A win for Joe Biden would only scratch the surface of America’s afflictions | John Mulholland

Donald Trump has inflicted misery on his country, but its problems do not stem from the past four years alone; they run centuries deep

On 18 September, the first day of early voting in the US, Jason Miller, a house painter from Minneapolis, became, according to the Washington Post, one of the first people in the country to vote. He cast his vote for Joe Biden, saying: “I’ve always said that I wanted to be the first person to vote against Donald Trump. For four years, I have waited to do this.” Close to 90 million people have already voted in the US and it is on track to record the highest turnout since 1908.

We can thank Donald Trump for that, a man who attracts fierce loyalty from his supporters but who energises his opponents in equal measure. The country has been fixated by the White House occupant for the past four years. But there is a danger that progressives and liberals invest too much faith in Trump’s departure and too little in what will be needed to fix America. Getting rid of Trump might be one thing, fixing America is another.

If the president loses, there will be much talk of a new normality and the need for a democratic reset. Hopes will be voiced for a return to constitutional norms. There will be calls for a return of civility in public discourse and a healing of the partisan divide that scars America. All of that is as it should be. But it ought to come with a recognition that America was broken long before it elected Trump and his departure would be no guarantee that the country will be mended. Many of the systemic issues that afflict the US predate Trump.

His ugly and dysfunctional presidency has distracted from many of the fundamentals that have beset America for decades, even centuries. But they remain stubbornly in place. If he does lose, America will no longer have Trump to blame. Two two-term Democratic presidents over the past 30 years have not significantly affected the structural issues that corrode US democracy and society, and race is always at their heart. The past few months have drawn further attention to the systemic racism and brutality that characterise much policing. But racism in the States is not confined to the police. In fact, it is not confined at all.

Michelle Obama, Melania and Donald Trump and Barack Obama at Trump’s inauguration on 20 January 2017.
Michelle Obama, Melania and Donald Trump and Barack Obama at Trump’s inauguration on 20 January 2017. Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/EPA

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, there was talk about a post-racial America. But in 2016, at the end of Obama’s eight-year term, the non-partisan thinktank the Pew Research Center estimated that the median wealth of white households in the US was $171,000 (£132,000). This was 10 times the median wealth of black households ($17,100). This was a larger gap than in 2007, the year before Obama was elected.

Trump can be blamed for exacerbating racial tensions and giving succour to white supremacists but the racial wealth gap runs deeper than his term of office. As the non-aligned Brookings Institution said this year: “Gaps in wealth between black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception.” The country, post-Trump, could choose to turn its attention to school segregation, but that seems unlikely. As Elise Boddie, a law professor at Rutgers University, and Dennis D Parker, from the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in the New York Times in 2018: “No one is really talking about school segregation anymore. At the height of school desegregation, from 1964 through the 1980s, high-school graduation rates for black students improved significantly.” Boddie and Parker estimated that school segregation in Michigan, New York, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey is now “worse than in the former Confederacy”. Other research confirms that school segregation is higher than it has been in decades.

Then there’s income inequality, which has surged in the past 40 years (including during 16 years of Bill Clinton and Obama) from technological change, globalisation and the decline of unions and collective bargaining. Pew estimates that income inequality in the US increased by 20% between 1980 and 2016. The non-profit, non-partisan thinktank the Economic Policy Institute estimates that CEO compensation in America has grown 940% since 1978. Typical worker compensation rose 12% during that time.

But at the heart of a broken America is its system of democracy. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, wrote: “Our constitution was designed to favour small (or low-population) states. Small states were given representation equal to that of big states in the Senate and an advantage in the Electoral College. What began as a minor small-state advantage evolved, over time, into a vast over-representation of rural states.”

All states are represented by two senators. So a citizen of California with a population 40 million (which is 39% white) is represented by two senators – as are the 570,000 people who live in the state of Wyoming (which is 92% white). This means that voters in older, rural and majority-white states are significantly over-represented in both the Senate and presidential elections. This may explain the fact that out of nearly 2,000 people who have served in the Senate since 1789 only 10 have been black.

It will only get worse. According to author Ezra Klein: “By 2040, 70% of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70% of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30% of America will be represented by 70 senators.”

The electoral college allows, indeed facilitates, such distortions as the Republicans being able to win the White House in 2000 and 2016 despite losing the popular vote. They control the Senate despite polling fewer votes. Then there is widespread gerrymandering and voter suppression aimed mostly at poorer communities and people of colour, which the Guardian has highlighted in a year-long series. Klein has neatly summarised the problem thus: “One of the biggest problems with American democracy is that it’s not democratic.”

None of these systemic issues – or myriad others – which disfigure the US is on the ballot on Tuesday. But will they remain in place long after the election? Removing Trump would be a start, but some of the scourges that afflict America have lasted 400 – the first enslaved people arrived in 1619 – not four years.

•John Mulholland is Editor of Guardian America and former Editor of the Observer


John Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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