The Risk of Dual Power

Igor Zevelev explains why the U.S. presidential election will not alleviate the U.S. political crisis, regardless of its outcome.

The main question concerning the upcoming U.S. presidential election is not who is going to win it — Trump or Biden — but what is going to happen between Nov. 3 (the election) and Jan. 20 (the inauguration). There are two main scenarios here: the catastrophic one, which is unlikely, yet possible, and the more realistic one, which is also critical.

Four factors indicate that the political situation is not going to unfold smoothly. The first one is an unprecedented political polarization. Many Democrats assert that if Trump gets reelected, that will be the end of democracy in the United States. Many Republicans, on the other hand, believe that if Biden, allegedly supported by the radical left, becomes president, that will mean the end of the United States itself.

The second factor is the most grand-scale return of politics in the streets that we have seen since 1968. The protests against racism and brutality often lead to riots.

The third factor is the possibility that either candidate might refuse to accept the election results. If this happens, it can serve as a trigger for rapid political destabilization in November. There has been a precedent for that. In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by winning just 537 votes in Florida. Back then, the political elites felt responsible for the country’s political stability and resolved the issue within the legal framework, and the Supreme Court settled a recount dispute. Yet, at the time of the 2000 election, American society was not so polarized and was not protesting in the streets. Now, Hillary Clinton, who has significant political influence, urged Biden to “not concede under any circumstances,” and Trump is already making claims of mass voter fraud.

We cannot rule out the possibility that both candidates might declare victory on election night.

Many young democracies have experienced severe political crises under similar circumstances. Two major parties become irreconcilable enemies; an election ends in a tie or a very narrow lead. After that, mutual accusations of voter fraud and massive mobilization of party supporters leading to civil unrest and violence ensue. Something similar happened in the United States a long time ago: In 1860, southern Democrats did not accept the victory of the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln, which was a catalyst for the Civil War.

This year, the catastrophic scenario might start if Trump initially wins the swing states and claims victory on the same day. The results of mail-in ballots will come later and will probably suggest a very different picture since between 70% and 80% of them are cast by Democrats. Before 2020, mail-in voting was an exception rather than a rule, but this year, millions of people will probably vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. This combination of protests and increasing distrust of the election process almost guarantees severe pressure on U.S. democratic institutions in November.

However, there is another, so far dormant factor that could lead to a nightmare under certain adverse circumstances. Now, there are 400 million privately owned firearms in the United States. Between March and August of this year, the firearm sales spiked, reaching the record-breaking number of 20 million guns (the total number for the previous year was 14 million). Combined with the chaos in the streets and paralyzed authorities, this might threaten the existence of the whole state system.

Trump and Biden are candidates with a combined age of 151. The United States needs new ideas and leaders who can sacrifice their political interests for the sake of solving national problems. Right now, there are no such people in sight.

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