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Midterm Elections Reveal Challenges for American Democracy

Midterm Elections Reveal Challenges for American Democracy

Friday, 26 October, 2018 - 06:45
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987
As the midterm election campaign in the United States enters the home-stretch, the American political scene is offering a number of intriguing features to outside observers. Depending on the results on November 6, some of those features may become fixtures in the American electoral exercises for some time to come.

The first new features is that this is the first time in living memory that a major American election is fought without tangible policy issues being present at least in filigree let alone seriously debated.

Candidates on opposite sides look at you with a mixture of annoyance and incomprehension if you happen to pose a question about something as esoteric as their economic policies. On the Democratic side all you hear is that the current glittering aspect of the American economy is nothing but fool’s gold. On the Republican side you will get little more than a claim that things are going well and that Democrats are bent on wrecking things.

That brings us to the second new feature of this election: the absence of an opposition capable of offering a coherent critic of and an alternative to the current administration’s strategy.

In fact the third new feature is that next month’s election is more about deciding who controls the Democratic Party than a strategy to stop President Donald Trump’s apparently unstoppable juggernaut. A three-way split in the Democratic Party is already apparent.

One faction consists of what one could call “Trumpians of the left” who try to imitate the incumbent president’s shock-and-awe style, contributing to the further radicalization of American political discourse.

That faction’s mascot is Senator Bernie Sanders, who offers a hodgepodge of leftist populism and old style European socialism. If politics were a dance, Sanders would be ideal partner for Trump in a pas de-deux. Sander’s fans insist that he should have been the Democrats’ standard-bearer against Trump in 2016.That claim is rejected by the old elite of the party still nostalgic about the good old days of the Clintons.

Some old-timers still hope that Hillary Clinton could be the party’s candidate in the next presidential election against Trump who “stole the election with Russian help.” The net result is that old Clintonians spend more energy trying to calm down Sanders’ fans than attacking Trump.

The third faction in the party is dominated by Obama left-overs. When President Barack Obama left the White House, received wisdom suggested that he would follow a tradition set by other ex-presidents and gracefully stay on the sidelines as the “father” or, depending on age; “grandfather” of the nation.

How wrong that supposition has proved to be!

We now know that good old Barack had no intention of playing elder statesman and has spent much time and energy retaining levers inside the party as the leader of the rainbow coalition that helped him win the presidency.

That rainbow coalition consists of minority communities: African-Americans at 12 percent, Hispanics at 14 percent; Jews and Muslims at two percent each, gays-lesbians-transgender also at 2 percent, and Native Americans at around 1 percent.

Obama seems to have even picked the man to represent his rainbow coalition in the next presidential battle. He is Julian Castro, of Mexican origin, who served in Obama’s Cabinet as Housing Minister.

He could, as Obama hopes, become the United States’ first Hispanic president. Castro has used the current mid-term election as an opportunity to make himself known to the American public. He has made more than 80 campaign appearances to support Democratic candidates and is a frequent feature on US TV networks most of which hate Trump as much as he hates them.

So far, the net result is the deepening of the ethnic-cum-political divide between the white Christian majority and the “rainbow” coalition.

The Democratic Party’s current weakness is bad news for American democracy whose successful functioning requires a strong and credible opposition. In much of the 1990s the structural weakness of the Republican Party, in opposition at the time, encouraged a mixture of arrogance and lethargy on the part of the Democratic elite in power, leading to any missed opportunities at both national and international levels.

Yet another new feature is the intensity of the verbal violence which seems well on the way to becoming the new norm. American politics was never known for its civility and politeness. President Lincoln’s opponents wrote and said things about him that we would shy away from repeating in print. President Lyndon Johnson’s vocabulary was closer to that of a lumberjack on a drinking bout than a senior politician’s in a mature democracy.

However, many Americans believe that the current level of political discourse in their country is at its lowest ever as exchanging torrents of abuse has replaced civilized political debate.

In an overall picture that does not seem to be favorable to American democracy one may find at least two features that could be regarded as positive.

The first is an unprecedented degree of mobilization on all sides. The expectation that millions of people who never voted before may do so this time may be fanciful. But what is certain is that the campaign has attracted many more foot soldiers on both sides. Tens of thousands of people have even taken special time-off from work to help their favorite candidates win or the candidates they hate stopped in their tracks.

On the downside, the rapid rise in the influence of social media may also be a danger in medium and long terms. The fact that mainstream media are in crisis caused by a mixture of economic, cultural and structural causes, has persuaded many people to opt for social media as an alternative window on the real world.

Social media encourage faster desacralization of political authority. They create echo chambers that imprison millions in their prejudices. Worse still they foster the illusion that everybody is somebody on every issue. But if everybody is somebody then nobody is anybody.

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