Everyone wants to rule the United States.
With 14 official Republican Party candidates, four Democratic ones and about 50 other hopefuls, the 2016 race for the world’s most important job may be among the most crowded in recent times.
What is most striking is the plethora of candidates on the Republican side and the diversity of opinion they represent.
That the party’s front-runner, Jeb Bush, who presently commands the support of only a fifth of Republican voters, is one reason many others feel they have a chance. Hillary Clinton can be said to have no real competition on the Democratic side, but the ideological gap between herself and the other Democratic contenders is considerable.
The sheer number of candidates and the diversity of opinion they represent are not just about the weakness of the two main candidates. It also reflects the fracturing of a policy consensus in the US that has become particularly acute in the past decade. Surveys measuring political polarisation show that since 2004, ideological conformity has almost tripled among US voters. On every major issue of debate in the US — climate change, healthcare, gay rights, foreign policy activism and, more recently, policing and race — there is little common ground among Americans.
The intensity of this debate has almost meant many Americans have fled the two main political parties, raising the number of ‘independent’ voters to a 75-year high.
The reasons behind the breakdown of the political middle include the continuing trauma of the global financial crisis, two unsuccessful wars, the rise of a permanent underclass of poor whites and blacks, and social issues that can no longer be ignored, like gay rights. The political consequences are evident.
The Republican side has almost split into its religious and corporate halves. The rest of the world watches with unease. The breakdown of an internal US foreign policy consensus is one reason that the Islamic State remains largely unchallenged or that China feels emboldened to claim 80% of the South China Sea.
That there is so much uncertainty about what type of person will rule US 16 months hence means all that much more risk in a world that has more than enough on its plate today.