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Time for US to import some democracy

I was saying to mates over lunch this week that the mere fact that one cannot confidently predict who the next president of the United States will be tells you a lot about American society.

Given that incumbent Donald Trump is a vile, racist, toxic, xenophobic, misogynistic, anti-intellectual megalomaniac, it should be obvious that only a really ridiculous alternative candidate should struggle to beat him. 

Joe Biden has many political weaknesses but does not count as a “really ridiculous” candidate for American president, let alone, in a comparative analysis, as someone who could be described as being no better than Donald Trump. Yet here we are having to reckon with the not-impossible scenario that Trump may well get a second term. I hope he does not but I would not bet more than very little money on the outcome of this election. There simply are no guarantees.

Why the uncertainty?

Assuming you agree with me that there are no guarantees about who will win this election, it is interesting to then explore what the uncertainty tells us about American citizens, and American society more generally. After all, this is a country that has tens of millions of people who genuinely believe that they are the gold standard of everything from fairness to decency to democracy itself. They swallow that kind of jingoism whole.

If they are even half as awesome as they think they are, how could Trump be re-elected? Electing him the first time round could be quietly laughed off as a kind of embarrassing historical mistake that historians and political scientists could do retrospective analysis on for years and even decades to come. A more disturbing but separate question from that one is why Trump’s re-election was never off the table (even if he in fact does not get re-elected). So let’s venture some answers.

Heterogeneity

One reality about American society is that it is not homogenous and that both Americans, and observers outside of America, make the mistake of not paying sufficient attention to the parts of American society that do not share one’s own political principles. This leads to a distorted sense of what is going on in American society and what will happen in American society.

An excellent book that is but one example of writing that explores this analytical weakness is Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance. The book takes the lived experiences of white working-class families very seriously and, without excusing racism or bigotry, it tries to make sense of why millions of white working-class Americans also feel like they are not adequately accommodated by the political architecture of the Democratic Party, and in the analysis of liberal and progressive voices more generally. 

Now, if you are a liberal only tuning into, say, CNN for your news, it may not even occur to you that there is work to be done to make sense of the realities of people who are very different to yourself. Just as a stodgy diet of Fox News would deprive you, as a conservative, of self-examining the limitations of Trump’s brand of politics.

The crisis with polling, both in America and in Europe, demonstrates how even those who are fluent in statistical analysis and social scientific methods can be guilty of biases such as confirmation bias when they set out to make sense of the citizens of an irreducibly complex society. America is complex, and diverse, and that fact alone means that it will never be easy to get an unambiguous grip on the trajectory of politics across the length and breadth of the society. This makes poll predictions an almost silly sport.

Scapegoating

A more toxic reason why Trump’s re-election is not impossible, however, is the scapegoating that happens when societies experience crisis. We see here in South Africa, for example, how foreign nationals are scapegoated by citizens who have legitimate grievances about social and economic deprivation but who lash out, not against the state and against exploitative capital, but against the most vulnerable, such as foreign nationals who live with us, competing for limited resources, and limited jobs. Some predatory politicians simply tap this sentiment and convert it into political support for themselves.

Electing Trump the first time round could be quietly laughed off as a kind of embarrassing historical mistake

This is also why we have seen a rise in right-wing populist politics in Western Europe, of course, where some politicians exploit the discontent of citizens by sharpening xenophobic messaging that target immigrants and refugees. It works because citizens who are struggling to flourish in their own society feel like these populist politicians legitimate their anger about not making it in their society, and the politicians in turn can deflect critical moral and political accountability questions about their own behaviour within the state and within the body politic by focusing on an “external threat”: the immigrant.

Trump does this in the US. It, too, is a society in crises, from poor healthcare provision to an economy not as healthy as it has often been. He has to deflect from himself and focus citizens’ attention elsewhere — not on his administration. He therefore foments a range of “isms”, not least among them racism and pitting people against one another. 

He appeals to the worst aspects of the moral psychology of his supporters and converts inflammatory and violent political speech into loyalty and political affect. 

It is shameful but there is a market for this kind of political populism. It also comes naturally to him because in his case it coincides perfectly with his own thoroughly immoral character. He is not gaming when he divides American citizens. He is putting his beliefs on full public display and, when he looks at the responses of large crowds to what he says and does, he no doubt feels vindicated.

Where is the Dems’ policy?

Lastly, Trump’s re-election is also not off the table because of problems with a Democratic Party that does not have all of its ducks in a row. It is really hard to articulate precisely what Biden actually stands for beyond, at a fundamental level, simply “not being Trump”. The Democrats did not do a great job in selling a crystal-clear vision to American citizens.

And, sure, mere sanity in the White House would be great for the US and for the world. But if you have some states where the contest is going to be close, and some constituencies that are hard to persuade to depart from their historical party loyalties regardless of the candidate put forward by that party, then you have to be far more precise in explaining what it is that you offer them to depart from their political instincts. 

Even a poor minority member might wonder, say, whether they would necessarily be better off, economically, in a tax-averse economy run by racist Trump or an economy with a more complicated policy mix run by a more liberal guy called Joe. 

The choice is not necessarily obvious and Democratic Party strategists cannot assume that all women or all black people, say, will rush into the democratic embrace of Joe Biden because Trump is a racist and misogynist. Insufficient work was done on this front. Voters are complex and political strategising need to be alive to such complexity. Very few of us are single-issue voters.

So how will it play out? No one knows. It does not help that American institutions are less robust than they think. For example, theirs is a very litigious society. They love reviving lost political battles, including attempts to disenfranchise the supporters of political opponents, by perpetually turning to the courts. This means that long after the last vote is cast there may be titanic legal — and public information — battles to try and win this election in other forums beyond the voting booth.

That, too, is laughable insofar as it shows that this country, which is addicted to exporting democratic values and culture, may well need the rest of us to help them learn how to behave democratically. Maybe it is time for the US to import lessons on democracy.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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