Democracy on the edge


As I write this, two days after the US presidential election took place, the result is still unclear. By the time the Newsday reader sees it, we might just about know whether the removal vans at the White House are carrying away an unforgettable ex-president or arriving with the baggage of a new incumbent. It could well be that removal vans are ferrying away redundant WH staff for whom a continuing President Trump has no more use. Whatever the outcome, everything might have changed forever.

Political commentators have run out of words to describe the last four years of American politics, but the elections last week were not about politics, they were about a man, one who made the US about himself, about his way of seeing the world, his beliefs, his “truths” and what he stands for.

President Trump divided the people of the “United” States of America after politicising them through his copious and irreverent use of social media. I do not know it to be a fact but I would wager that no other US president, or modern world leader, has ever made himself so constantly present to the people of his country. Utilising 21st-century technology, he polarised US citizens so intensely that he has created cleavages even within families.

The tendency might be to berate Trump for his misrepresentation of the facts, his coarseness, his disrespect for everyone, for every US tradition (except guns) and institution, and even more so for international ones, but he cannot be faulted for making US citizens alert to their democracy and its workings and provoking a mass mobilisation.

Getting the voters out is a challenge for every established democratic country, yet this time around more people voted than any time since 1900 in the hope that their ballot would count and their voice be heard. If they were to tally the number of hours my relatives in the US stood in line to vote early it would probably run into days. In our family WhatsApp group, my 97-year-old aunt posed with her badge to prove that she too had voted early.

Everyone understood what was at stake and many gauche attempts at voter suppression struggled to be overcome in the face of the Republican campaign to thwart the Democratic voter, continuing now in the courts.

The tragedy of the outcome is that the US has been permanently damaged. Trump pulled the cloak off the surface of everything to reveal that only a very thin veneer holds much of the greatness together. Starting with the electoral process, which may have been designed to bind a federation of states by allowing near-complete autonomy but in the national context is too convoluted and, as Trump has shown, can be exploited.

It also seems inherently unfair that, as in the previous presidential election, the winner of the popular vote does not necessarily win, making the vote of the individual citizen immaterial. If you live in a Democrat stronghold and vote Republican your vote gets discarded by the electoral college. If I were a US voter I would want my party to have a majority in the House and the Senate and pass an amendment to end the electoral-college system. There can be little incentive for voters, without the stakes being as high, as they have been this time, to do their civic duty. People more knowledgeable about the intricacies of US politics might argue that states have nevertheless changed hands, but going back to the Obama administration, the elections have produced a stalemate in the exercise of power that must be depressing to the US citizen and stagnated the working of government in Washington.

It also encouraged President Trump to indulge in the use of executive powers and play havoc with well established systems, creating new norms that bring even the justice system into ill repute.

Whether or not Trump loses, the US could suffer from the Humpty Dumpty syndrome, on top of covid19. The very role of federal government has to be re-established when the State has responded so inadequately to the pandemic and cannot keep its citizens safe from regular mass killings or the effects of climate change either.

Can the deep mistrust of almost every sacred truth, such as the right of men to be equal, be corrected when it is still so hotly contested? It would appear that the role of civil society has never been bigger and more urgently to be banked on. Bridge-building must start within families and communities, at local and state level before a new unifying president can hope to start curing the soul of the nation.

On the international level, could the US ever pull back from the inconvenient truths of its foreign policy as it stands now, not to mention in four years' time, if the WH has the same occupant?

The future is hard to gauge but we should all learn to fend for ourselves, because the US is certainly not what it once was.


"Democracy on the edge"

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