Change hard to effect in the US political system

When Barack Obama was elected to the US presidency in 2008, there were widespread expectations that his Administration would usher in a new era.

Americans - and the rest of the world - would witness "change we can believe in". As the US heads for the polls again this week, few would now argue that Mr Obama's first term has lived up to this promise. Like most people in the United States and around the world, I would like to believe it really does matter who wins the US presidency.

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However, barring another game-changing event like 9/11, the facts are that this is nothing more than wishful thinking.

There are several reasons why US presidential elections matter very little in real terms and why we usually find there are more continuities than differences between presidencies.

First, the US political system has a series of in-built constitutional checks and balances which greatly limit presidential power and tend to mitigate against major changes in policy direction. Presidential initiatives - such as Mr Obama's attempt to close Guantanamo Bay - can be blocked by Congress or struck down by the Supreme Court.

Second, lobby groups and special interests play a key role in US politics.

As we saw during Mr Obama's attempts at healthcare reforms, such groups can mobilise powerful opposition and pose serious obstacles to presidential plans.

The reality is that any president who tries to enact policies which might threaten a change to the status quo - whether it be to the healthcare system, gun ownership, environmental issues, taxation, military spending, the homeless or support for Israel - will quickly face opposition from powerful vested interests backed up by armies of Washington lobbyists.

In addition to this, American presidents have to try to enlist the support of a great many extremely powerful state bureaucracies, which each have their own entrenched interests and long-term goals, if they want to enact new policies or change direction. From the State Department to the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, there are powerful internal forces working to protect their own position in the Washington hierarchy, even if this means working against presidential ambitions.

Finally, and most importantly, US politics are dominated by a powerful ideological system and political culture in which there is real bipartisan agreement on all of the most fundamental issues. This effectively makes genuine change to the present system impossible.

Democrats, Republicans and the vast majority of Americans all agree on the superiority of the liberal capitalist free enterprise system, the inviolability of the constitution and its various protections, the need for a powerful military defence system, and the country's global leadership role.

From this perspective, the differences between Mr Obama and Mr Romney are much smaller than the media makes out and relate more to tactical differences rather than substance.

How is public spending to be reduced?

Where exactly should tax cuts be made?

Is there a need for even greater defence spending?

What's the best approach for maintaining US leadership in the world?

For anyone still unconvinced, a series of simple questions proves the point. Will it really make any significant difference to the millions of homeless people, the unemployed or families who live below the poverty line in the US, who the next president is?

Will the country's culture of gun ownership, its arms industry and its military-industrial complex dramatically reduce after the election?

Will the gap between rich and poor in the US, which has been increasing for the past 50 years, suddenly reverse direction and start to diminish?

Will there be any noticeable difference in the lives of people in Afghanistan, Palestine or Iran - or in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Pacific, for that matter?

Will it make any real difference to global efforts to deal with climate change, the small arms trade, or nuclear disarmament who the next president is?

The answer to all of these questions is, probably not.

As happened after the last election in 2008 - and for the previous decade at least - the majority of people in the US and the rest of the world will not notice any difference in their lives as a result of this election.

In the end, US presidential elections have the appearance of a meaningful democratic process, but very little of its substance. The real tragedy, of course, is that this problem is not limited to the US.

Among other things, economic deregulation over the past few decades now means that markets, corporations, and other unelected special interests have more power than governments and the people they represent.

This has created a serious democratic deficit and crisis of legitimacy in the political system, one which protest groups like Occupy are attempting to challenge.

In too many countries, national elections are less and less capable of delivering real political choice or the possibility of significant policy change.

The United States, with many other countries, will need to reform its system of democracy if it's to make elections matter once again.

• Richard Jackson is associate professor and deputy research director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.