"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! "
- Inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty
There is no doubt that this was a long bruising US Presidential campaign. Its stunning revelations and vitriol were not unfamiliar but coming from one of the world’s oldest and most dynamic democracies, it was nothing short of jolting.
This campaign made me question my faith in a democracy more than 200 years in the making.
We hold these truths to be self-evident
Do you remember the era of “Truthiness”? It emerged during the Bush 43 Administration when political pundits and celebrity news anchors stated opinion as facts. I believe this was the prologue to the US Presidential election campaign of 2016. Conspiracy theorists penetrated mass media, peddled fake news and fanned mass hysteria by exploiting the fears of others. This created an environment where most voters did not differ on policy – but differed on the basic facts.
This is not just a divisive society. This is a chasm that has rendered informed discussion and debate impotent. With this environment, how then could the US electorate weigh the policy options in a safe, civic space without the threat of a witch hunt via Twitter or an attack by internet trolls? Isn’t that one of the foundations of a democratic society – freedom of expression and freedom from fear?
Perhaps there was a meeting where everyone decided that expert opinions are no longer valid? Scientific evidence and analysis, no matter how rigorous, were no longer credible. From job growth to climate change, people trusted their peers - not government reports or even the evening news. In some ways, I understand this especially when one’s personal reality is not reflected in the mainstream media. Sometimes it is better to listen to someone who looks like you and sounds like you.
So where did this come from? Did its roots start in the Bush #43 era with its parade of known unknowns and no WMDs? Maybe the sleeping giant of distrust was stirred awake by plummeting housing prices and government gridlock. Maybe it was always there catalysed by the Recession of 2009.
The US democracy, though old and strong, also buckled under the kryptonite of celebrity. An outsider who the electorate knew for decades as a success on TV was preferable to a political insider with four decades worth of battle scars. The establishment was no longer to be trusted. Celebrity and the appetite for ratings lowered the standards of the electorate and created a false equivalence in the media. Journalists simply forgot to do their job.
All men are created equal
There is no doubt that globalization has affected some groups more than others. Low level skilled workers have seen their jobs disappear and their financial security threatened. These concerns are valid and real. However a disproportionate amount of media airtime was dedicated to the plight of the white working class man. This media glare legitimized their anger and justified xenophobia and racism directed at the other (immigrants, Muslims et al). This vilification and demonization should be rejected in any democracy. Instead it was exploited by political interest groups and normalized on the evening news. The sad result is that hate crimes against US Muslims are now at an all- time high.
This strikes at the heart of the US democracy – freedom from persecution.
Put women in the sequel
The level of vulgarity and misogyny during the campaign visible at political rallies and on our TV screens was revealing about how society views women. From the mansplaining and the verbal attacks directed at women to the blatant sexism perpetrated by the media, this election made a mockery of women and their ambitions. It objectified women everywhere. Disappointing when, more than 59 countries have had a woman as the head of state or government.
“the most important role in a democracy is the role of citizen.”
- US President Barack Obama
We the people
When the American colonists decided to reject the British Monarchy, it devolved the power to select and elect its representatives to the citizens of a newly formed United States of America hoping to forge a more perfect union.
So it was hard for the rest of the world to see the US go against the values upon which it was founded.
This matters. The US has always been beacon of hope and opportunity.
It is where the world’s huddled masses seek refuge. The wounds of this election have severely damaged that image.
What we should take away from this is that all democracies are fragile and should be handled with care – even in the US. Nothing should be taken for granted.
The role of the citizen is the most important in any democracy. For the US to heal from this, it must harness and mobilize the power of every citizen to resist against voter apathy, corporate interests and political tribalism.
Citizens must also hold its democratic institutions to high standards both within and outside of an election campaign and remain forever vigilant, active, engaged and well informed.
This, and only this, will make any living democracy great!