History in many parts of the world stretches far farther back than the 300 or 400 years the United States looks back to for its own heritage and lessons. With that much more experience, these other countries often move in longer sentimental swings or policy cycles, and with idiosyncrasies the United States would do well to not ignore. How the short-view or long-view plays out with the 2016 U.S. presidential election may be estimated through characteristically U.S. imprints. Four beg attention: (a) U.S. election calendar duration; (b) campaign financing; (c) post-Trump U.S. democracy; and (d) external U.S. implications.
Though the official presidential election calendar begins with the primaries/caucuses from early February, that is 10 months before the actual election, candidate announcement begins from much earlier. In other words, for more than one year, major media attention is riveted upon this single event, highlighting every nook and cranny, wrinkle and wart, as well as actual developments and closeted components of every candidate for both U.S. voters and interested outsiders. No better word describes this configuration than a soap-opera.
As in "All in my Children" across the United States or "Coronation Street" in England (two incessant television serials), we get a daily chronometer of the high-points and lows of the candidates, with the media tendency to sensationalise adding to the drama.
No other election in the world captures as much attention for so long; yet, given the Trump infusion this year, no other election the world over can turn the audience off in such great numbers as this year's.
As the toll extracted upon U.S. presidential elections increases every day of the year-long calendar, each election's emotional peak-point with the result drowns its substantive value.
Nowhere is the power of the so-called Fourth Branch of government (the media) more manifest than with U.S. presidential election, even if it is built upon dramatically presenting the same information over and over again (exemplified by CNN coverage); and nowhere is the power of the Fourth Branch more clipped than in most of the rest of the world.
As politics and position fall behind scoops and sensationalism, the U.S. presidential election has been losing its reverence from generations ago: except for the Camelot connection in 1960, the peanut-farmer's challenge of mainstream politics in 1976, and the "change we can believe in" sparks of 2008, every other presidential election has been riddled with ideological clashes, cash, and accumulating dirty water both beneath and across the political terrain.
Like in an auction, the winning U.S. presidential election ticket goes to the highest bidder, emasculating in one fell swoop everything democracy stands for. In 2008, Obama and John McCain broke the billion-dollar barrier, notching $730 million and $333 million, respectively, out of the $2.4 billion spent by all candidates together. Four years later, Obama's tally fell to $722.3 million, but Mitt Romney raked in $449.8 million, while all candidates together fetched almost $2.4 billion again.
By April this year, Hillary Clinton's money-machine tops the list with $256.4 million, followed by Bernie Sanders with $182.8 million, Cruz's $141.8 million, Trump's $51 million, and Kasich's $29.2 million. Even Jill Stein ("Jill who?", one might ask) got enough to purchase an upstate New York mansion ($357,635). Yet, this is only dress-rehearsal for the election's "high-noon": the post-primaries battle.
The money comes from small individual contributors with less than $200 each (largely Sanders's source), large individual contributors, political action committees (PACs), and self-financing (Trump's source).
The middle two sources have tended to dominate. In 2012, for example, Obama's top sources were the University of California, Microsoft, Google, and the U.S. government, while Romney's were Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, and Wells Fargo. As the top suppliers, financiers (including both insurance and real estate owners) had displaced the "military-industrial complex" threat behind U.S. policies and democracy that Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned against in his January 1961 Farewell Address.
Lord Acton's 1887 "absolute power corrupts absolutely" aphorism inspires the following: maximum money maximises corruption. Democracy faces a fatal force: voting sanctioning a money machine and deepening the inequality effect of big-businesses dominating politics.
Democracy's falling stocks can be traced to the kind of finger-pointing Ted Cruz and Donald Trump epitomised this year. In a world replete with countries struggling to become democratic, there will be fewer takers and even fewer converts if the United States continues as a model.
Trump in particular but Cruz as well have projected democracy to be all about closing shop (building walls, halting trade) and insulting both other countries and social groups. Any foreign appetite for democracy will be severely shaken: autocracies will get a face-lift by default; countries new to democracy might go through a rude awakening; countries close to consolidating democracy will begin to think twice; and full-fledged democracies will themselves begin to either spruce up their own version loudly or lament the overall deterioration in the United States.
If the prospects of democracy worldwide have not already been alienated by Cruz, Trump, and the likes, the country championing democracy the most from 1989, the United States, appears less as a cheerleader and an enforcer or arbiter when conundrums arise in democracy-experimenting countries. George H.W. Bush's New World Order promised plenty, while Freedom House, established in 1941 but plucked out of dormancy only by Bush's 1989 call, serves to measure how democracy is unfolding elsewhere: both only attract questions and circumspection now, not respect nor followership.
Countries capable of a longer view will recall how the United States actually found dictators to be the best friends against communists between 1949 and 1989, often with democratically-elected or -inspired opponents as victims: from Chile's pinching Pinochet to a tyrannical shah in Iran, a megalomaniacal Marcos in the Philippines, and a string of sturdy soldiers who effectively trampled democratic chances in Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Thailand, and so forth.
To them, Cold War interpretation, New World Order intentions, and subsequent calypsos as under the Cruz-Trump company not only depict a very chameleon-like United States to warrant serious attention, but also (and worse), actually lower the esteem for democracy in countries still battling between authoritarian oversight and representative government. If democracy emerges in these countries, the type will be far different than in the United States (a peculiar model to the rest of the world, since the president is elected by a college rather than people directly, with only 2 parties contesting, caucuses that reek of subjective influences, and cash, perhaps the 21st Century's political "four-letter" word).
Perhaps the most damaging global spin-off may have less to do with decaying democracy and more with its destabilising aftermath. After all, it was precisely this trade-off after World War II that made the United States internationalise its isolationist outlook: to prevent the rest of the free-world from being consumed by communism, thus elevating political stability over democracy, even if that meant befriending dictators. It was the pivotal U.S. Cold War approach, and perhaps contributed to the decline and death of both the communist threat and the Soviet Union, its key international vehicle.
To instantly invert that trade-off, that is, an open-ended push for democracy over possible instability has proven to be a huge mistake, as a quarter-century of trials and errors in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have shown: democracy does not fall from the sky with the click of a finger (that is, balloting in just-installed voting booths, or eliminating the key tyrant himself), or rise from the ashes of a war because of a democratic overseer (Germany and Japan were two exceptions, but for reasons very unlikely to be replicable), or fit any country-specific pattern (such as the U.S. model).
Every people in the world carries a long history of social relations, which relate more intimately with the democratisation process: some still have lord-peasant structures, others a man-servant defining characteristic, yet others huge, historical ethnic divisions that must be ironed out before any one-person-one-vote mandate can make any sense.
This a "born-free" country (in essence, one without any vested interests), like the United States, has had no experience with: not every other democratising country can boast of Enlightenment-infused founding fathers, lots of land to cultivate, and all too few people to inhabit it, then to embark upon an untested democracy that even the United States found onerous: spreading democracy to every citizen did not happen in 1776 or 1789, instead involved huge social movements whereby white males had to yield the right to vote to white females in 1920 (19th Amendment), then both to Afro-Americans and other non-white groups from 1964 (24th Amendment) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This is almost a 200-year democratisation journey for a "born-free" country. We cannot expect Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, or other countries with longer and more bitter histories to do so in 2 or 20 years.
Paved with good intentions, the United States lucked out with the Cold War gamble between 1947 and 1989, but must let local dynamics determine democratisation outcomes. Many democracy-experimenting countries sense those good intentions, which is why they keep returning to the United States even after pitfalls and spats. Donald Trump, however, destabilises this uneasy status quo, even though his call for a global retreat is not an unsound idea.
In fact, he could inflict a double blow to global democratisation: his views not only encourage dictators (if he loses the 2016 election, he can at least claim more popularity in the country Vladimir Putin rules than any other U.S. president or candidate can), but democracy-experimenting countries might see them as the last democratisation straw since, if he is the product of "democracy," keeping a distance from that brand might be better.
In short, the Trump revolution may cast a longer and more disturbing future shadow even if he loses. Will other established democracies accept the United States as one of the flock? Will the remainder of the world find an anti-U.S. election platform a winnable ticket? What goes around really comes around; and the sooner the U.S. electorate rectifies the damage being done to its own democracy, the more likely we can all return to democratising the rest of the world.
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is Professor, International Relations, formerly Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.
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