/ 2 November 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Disgust beats denial any day

Extreme weather is not the only bad news Americans have faced lately
Extreme weather is not the only bad news Americans have faced lately

On Sunday, just before a state of emergency was declared in Connecticut, where I have lived for a few months, my partner and I braved the queues of panicky shoppers to hunker down for "superstorm" Sandy.

We were lucky to be spared her ire. Others were not. As New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo surveyed the damage, he said: "Anyone who thinks there isn't a change in weather patterns is denying reality." Bizarrely, in an election season, this is the first serious comment about climate change that I have heard from a prominent politician.

The inimitable Walter Lippmann famously observed of politicians that "they shiver and quake at the thought that some indiscreet journalist will expose them to the world as men of virtue and common sense".

There seem to be very few United States politicians prepared to expose themselves as possessing virtue and common sense. If you think the road to Mangaung is bad, a quick tour of the US blogosphere will leave you reeling.

I have followed the election campaign with horrified fascination. I have watched the presidential debates multiple times. I cannot stop hearing Mitt Romney, in a reprise of George Bush's clumsy patriotism, saying "America is the hope of the Earth" as he made his closing comments in the foreign policy debate. I have played and replayed the vice-presidents' debate, watching Joe Biden sting Paul Ryan like a smug mosquito. I have listened with increasing alarm to countless right-wing radio chat show hosts and I have spoken to dozens of students and colleagues about US politics.

I have concluded that democracy in the US is in a deep, deep crisis. It may be a crisis that far outstrips anything we are experiencing in South Africa. I say this advisedly. I am aware of the patronage networks, the corruption and sleaze that typify our politics and our politicians. But at least in South Africa we talk about our crisis. We recognise that we are in trouble and have the desire to declare and describe our downward spiral to any passing journalist.

At a round-table discussion in which I participated at the US Council on Foreign Relations a few weeks ago, an Algerian colleague made the point that "democracy is dead in this country". With the powers of observation of a newcomer he said: "You have two political parties that simply cannot agree and yet, paradoxically, it makes no difference which one is in power because of the influence of big business in politics."

Single "brand" approach
The bottom line is that the room for manoeuvre for any leader is minimal. The US is teetering between being a one-party state in which Republican versus Democrat is a false choice, and being a state without any parties at all – just a loose, competing and cacophonous set of virtually unmediated interests.

Despite this, many Americans continue to believe that their model of democracy is the "best". In my first few weeks here a student said, without a hint of irony, that the US was "the greatest country with the best democracy in the world". It is a theme that politicians repeat all the time, but it is pervasive among ordinary people as well. There are many models of democracy. Those of us who are committed to it should be interested in variety rather than in a single "brand" approach.

I never thought I would say this, but South Africans would do well to continue to complain about our crisis. The reality is that, despite its checks and balances, its beautiful Constitution and its robust legislatures, the US has spun its wheels for four years because of a political system that is in disarray and  enmeshed in conflicts of interest that are as wide as they are deep.

In the face of a massive financial crisis it has failed to regulate the banks and their lending practices and continues to spend wildly on the military. Katrina gave way to Irene, which this week became Sandy, but neither of the two candidates dared utter the words "climate change" in their televised debates. They speak instead of "energy independence". They seem intent on demonstrating that, no matter the challenge, the political response will be to default into denial and paralysis.

South Africans must keep moaning, reject the idea that we are the best (in Africa) and insist that a few indiscreet journalists expose those politicians who are silently suffering from virtue and common sense. Once we have ferreted them out, we can ask them to lead us.

Sisonke Msimang is participating in the Yale world fellowship programme on democracy in the United States and South Africa