It is interesting that among the matters Donald Trump was pilloried for, following his third and final debate with Hillary Clinton last month was the idea that he was challenging the fundamentals of democracy in the United States by refusing to declare that he would accept the result of the presidential election on November 8.
The Republican candidate clarified his stance the following day by making it clear that he would be sceptical of the electoral outcome only in the event that he lost – which, by then, appeared to be more or less a foregone conclusion.
The question that elicited that non-committal response was based on what he had been saying in the run-up to the debate, namely that the election would be rigged.
It was widely assumed, probably correctly, that Trump’s diatribe was based on the assumption that he was bound to lose, quite possibly by a vast margin. There’s some irony in the fact, though, that – to an extent – he was right. The conspiracy against Trump, if there is one, was never the main issue. If anything, he is the most prominent symptom of a broken system under which democracy is something to be managed rather than honoured.
Representative rule based on universal adult franchise is very much a 20th-century phenomenon. The United States’ first female candidate with a serious chance of winning the White House came less than a century after American women won the right to vote.
In many ways, it’s a pity that the candidate happens to be Hillary Clinton. Were it not for Trump, his Democratic rival would be the most unpopular contender for the presidency in the history of the US. It’s possible that she would have fared equally well against Ted Cruz, the Christian fundamentalist runner-up to Trump in the Republican primaries, who was detested almost as vehemently by the party leadership.
The scenario was, to a certain extent, echoed on the other side of a political divide with the surprisingly successful candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont, who had plenty of cause to complain about the hostility of the Democratic leadership, which went out of their way to undermine him.
Sanders, the oldest contender for any party’s nomination, struck a chord particularly with younger Americans, who evidently were not intimidated by his self-definition as a socialist as much as older voters brainwashed into believing that the ideology is indistinguishable from the Soviet/Eastern European experiment whose failure became manifest in the late 1980s –and, by extension, that there is no alternative to capitalism. In fact, the solutions Sanders offered weren’t much more radical than the New Deal policies of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, intended to pull the US out of the Great Depression.
They helped millions of people, although it was the Second World War and its consequences that helped to turn the US into a 20th-century economic powerhouse, if only for a few decades. What many of the supporters of Trump as well as Sanders have been protesting against can largely be characterised as the consequences of neoliberal capitalism encapsulated in the ideology of the Reagan administration, exacerbated under the rule of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and unremedied under Barack Obama, despite the fact that he took over in the immediate aftermath of the crash of 2008.
Sanders and Trump have been offering very different solutions to the conundrums, and a direct contest between the two would have been fascinating. Polls earlier this year suggested that, in the event, Sanders would easily have won, not least because his negative ratings were the lowest among contenders on both sides of a divide often viewed, with good cause, as largely artificial.
Ever since universal adult franchise gradually became the norm through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, the tendency has been to obliterate any real differences between the main rivals – both in the West and anywhere else that the model has been accepted, which means pretty much across all continents that have followed the Westminster or Washington standard – so that ultimately the question of who wins an electoral contest is more or less academic. When the so-called centre-right and centre-left are for some reason unable to alternate in power, they rule in tandem, as in Germany.
Yet vast resources are dedicated to election campaigns. The US takes the cake, but it is a common phenomenon wherever elections are held. In very many cases, huge corporations – which all too often underpay their employees and grossly overpay their executives – reserve a portion of their profits to grease the wheels of what passes for democracy, often contributing large amounts to both sides of politics. Efforts at funding reform frequently come a cropper in the US, because the senators and congressmen required to vote them in are reluctant to alienate their benefactors.
That’s not just a campaign issue, naturally. The financial contributions are an investment on which the contributors expect to see returns. They are usually not disappointed. In all too many cases, it’s simply a matter of preferential treatment for large companies and even larger corporations, for instance in terms of taxation. At other times it is not just the cash but the potential for adverse propaganda that militates against progressive policy positions.
The strength, imagined or otherwise, of the American gun lobby means mendacious misinterpretations of the 18th-century Second Amendment remain the norm, with few politicians willing even to take a stand against semi-automatic assault weapons, notwithstanding the fact that their ready availability facilitates the all-too-frequent mass shootings across the US. The volubility of the Israel lobby, meanwhile, ensures that highly generous American sponsorship of that country remains uninterrupted, notwithstanding its regular violations of international law and human rights. It is instructive that Sanders, the solitary Jewish contender among the Democrats/Republicans, was the only candidate who strayed from the unquestioningly pro-Likud norm.
Throughout living memory, the political system in the US has been something of a managed democracy, and 2016 is by no means the first time that the presidential election has turned out to be a contest between two unpopular choices, with what has been dubbed “lesser evilism” contributing to the outcome – which is to say that many voters vote the way they do simply as a means of thwarting the other candidate’s chances of victory.
That is pretty much the norm, of course, across nearly all democracies, albeit with occasional exceptions. And it is hugely interesting to observe what happens when enough voters deviate from their usual behaviour. One can only speculate what might have happened had Sanders succeeded in emerging as the Democratic nominee and gone on to trounce Trump. But the outcome of the left-wing Greek alliance Syriza’s victory is visible to all, even though it’s seldom mentioned any longer.
The party was thwarted at every step and not so much bullied as bludgeoned into submission by the European Union (EU) and its co-conspirators. As former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – who eventually lost his job at the behest of Brussels because his unseemly habit of speaking truth to power wasn’t exactly appreciated by his counterparts – has pointed out, in the 21st century it’s banks rather than tanks that are deployed to carry out coups. Re-elected despite reneging on its promises and betraying its voters (possibly because the alternatives were obviously even more dismal, and the alliance could at least be credited with trying hard to obtain a better deal for heavily indebted Greece), Syriza today more or less conforms to the neoliberal norm.
The fate of Greece sends a message not only to the citizenry of that country, but to voters elsewhere in Europe: Don’t base your electoral choices on any hope for meaningful progressive change. Had Syriza not failed so dismally, it is perfectly conceivable that its Spanish counterpart, Podemos, would have fared far better in a pair of elections, both of which turned out to be inconclusive.
Not far away from Spain, another social-democratic party is in turmoil because its members twice voted overwhelmingly for a relatively radical leader, against the express wishes of most of the party’s members of parliament. Widely seen as an unusually candid conviction politician in a Britain clearly disillusioned with the political class, Jeremy Corbyn faces unusually formidable hurdles: venomous hostility not just from the ruling Conservatives and pretty much the entire media establishment, but also from within his own Labour Party, most of whose MPs are unwilling to concede that reversing its decision some 20 years ago to jettison all socialist ideals might actually prove popular among its members and supporters.
There is little likelihood for the time being of Corbyn making it to 10 Downing Street, but were that to become a realistic prospect, the British establishment would go into overdrive in attempting to block his path. A former Labour MP, Chris Mullin, envisaged this very scenario in a 1982 novel that was turned into a TV miniseries. A Very British Coup ought to be required reading (or viewing) for students of the country’s current politics.
Veering sharply to the right, meanwhile, does not elicit anything approaching the same level of hostility from the political, corporate or military establishments. The semi-fascist inclinations of elected governments in countries such as Hungary and Poland, for example, don’t move the bureaucrats in Brussels to apoplexy of the variety witnessed in the context of Greece. How the EU might react to the ascendancy of the far right in France and Austria, among other western and central European nations, remains to be seen.
In most countries where elections are routinely conducted, they have largely been reduced to an exercise in PR rather than democracy, with the underlying agenda largely devoted to maintaining the status quo by any means possible, notwithstanding a growing clamour for change that finds echoes on every continent. Elections, as a consequence, are all too often contests between barely distinguishable styles of management, with few differences in substance.
Of course, the pattern is not entirely uniform. There are regional variations and occasional aberrations. The Philippines’ recently elected president Rodrigo Duterte counts as one at several levels, not least his determination to tackle the nation’s drugs crisis by exterminating, with extreme prejudice, dealers and addicts, and he apparently couldn’t care less if their family members, including children, and bystanders also get killed in the process. Amazingly, his popularity remains undented.
Much of Latin America, meanwhile, showed hopeful signs of deviating from the norm at the turn of the century, suggesting that elections could indeed precipitate meaningful change. It has, however, been more or less whipped back into line, albeit with a few remaining holdouts such as Bolivia. The impeachment of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff proved that even the mildest forms of social democracy can prove intolerable to vested interests.
In the circumstances, it’s easy to be a cynic. What is the point of voting if nothing much is likely to change? Achieving universal adult franchise required extended battles that were waged well into the 20th century, but conceding the right often went hand in hand with managing the electoral process. Yet democracy remains capable of throwing up surprises, and not all of them take the shape of Trump, Duterte or Silvio Berlusconi. Besides, no one has thus far come up with a superior means of governance by popular consent. So the struggle for adding substance to democracy must carry on. As the late Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney once put it:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.