Radicals of left and right like to say that the American election is an affair of sound and fury, signifying nothing. One guy in a suit replaces another guy in a suit, the two mostly agree on the basics: the economy, capitalist; foreign policy, hegemonic.
To be sure, American elections remain battlegrounds: a resurgent right has, in the past two decades, drawn sharper lines on a culture war that puts sexuality and its effects at the center of a national debate. Homosexuality, abortion and reproductive rights are divisive issues. But radicals believe that overall, little changes: An elite governs, and largely governs the same way regardless of party.
Yet both capitalism and hegemony have served the U.S., and much of the world, better than any other obviously available option. In the last few years, democratic practice has certainly seen a number of setbacks: The victory of the conservative group Citizens United in having the Supreme Court overturn the provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 – which had prohibited corporations and unions paying for political propaganda independently of the candidates’ campaigns – is only the latest obvious example. But U.S. civil society remains among the liveliest, most rambunctious and exemplary in the world, a large part of the reason why the U.S. is still the destination of choice of those yearning to breathe a little freer (and earn at least a little more).
Yet the “nothing changes with elections” view is gathering popularity, especially overseas, where the limits of democratization are tighter than they were four years ago. The next U.S. president will have to deal with a world that is likely to offer little in the way of democratic inspiration, as the Arab spring did for a time in 2010.
It’s been heartening, certainly, to see the turn toward parliamentary democracy in Myanmar – and the creation of a parliament in which veteran dissident Aung San Suu Kyi has both a seat and a voice. Heartening too has been the peaceful passage of presidential power in Georgia, the first time in that republic’s post-Soviet independent life.