David BoazExecutive Vice President of the Cato Institute
British philosopher Adam Smith said, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” As long as I can remember, people have claimed that the current presidential election is the most important ever. I’d say there’s a better case this year than most. Even so, it’s not “make or break.”
Four years from now, the United States will still be a liberal constitutional republic. Whoever wins this election will do some unwise things, some of which will not be in keeping with liberal norms and the rule of law.
Ideally, the U.S. president elected in November 2020 will repair some of the damage that has been done to our institutions. But those institutions, though under stress, continue to work and to protect our liberty—our constitution, our independent judiciary, our nonpolitical military, our free and independent media, our civil society.
Even the U.S. Congress occasionally remembers that it has the power of the purse, the power to write laws, and the power to decide when the country goes to war.
There are threats to liberalism all over the world, from both left and right, and it would be useful for American institutions and leaders to reaffirm our commitment to liberty under law and limited constitutional government. But the United States has survived worse challenges than the present.
Ian BremmerPresident of Eurasia Group
No. This election matters more than most, because U.S. President Donald Trump has accelerated American withdrawal from global leadership as well as the erosion of many U.S. political institutions. Both of those processes have been going on for decades, though, and mostly because of structural factors that haven’t depended on the party of the presidency.
Most of the world would be glad to see the back of Trump. But it’s far from make or break for the United States, either at home or abroad.
Thomas CarothersSenior Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Neither. A victory to Democratic candidate Joe Biden will be a chance to reverse the degradation wrought by Trump of the presidency and other crucial institutions, but it will not change the deeper two-part problem afflicting American democracy.
The first part of that problem is that one of the two main political parties is in the grip of a far-right political outlook that relies on anti-democratic tactics like voter suppression and condoning or encouraging extremist groups as part of its core electoral strategy, rather than adopting less extreme policies that might win majority support. The second part is that the representational and electoral structures of the U.S. political system support and even entrench control by a minority party.
This two-part problem, if not overcome peacefully and consensually over time, has the long-term potential to break American democracy.
A Trump victory will not itself break American democracy—institutional degradation will continue, but core institutions like the rule of law and a free press will largely survive four more years of Trump. But a Trump victory would aggravate the underlying two-part problem described above and significantly delay any possible resolution of it.
Heather A. ConleySenior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
The 2020 U.S. election will continue to shape the trajectory of the United States as has every election since former president George Washington’s refusal to remain in power in 1796. But what would be a dramatic break in that great tradition, however, would be Trump’s refusal to peacefully transfer power should he lose the election.
Notwithstanding that, we must acknowledge that America’s deep societal polarization means that, today, a significant portion of American citizens will not accept the legitimacy of the president-elect, whoever that may be, whether power transfers peacefully or not. This polarization has been fueled by a bifurcated, fact-free, and conspiracy-laden media environment (aided by adversaries) where Americans simply are unwilling or unable to acknowledge truth.
These are deeply troubling times and they serve as a potent reminder of the inherent fragility of democracies and their institutions, even for a “city on a hill.” However, we take courage that voter turnout is already robust—for the United States—despite an uncontrolled coronavirus pandemic.
Our official motto, “In God We Trust,” takes on even greater meaning at this difficult moment in our history. Needless to say, all good thoughts and prayers before, on, and after November 3 for the United States are most welcome.
John R. DeniAdjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University, Washington, DC
“Breaking” America, from either domestic or international perspectives, can’t and won’t happen overnight. History teaches us that great powers typically don’t collapse from one week to the next—instead, they decline and fade away over time.
Like the metaphorical frog in gradually warming water, Americans have lately endured democratic backsliding at home and loss of influence and authority abroad. Trump’s reelection will likely continue and potentially accelerate these trends.
Domestically, we might expect to see further erosion of legislative authority relative to the executive branch, especially Congress’s power of the purse and its oversight authority. Internationally, we might expect to see an American withdrawal from NATO, continued “transactionalization” of U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific, and reinforced unilateralism at the expense of multinational and intergovernmental institutions and mechanisms that Washington itself helped craft.
The question confronting U.S. voters is whether they believe that the trends evident over the last several years—and their potential amplification in a second Trump term—will leave America safer, stronger, and more resilient. Many of us believe the opposite is more likely.
Megan GreeneSenior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government of the Harvard Kennedy School
The one item on which the two presidential candidates differ the most is climate change. On this issue, the U.S. election is not just make or break for America—it is make or break for the entire world.
China and Europe have increasingly gotten serious about sustainability, but they can’t do it without the biggest economy in the world also rowing in the same direction.
Trump aims to continue to offer subsidies to and deregulate the oil patch as he pulls the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Biden aims to increase regulation in hydraulic fracturing—known as fracking—remove tax deductions for oil and gas, rejoin the Paris Agreement, spend $2 trillion over four years to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, crack down on auto emissions, and launch a massive green infrastructure program.
How we begin to address the next crisis coming down the line depends on the outcome of this U.S. election.
Daniel HamiltonDirector of the Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center
It is break-or-build time in America.
If Trump is reelected, the U.S. voting public will have vindicated his view that Americans are suffering through many economic and social ills because they have been too generous to the rest of the world—taking in immigrants and paying to defend ungrateful allies—and because the country’s political elite had negotiated a series of flawed international deals that harmed the U.S. economy and ordinary American workers.
A second Trump administration will double down on its agenda of economic nationalism and international burden shedding.
If Biden is elected, the American electorate will affirm that the last four years were a damaging interlude. The country will then need to take on the four horsemen of its recent apocalypse: the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; the attendant economic recession; the social reckoning that has spread across the nation in response to endemic inequalities and systemic racism; and the lingering legacy of polarization left by Trump.
The United States will rejoin multilateral efforts to tackle common challenges, but Americans by necessity will turn to problems at home. Europeans should not mistake this for isolationism, because if America can’t help itself, it will be in no position to help others.
Rachel KleinfeldSenior Fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Founder of the Truman National Security Project
America has weathered many tough times in its democracy, from the violent, contested election of 1876—worked out through a backroom deal that ended the Reconstruction era—to the corruption and politicization of the era of former president Andrew Jackson. This election is crucial, but a president can’t break American democracy himself.
What can is a party that refuses to stand up to this president’s authoritarian instincts to destroy checks, balances, and nonpartisan institutions, while convincing itself that it can only be viable by suppressing the rights of many citizens to vote.
America has conservative and liberal citizens, and thus needs parties that represent this spectrum of viewpoints. But if real conservatives cannot regain control of the political operatives and politicians who are counting on conspiracy theory, voter suppression, and politicizing nonpartisan institutions to win, it might soon be too late.
As we have seen in Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, and elsewhere, it is hard to fight a party that is willing to break democratic institutions to hold on to power. The opposition must either lose or be forced to win by increasing the country’s polarization and thus its democratic degradation. The election on November 3 is only the first step—what’s really at stake is a longer-term fight against our own partisan instincts.
George PerkovichVice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
There are many features of American life that indicate the society’s exceptional capacity for regeneration, socioeconomic and technical innovation, and integration and mobilization of a diverse citizenry. It is still a remarkably vibrant place.
If Trump wins the election and loses the popular vote—as he did in 2016 and as former president George W. Bush did in 2000—the viability of the American system will be cast into grave doubt.
This is in part because a party favored by a declining minority of the population is exploiting anti-democratic features of the constitution—especially the U.S. electoral college and the provision of two U.S. Senate seats to all states regardless of their population—to violate norms, pack courts, and do anything else necessary to impose itself over a clear majority. If this continues, it will create pressure that could build toward political explosion.
If Biden wins, the immediate risk of explosion will diminish. Then, much will depend on the outcome of the contest between effects of demographic change—against the regressive minority—and the capacity of that minority and the majority to fashion mutually tolerable compromises.
Ashley QuarcooSenior Fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Elections matter deeply, and this one more than most.
The reelection of Trump would cement a trajectory of decline that began well before his presidency but has dramatically accelerated since. The United States now is deeply questioning its exceptionalism, the resilience of its democratic institutions, and who it wants to be at home and in the world.
If there is to be any hope to arrest the current trajectory, this election is it—if it is peaceful and credible. Political analysts have developed numerous alternative scenarios that warn of unsubstantiated claims of fraud, of violence and civil unrest, and of a potential constitutional crisis. Any of these scenarios would inflict significant damage on American confidence in its electoral institutions and further diminish the already weakened global standing of the United States as a model of democracy.
But even a peaceful election and a clear Biden victory is not assured to bring us back from the brink. A new administration will be immersed in responding to the public health and economic fallout from the pandemic. The country’s deepening levels of polarization will likely continue to obstruct a coherent response and inhibit the new administration’s ability to address a long to-do list of other policy reforms.
America will not rise or fall by way of a single election. The continued polarization that inhibits its ability to effectively govern is a much more serious threat. That will take much more than an election to fix.
Bruce StokesExecutive Director of the Transatlantic Task Force: Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
A Trump victory will harden the U.S. partisan divide. It will further alienate public support for democracy and accelerate the rise of autocracy. Trump feels unconstrained by democratic norms, so anything is possible. Political dysfunction and policy stalemate are unavoidable.
A Biden victory will reverse the tide of authoritarianism. But his promise to bring the country together may be thwarted by racial, nativist, economic, educational, and gender divisions. A vocal, voting minority is unable to deal with the pace of change in American life. How Biden deals with their concerns without endorsing their prejudices will determine whether he can heal the partisan divide. Don’t hold your breath.
The election has underscored the folly of the world’s most powerful nation governing in the twenty-first century with an eighteenth-century constitution. This outmoded document increasingly enables minority rule by giving disproportionate political power to less-educated, white, rural voters. Changing the constitution would require them to accede to losing that power, an unlikely prospect. Trump has no interest and Biden no plan to fix this constitutional shortcoming.
Demographic and generational change may one day reverse America’s debilitating course. But remember, it was the Baby Boomers, in their old age, who elected Trump.
Tom WylerSenior Vice President for Global Strategy at PSP Partners
Partially. The reelection of Trump as president could break America as we know it, but a Biden victory alone cannot erase the damage already done.
Almost irrespective of partisan affiliation, the Trump presidency has been anathema to the post-war political and policy direction of the United States. Trump, for example, is openly hostile to NATO, has questioned our commitments on the Korean Peninsula, and has abandoned Kurdish allies in the Middle East. The president himself is deeply unpopular with U.S. allies, and his transactional approach to foreign policy has eroded America’s image and influence around the world.
At home, of course, the scorecard is hardly any better. Americans are as divided as they have been in generations. From the pandemic response to climate to immigration, the American system has demonstrated itself to be incapable of progress. To be fair, some of that sclerosis predated Trump, but the fundamental disinterest that his administration has demonstrated toward serious policy progress on any major issue beyond tax cuts has been remarkable.
Yes, even if Trump manages to win, the U.S. economy will remain the world’s strongest for some time and our military its most powerful, but his reelection would properly be regarded as an endorsement of this norm-obliterating approach to foreign and domestic policy.
In 2016, the electoral result could be easily written off as the product of two deeply unpopular candidates and a nationwide willingness to shake things up. If voters ask for four more years of this chaos, the message will be unmistakable: America as we knew it is no more.
Conversely, if Biden wins, many American allies will undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief, but these last four years will not quickly be forgotten. On the contrary, the world now knows that the American system is capable of producing a Trump 1.0, and there is little reason to believe that it can’t produce a Trump 2.0. That will make it increasingly difficult for partners and allies to rely on American commitments.
It will take a generation to convince “Ameri-skeptics” that Trump was anomalous and that the country’s politics have stabilized. Nevertheless, though the 2020 election may not be able to repair all the damage of the last few years, it is a pretty good place to start.