The forces Trump represents and the fragility of the country’s electoral machinery are problems decades in the making

Adam Tooze | November 1, 2020 | The Guardian

As we approach 3 November, it seems that the whole world is holding its breath. No other political event attracts as much attention as an American presidential election. Even in the midst of an epidemic, the American political process retains its carnivalesque appeal. There is skulduggery and outrageous rhetoric. Donald Trump performs politics as reality TV. For those that way inclined, the flood of polling and electoral expertise are an irresistible draw.

But we don’t just follow for the show. We follow because our era is marked by the US’s status as the pre-eminent superpower. Historically speaking, this is a relatively recent state of affairs. For more than a century after independence, in 1776, the US was so marginal that the major powers did not even have full diplomatic representation in Washington DC. It was only in 1893 that the UK led the way in upgrading its legation to full-embassy status. In the July crisis of 1914 – the great diplomatic drama that triggered the first world war – tiny Serbia figured more prominently than the United States.

The first time that an American election clearly mattered to everyone was the re-election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916. American manpower, economic clout and Wilson’s novel diplomacy would decide the outcome of the first world war. Indeed, Europeans learned the hard way that it wasn’t just the presidential elections that mattered. The US’s division of powers means that you have to follow congressional politics too. The Republican victory in the midterms of November 1918, days before the end of the war, jeopardised Wilson’s prospects of getting congressional approval for the Versailles peace deal and his beloved League of Nations. The great assembly of nations at Versailles woke up to the fact that reliance on the US came with the risk that it would, in Wilson’s words, “break the heart of the world”.

Originally published in The Guardian. Read the full article here