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Gary Younge
Will the US people be heard today?

Gary Younge sits in a restaurant in Denver, Colorado as America goes to the polls. Photograph: Dan ChungAmericans love democracy. Ask any American from any state whether these elections matter and they will tell you yes.

They say this unequivocally, regardless of whether they are actually going to vote or even whether they know the election is taking place. They will also tell you why. "Because the people must have their say."

But over the past 10 days, as I have asked people whether they think that their votes will actually make any difference to the issues that are important to them, I have found few who truly believe that anyone will actually listen to what they say once they've said it. Everybody knows their vote will make a difference to whom is elected. But few expect their candidate to be able to deliver on their promise.

Those who vote Democrat because they are against the war do not expect a Democratic victory to bring the war's end any closer; those who vote Republican because they are against abortion do not think abortion will be banned if their candidate wins. There is a basic disconnect between the popular embrace of democratic principle and the widespread indifference to its application.

Nonetheless, the billion dollar electoral machine churns out ads and yard signs. The issues are listed - Iraq, immigration, terrorism, health care - but not really debated. The media is complicit in this.

Obsessed by polls and personalities, there is a surreal fixation on whose up and whose down with little indication of why we should care. Issues like Kerry's gaffe or the Foley scandal masquerade as political events for the simple reason that so little politics is taking place. Real debate on the issues is rare.

The idea that Americans tolerate this because they are reasonably well off is undermined by the fact that large numbers of them are anything but.

Just nine months before hurricane Katrina exposed endemic poverty and racism, a hotly contested presidential election, in which the nation's future was supposed to be at stake, raised none of these issues. Just over a year after the hurricane, Katrina has barely featured in these congressional elections that are once again supposed to be landmark.

What sick state does a political culture have to be in to have an event of that magnitude halfway between two national elections, and fail to either address its underlying causes beforehand or mention its ramifactions afterwards?

In ordinary times, such omissions could admittedly suggest that enough Americans are sufficiently comfortable to ignore those who have been marginalised. But these are no ordinary times. There is a war on. And at home the fear of a possible terrorist attack, future wars and immigration are very real. Neither of the parties has a coherent plan to deal with any of these issues.

That doesn't mean that it is irrelevant who wins. A Democratic victory in either House will provide the opportunity for some oversight over the Bush administration that has been lacking these past six years. That is important. It will also set the country up for more intense democratic role-play for the 2008 presidential election. That is dull.

The great claims that will be made tonight by whoever does win will barely endure scrutiny. But that a change in leadership does not necessarily imply a change in direction.

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