History, Political Science and English. Biden suffers from a stutter which has improved since his formative years. A man who was once at war with his own words, is now potentially using them to take him to the highest office in the land.
Unlike Trump, Biden has had an extensive political career – and one that almost didn’t take off. Months after being sworn in as Senator for Delaware, he tragically lost his wife and young daughter in a car accident and considered resigning. Deciding to continue in office, he commuted everyday between his Delaware home and Washington D.C to care for his two sons. After a hugely lengthy senatorial career, Biden’s 2008 bid to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate landed him the role of Vice President in Obama’s administration. Under Obama and Biden, the U.S economy made a successful recovery from the global recession, and they implemented many successful social reforms. Biden is no doubt using this to his advantage as the U.S faces another major crisis. Whilst Biden doesn’t fully represent the left half of America, he perhaps best represents normality – and this is what many Americans are yearning for.
Whoever wins this election will be the oldest president in U.S history. In an age where youth rebellion over climate change, racial inequality and gender inequality is perhaps its highest since the 1960s, one has to question whether these are the two best people to take America forward. One could argue that the people have been handed two aspirants that only partially paint the picture of modern-America and the issues she faces – but with a divided population of 328 million, it was never going to be simple, was it?
An unusual election
The obscurity of 2020 as a whole has led to the presidential election being considered as one of the most unusual in history. Being in the midst of a global pandemic has forced the candidates to adapt their election campaigns, whilst swathes of voters are now voting by post in advance of the election at levels not previously seen before.
Usually, the hot topics leading up to American elections include economic and social policies, and military spending, but the fact that America has been one of the worst affected countries by coronavirus has thrust a new focal point to the forefront of people’s decision-making. The response to the virus has become the key talking point of the campaign with the candidates actions and words being dissected under the microscope with the pandemic in mind. Trump’s trail has widely chosen to carry on as normal with a laissez-faire attitude despite him contracting the virus in early October. His video portraying a heroic return to the White House, and non-socially distanced rallies, such as in Pennsylvania on 15th October, confirming his ambition to present himself as a fighter to the American people.
Biden on the other hand has tackled campaigning during a pandemic like the politician he is: calm and direct. His rallies have for the most part taken place with social distancing (his 13th October rally in Florida saw attendees sat in their cars at all times) and mask wearing clearly evident.
Of course the virus has provided other challenges to a somewhat strict routine for elections. For the first presidential debate, the candidates did not shake hands prior to the event and the audience could not vocalise their support or displeasure, leaving the room in an eerie silence. What was evident at that debate, was that the two candidates are like no other before. Trump himself is an enigma- a politician who is difficult to debate with given his erratic nature and almost schoolboy attitude on stage. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was able to combat this in debate with her resolute persona, but Biden is an experienced, old-school politician that Trump provides the perfect antidote for by breaking up his fluent speech and making him break stance and concede phrases such as: “will you shut up, man?” For the final debate, a mute button was added to the candidate’s microphones in an attempt to limit interruptions and allow for a free-flowing debate. Perhaps surprisingly, if you wanted to see a more rounded debate with more etiquette shown, then the vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris offered more balance and poise.
This election presents a choice between two septuagenarians, with whichever candidate wins set to become the oldest president in history. Given the backdrop of youth movements on climate change and racial justice, this is particularly strange. Biden in particular will hope that younger voters, who more often than not support the Democratic Party, turn out to vote at the election. The country experienced its lowest voter turnout for two decades in 2016, at 55.6 percent: political commentators suspect it will be higher this time around, given how Trump’s first term has seemingly energised voters, sparking historically large protests and movements from both sides.
Another consequence of the pandemic is Americans are turning to early postal votes rather than in-person voting to protect themselves from contracting the virus. As of 12th October, states such as Vermont had already reached up to 30 percent of their total 2016 turnout with Wisconsin, Virginia and South Dakota having up to 25 percent according to the University of Florida. Because mail-in ballots take longer to process (a problem exacerbated by recent budget cuts to postal services), vote counts in some crucial battleground states may be declared after election day. As he did in 2016, the President has alluded to not accepting the election result should he lose, citing issues with voter fraud and postal votes. Regardless, come 21st January, a new presidential term must begin.
On 22nd October, less than two weeks before the election, the FBI announced they had found evidence that Iran and Russia had obtained voter information and sent emails to individuals in key battleground states, threatening that someone will “come after” them if they fail to vote for Trump. Given the tension already existing between the U.S., Iran and Russia, it is even more clear that the result of the election will have lasting impacts on international relations across the globe.