What began last month with a handshake and visible warmth between two very different U.S. presidential candidates degenerated into disrespectful interruptions, unashamed baiting, and abrasive name-calling as the third and final debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump came to a frosty end. With less than three weeks to go before the election, the campaigns saw explosive revelations about both candidates. This included disturbing evidence of Mr. Trump boasting about groping women without their consent, allegations of such behaviour and sexual assault by at least nine women, and an avalanche of confidential emails of Ms. Clinton’s campaign released by WikiLeaks that underscored her proximity to deep-pocketed Wall Street donors. Yet, even as these damning facts have tumbled into the public domain and the degree of hostility has soared, they have probably done little to swing the election dramatically in either direction. Ms. Clinton was leading by a little over two percentage points across an average of major head-to-head polls around the time of the first debate. Her margin grew to over 6.5 per cent after the “Access Hollywood” tapes of Mr. Trump’s offensive remarks. Most poll simulation models predict she is well-positioned to capture the minimum of 270 electoral college votes that are necessary to secure the presidency, principally owing to her likely success in the swing States.
However, the electorate is plagued by intractable, bitter polarisation that is beginning to rot the core ideals of a tolerant, pluralistic democracy. Even a resounding Clinton victory in terms of electoral college votes would beg the question whether she will be able to bring on board her stoutly Democratic agenda, given the vast number of middle class and poor Americans, many of them white, who may not have voted for her. To achieve her goals will she not be compelled to mend fences with the discredited mainstream Republican Party leadership that will be busy trying to rehabilitate itself after Hurricane Donald passes? Ms. Clinton, if she finds herself in the White House, will have to strike a multitude of bargains across the policy positions that Americans disagree most stridently on: the economy, job-creation and the role of the government, national debt and tax cuts, Medicare and Social Security, immigration and border control, women’s reproductive rights, race relations, and a range of foreign policy issues. In the vitiated atmosphere of the third debate, the candidates touched upon all of these issues, yet neither enunciated a new approach or even hinted at a desire to build bridges to make America whole again.