DR David Andersen, Assistant professor of US politics at Durham University has written ahead of tonight's American Election, why the results of this election are less about hearing Americans speak and more of a collective American shout.

Dr Andersen studies American politics and government, focusing on political psychology and political behaviour. His research explores how people learn about politics and then how what they learn influences what they believe and how they act politically. 

The United States goes to the polls today in what is likely to be one of the most consequential elections in recent American history. While almost every American election is described in these terms, the 2020 contest has particularly clear hallmarks that will cement it into history.

First, this year’s election is almost certain to produce the highest voter turnout in over a century. Estimates are that over 150 million Americans will cast a vote by the end of Election Day, far above any previous raw total witnessed before, but also representing a much higher rate of turnout than America typically sees. For the past 50 years American elections have struggled to produce 55% of the voting age public turning out to vote. In 2020, analysts are expecting that fully 65% may cast a ballot, a surge almost unheard of. The results of this election are less about hearing Americans speak and more of a collective American shout.

And what are they shouting about? The options this year mark stark choices between the future conduct of not just the presidency, but American government as a whole.

President Trump represents a harsh critique of the modern American system and is supported by millions of Americans who feel that the American bureaucratic government is bloated, corrupt and ineffectual. Whereas prior conservative Republicans have urged taking a scalpel to American government to “cut away the fat” (leaving what is good behind) Trump has unabashedly taken a sledgehammer to government, destroying entire institutions guided by a belief that the system itself is not worth salvaging.

A second Trump term would continue the dismantling of federal government. He and his supporters have faith that private businesses and religious institutions can solve any ills Americans face. So, Trump offers nothing to fill the vacuum that his sledgehammer leaves behind, other than a declaration that, through destroying American government he has made America great again.

Joe Biden represents a starkly different view, but even his approach likely demands radical change. Biden believes that democratic government can alleviate problems faced by millions of Americans that remain unresolved by business or individual effort. He sees American government as currently ineffectual, but because it has been neglected and sabotaged from within, subject to continual budget cuts and freezes, and a president who sows distrust in the very system he leads. Biden wants to regrow and strengthen the ability of government to protect its own people from forces outside of their control.

But as President Obama’s vice president, Biden watched as their daily efforts to govern were stymied by partisan opposition and hyperbolic public rhetoric. To govern, Biden knows that he first must confront the forces of sensationalism and fearmongering that have poisoned the American system. His vision is to return American government to its halcyon days of world leadership and domestic pride, because he views American government as essential to America. But to get there he will first have to confront partisanship and public mistrust and rebuild a sense of America as a unified people with a common purpose.

The contrast between the two presidential choices is enormous and is divided by not just policy but by a belief in the very system that they are seeking to lead. The two candidates seek different capabilities from government going forward, which will determine which paths the United States is capable of walking down in the future. And the paths facing America are about to shift.

Perhaps the most important facet of this election year is the decline of the “Baby Boomers” (born 1945-1965) who have dominated the American electorate since 1980. For the past 40 years this generation, through its enormous population, has dictated the issues and tone of politics for the country, determining what the national conversation was about and how leaders approached governing.

Before the Baby Boomers came to dominate politics, Americans did not care overly much about taxes, job creation or public spending, but these issues captivated this generation. As the new generation of Millennials (born 1985-2005) take over the electorate, they want to begin a new conversation about new issues, such as climate change, public funding of education and growing inequality. As these topics take hold in coming elections, it will alter the trajectory of what Americans ask of their government. Old issues are dying out and falling aside, while new challenges are rising, and it remains to be seen what form of government America will have for those challenges.

The 2020 election is uniquely situated at a turning point in American history, where social forces, political ideals and practical realities are all colliding amidst a pandemic. Regardless of who wins the election, 2020 is the beginning of a new American direction.  It just remains to be determined which way Americans will choose.