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.
Barack Obama v Mitt Romney - a clash of visions and policies
for the United States
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
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
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
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
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