This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP's round-the-clock coverage of the incoming US election results with brief dispatches from correspondents and analysts from around the world. The America Votes page is free to all readers.
As the US election results become clearer as the day progresses, they look increasingly like a narrow victory for Democrat Joe Biden with a narrowly divided Senate. Hardly the mandate that the Democrats were hoping for. At best, they will appear to face stagnation and intense battles against non-partisans in Washington for at least two years (and possibly longer).
As early as September I wrote on these pages that the 2020s would be a decade of great political development. My prediction was based on history. Every 30 to 40 years the party system has undergone a major reshuffle, a realignment that shifted the balance of power and core issues of politics as internal tensions between the parties became overwhelming and new problems arose. At the same time, the United States has gone through an era of major political reform about every 60 years or so, in which the basic rules of democracy shifted in response to public dissatisfaction with the institutions. And I found that these two cycles were slated for an era of upheaval in the 2020s.
Of course, history is not clockwork. There is no guarantee that the 2020s will follow the pattern. And the likely outcome of that choice suggests stagnation, rather than immediate change. More and more Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the way the US political system works and are exhausted from the trench warfare of national politics. The stakes are higher now, the economy is uncertain, the pandemic is still raging and climate change is becoming increasingly severe and destructive. The pressure will continue to increase and the non-partisan polarization will increase further, which will fuel anger, distrust and dysfunction.
At a certain point there has to be something. It is impossible to say exactly what or how, but one thing we do know: The way America operates democracy is broken. There are alternatives. Some include electoral reforms that increase the number of parties, breaking the zero-sum binary that sows division and hatred. New parties would provide a way for new coalitions to be formed and disrupt today's escalating hyper-party war. Maybe that's the answer, maybe there is another one. But all signals are pointing to turbulence, and if the US has no plan, chaos will win.