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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 31

Presidential Elections in the US

Are the US Elections a Charade in Democracy or is there More to the Dynamics?

Tuesday 22 July 2008, by Manan Dwivedi

The American President, Thomas Jefferson, in one of his observations, is known to have stated that “If I am given an opportunity to survive with a Government without newspapers or with newspapers without a Government, then, I would opt for the second option.” The utterance reflects the all-significant strain that freedom of all kinds, including the freedom of press and expression, underlies the American democratic experiment.1 This saying lies nailed on the walls of offices of various journalists and editors all across the World. The colonial empire of the Britishers ended with the battle of Saratoga which led to the victory of George Washington’s men over the British forces led by Lord Cornwallis.2 This development along with the Philadelphia Declaration initiated the advent of democracy in the United States which was an amalgamation of originally thirteen colonies to begin with.

Also, if one analyses the seals of the Roman Empire, there too democracy was the order of the day. A free United States became the progenitor of democracy, popular sovereignty, general will and other liberal tenets which were enshrined in the American Bill of Rights. The First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment were the products of this American Revolution and the concomitant establishment of democracy in the newly free United States. Democracy received its full fruition with the Washingtonian decree of the abolition of slavery and the passage of the US Civil Rights Act in the year 1965; these are the reminders of the American commitment to democracy and its sustenance in the larger scope of affairs.

As an apt initiation of the American/Calvinistic Republicanism, the germs of democratic governance lay with the Articles of Confederation, which laid the foundation of a federative democracy in a newly formed United States of America. Article 2 of the Article of Confederation powerfully posits that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in the Congress assembled”.3 This Article firmly cements the fundamentals of democracy and its practice in a neophytic United States of America. Further evidence of implementation of the democratic ideals and justice in the country can be traced back to another Article, which posits that parties (both state and non-state actors), are accountable and are to be produced before the Congress of the Central Government before the establishment of the Supreme Court in the United States of America.4 The Article number ix of the Articles of Confederation states that “Whenever the legislative or executive authority or lawful agent of any State in controversy with another shall present a petition to Congress stating the matter in question and praying for a hearing, notice thereof shall be given by order of Congress to the legislative or executive authority of the other State in controversy, and a day assigned for the appearance of the parties by their lawful agents.”5

Thus, the ideal of “demos” was established and deemed to be practised in the newly-formed and cobbled up United States of America. The nomen-claturing of “democracy”, as well as the concept it represents, can be traced back to the historically significant region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The beginnings of democracy, can be credited to the Greeks of the sixth century BC. The word comes from two Greek words: demos, meaning “the people”, and kratein, meaning “to rule”. These two words are joined together to form democracy, literally meaning “rule by the people”. The American Revolution is another important event in the history of democracy. The precursor, of course, in America’s grandiloquent pursuit of democracy was the irrefutable Declaration of Independence in the memorable year of1776.

The inspirational credo of the warring Marines in the American Forces which amounts to “The Few, The Proud, We the Marines”,6 echoes the same sentiment of the United States being a grand parable in the making and being sobriqueted as the anointed Citadel atop Mount Sinai. Republican Senator Paul Brown is wary of the situation when the anti-war activism might scorch the glitter and gold quality of the Marines’ recruiting slogan. The strength of the US democracy is further reinvigorated by the 1973 admission of the Republican presidential candidate and decorated Vietnam veteran, John McCain, that “the biggest factor in a Man’s ability to perform credibly as a prisoner of war is a strong belief in the correctness of his nation’s foreign policy”.7 McCain penned these personal jottings in his essay to the Naval War College in the United States, the benign Hegemon of the day.

Modern American democracy is in the form of a democratic republic or a representative democracy. A representative democracy came about in the United States because the colonists were tired of taxation without representation and wanted a more fair system where the people had more say in the rule of the country. They did not desire the Athenian form of democracy however; they feared it would give the people too much power and would lend control of the government to the uneducated masses. What they came up with was an indigenous form of representative democracy, wherein elected representatives rather than direct rule by the people rule the government.8

The successful and fanfared culmination of Democratic candidature, will lead to a prognosis that democracy, its theory and praxis are still venerated and are being celebrated in the Kingdom of Milk and Honey, true to its tenets of Lockean Liberalism. The recent debate on the immigration and quagmire like Cuban question, too, are pivotal signposts of democratic discourse in a United States, which has been under the critical scanner of the domestic and international public opinion. Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for the President, is looking to shore up support, especially from the Latinos. During the primaries on Super Tuesday, he received only 35 per cent of Latinos’ vote, while former rival Senator Hilary Clinton bagged an impressive tally 63 per cent. Recently as a precursor to the match-up for the presidential race, Barack Obama, contended that he stands for a democratic revolution in mainland Cuba. Also the official Obama campaign standpoint on the sensitive theme of Latino segregation is rather unclear and dubious and leaves them to the charges often levelled against the Republican bandwagon which takes a stricter line of action for the Immigration and Hispanic question.

The Obama standpoint contends that “it’s not that we will grant citizenship, but we strongly support requiring them to legalise their status and allowing them to earn their right to commit to this country and eventually become citizens”.9 The question mark on the Latino’s stature, as diligent and loyal subjects of the most powerful nation state on the globe, still remains unresolved if one were to stick to the outpourings of Barack Obama and John McCain. The Republican nominee, John McCain, has been popular among Hispanics as one of the original authors of what is known as “the comprehensive Immigration Bill” in the Senate. That legislation would have increased funding and improved border security technology, improved enforcement of existing laws, and provided a legal path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

The ubiquitous Obama has staunchly observed that “My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: ‘Libertad’.10 Then the astute Democrat contends that “The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the right of free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, and it must lead to elections that are free and fair.” Also, Obama’s perceptions about engaging the so-called Rogue States of the order of Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba in a meaningful dialogue has not been very well received by the audiences. Obama’s and Hillary’s duel was fought against one of the foreign policy backdrops of the theme that “Withdrawing from Iraq and taking with Iran is not surrender, but a typical exercise in peace building. Even, Kennedy talked to the Ruskies, so be it now.” Senator John McCain has grabbed the opportunity to lambast a now-defensive Obama, after he offered to begin negotiations and diplomatic hobnobbing with the new Cuban regimenter, Raul Castro. Boasting of a 70 per cent turnout rate, Cuban-Americans have been a powerful force in Florida and thus, because of Florida’s role as a swing state, in American politics. Now it all boils down to a Hanuman amulet sporting Obama, pitted against the legendary, three times prisoner-of-war and a veteran of Vietnam, John McCain.

The American Democracy Deficit

The United States official seals and State Department and Defence Department emblems have all been near replicas of the Roman version of democracy wherein the Senate was the Vox Populi11 and the grand notion of popular sovereignty ruled the roost in the Holy Roman Empire. Dissent was still disdained in this royal Roman milieu, where-in the larger-than-life ambitions of Julius Caesar,12 along with the across the civilisations relationship between a Caeser sidekick, Mark Anthony, and Cleopatra, were punished militarily and derided upon. In the United States, too, alternative opinion on State policies and the rising tide of anti-war activism is easily relegated to the backburner.

The voices of the avant-garde personages, like Michael Moore, Hugh Heffner, Jane Fonda (during the heady anti-war activism of Vietnam), have now been able to find their requisite pride of place under the sun, after years of public opinion feuds being fought against the Establishment’s Goebellsian public opinion apparatus. Mainstream media, still, finds it an uphill and unpalatable task to voice the opinions of pacifist war Generals and running clear of the jingoistic streak of the Cable News Network, Fox Television and the omnipresent Rush Limbaughs13 of the American public narrative happens to be a big no-no. Thus, the purveyor of democracy, Uncle Sam, can amend these discriminative ways. What better and wholesome way it can be, but to indulge in a full-fledged debate and discussion on the national security, national economy, recession and foreign policy themes, during the hurly burly of the American electoral circus. The electoral battleground, is a perfect place to churn out the sea of themes of national and international significance. This gurgating sea of views, counterviews, allegations and counterpoints is a live testimony to the thriving of democratic practice in a vivacious and power-saturated nationstate.

An indecent interval in the democratic tradition of the United States was the endgame concerning Iraq, wherein, the Bush Presidency unleashed a war of subjugation and now attrition on the Baathists of Baghdad. Still, even such heinous “just humanitarian interventions” fraught with an adverse impact on the American democratic experiment was met by an Iraqi Study Group established by a bipartisan Congressional group, with members of the order of former Secretary of State, James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton. They reported that the US policy on Iraq needed a change in the direction where success was defined as stability and peace rather then the American dictum of establishing democracy.14 The Study Group advanced withdrawal schemes for the US forces from Iraq and it claimed the existence of a mere residual force which would have a mandate of training the Iraqi forces and not combat which has become the bane of the American experience in the tumultuous Middle East. Barack Obama might as well have a field day with his staunch espousal of the cause of opposing the American intervention right from the word go on March 19, 2003.

The ramifications for India as a co-partner in the pathway towards the establishment of democracy, is a variable which is dependent upon the standpoints taken on the India-centric themes by both the President hopefulls, John McCain and Barack Obama:

All is Not Well with the American “Demos”

Apart from all the proud palaver about democracy, speculation focuses upon a number of questions, purposeful miscounts, anomalies surrounding electronic voting (e-voting) machines, particularly the optical scan types; and numerous reports of voting “irregularities” in heavily Democratic areas. This is a stereotypical notion held by an American elections observer, Ritt Goldstien.15 Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader believes the Republican Party was able to “steal it before election day” in the elections of the year 2004 wherein the Democratic candidate challenging the Republican overarch was the indomitable John Kerry.

The Butterfly vote-scam, being beamed all across the globe as the mother of all scams featuring democracy, has become part of the pendulous and mischievous machination of democracy in the United States. The electronic gaffe cost Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, the White House in the run-up to the position of President of the nation on Mt. Sinai. Voters who marked Gore’s name and that of another candidate totalled more than 10 times the winning margin Bush received to claim Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the White House, the Post concluded. George Bush won the swing state of Florida by a 537-vote margin in official results, giving him a 271-267 majority in the electoral college. Palm Beach County supervisor of the elections, Theresa Lepore, went on to condescend that her mechanical innovation, wherein she put the presidential candidates on two pages to keep the print size big enough for the county’s many elderly voters, duped the voters into punching two choices instead of one.16 Twentyeight voters selected all 10 presidential candidates, the survey found. The Palm Beach Post piped the popular pied piper, Al Gore, to the post.

In the opinion of Alexis De Tocqueville, “The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon the social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he claims its assistance only when he is unable to do without it.”17 This habit may be traced even in the American schools, where the children in their games are more inclined to submit to the rules which they have themselves established, and to punish misdemeanors which they have themselves defined. The same spirit pervades every act of social life in the United States but the presidential elections are a time when the denizens of this “free country” rise up above race and class considerations and prop up candidates of the order of Barack Obama, the first Black President of the nation, if he were to be anointed in the near future to the all-powerful seat of honor. McCain also struggles against his age factor ( he is 71 years old) and does not try too hard to run clear of the smear of being a supporter of the war effort in the Iraq endgame. Thus, the US can be conveniently posited as a trailblazer in the art and science of democratic practice, wherein the elections to the top slot in the Administration do the Liberals and the Statue of Liberty a world of proud by its all pervading acceptability in the public narrative. Republicans recently deligitimsed a bumper sticker manufacturer, who had come up with an innovative but a derogatory sticker claiming, “What will be the White House called after Barack Obama gets elected as the President of the United States of America?”18

Democracy is a share which the government of the day buys, and it is well aware that it might be in for a deficit, if the popular sovereignty ideal gets distorted into an instrumentality of mobocracy, or even a rule by the elites, engineered by their efficient and well-oiled propaganda apparatus. It is only in the United States in the whole wide world that “the principle of Associations”, has been most successfully applied to a greater multitude of objects than anywhere, where “rule by the people, of the people and for the people”, is the driving light of the day. Besides, the permanent associations, which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals. n

References

1. Ajay Das (2008), Freedom of Press (New Delhi: Discovery Publishing House).

2. Gordon S. Wood (1993), The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books), pp. 18-40.

3. “The Articles of Confederation” (Online: Web), accessed on June 10, 2008, URL: http://www.usconstitution.net/articles.html.

4. Terry L. Jordan (1999), The United States Constitution and the Fascinating Facts about it (Oak Hill Publishing Company).

5. Ibid.

6. James Raney (2008), “House Takes Aim at Pentagon’s Iraq Propaganda” (New Delhi: The Indian Express, May 24, 2008).

7. David D. Kirkpatrick (2008), “Seeds of Mc Cain’s War Views in 74’ Thesis” (New York: The New York Times, June 16, 2008), Foreign Policy. pp. 10.

8. Alex De Tocqueville (2001), Democracy in America, (New York: Signet Classic), pp. 10-40.

9. CNN Correspondent, Lisa Sylvester (2008), “Election Center 2008: Where the Candidates stand on Immigration” (Online:Web), accessed on June 17, 2008, URL: http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/06/14/obama.latino. vote/index.html

10. CNN Correspondent (2008), “Obama: Cuba Policy to be based on Libertad”, (Online: Web), accessed on June 2008, URL: http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/05/23/obama.cuban.americans/index.html#cnnSTCText.

11. Vox Populi refers to the notion that it is a belief or sentiment shared by most people; the voice of the people. Vox Populi also refers to the notion of Public Opinion or the perception patterns of the majority in a nation state. This is an expression borrowed from Latin meaning “voice of the people”. The word “vox” rhymes with “pox”, “fox”, and “box”. The “u” in “populi” sounds like the “u” in “university” and “unit”, while the final “I” is like the “ee” in “bee”, “fee”, and “see”. The vox pop technique is normally used in radio and television broadcasting. We often see reporters walking around on the streets asking passersby to give their opinion about something. For example, we have people responding to questions as to whether America is doing the right thing by bombing Afghanistan or whether Ganguly should continue to be the captain of the Indian team.

12. Mattias Gelzer (2006), Caesar: Politician and Statesman, (Harvard: Harvard University Press).

13. He started in radio as a disc jockey on his home town’s KGMO (part-owned by Limbaugh’s father) while he was still in high school, using the on-air name “Rusty Sharpe”. Limbaugh’s biggest break came in 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission repealed its Fairness Doctrine, a rule that had required radio and television stations to provide equal time to both sides of political debates. Freed from any requirement to air rebuttals to provocative opinions, Limbaugh’s radio style suddenly looked much more profitable, and he began his neo- conservative broadcasts with concentrating on conservative causes without any exceptions. He supports capital punishment, opposes abortion, claims that global warming is a lie, etc.

14. Washington Post Correspondent (2006), “Iraq Study Group Report” (Washington: Washington Post, December 6, 2006) An excerpt from the Report: “There is no guarantee for success in Iraq . . . There is great suffering, and the daily lives of many Iraqis show little or no improvement. Pessimism is pervasive . . . the ability of the United States to influence events . . . is diminishing.” Another excerpt goes on to contend that “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating . . . [the government] is not adequately advancing national reconciliation, providing basic security, or delivering essential services.”

15. Ritt Goldstein (2004), “US Election: Democracy in Question” (Online: Web), accessed on June 18, 2008, URL: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/1118-11.htm

16. “Newspaper: Butterfly Ballot Cost Gore White House”, (Online: Web), accessed on June 18, 2008, URL: http://archives.cnn.com/2001/ALLPOLITICS/03/11/palmbeach.recount/.

17. Alexis De Tocqueville (2001), Democracy in America, in Chapter 12 titled, “ Political Associations in the United States” (New York: Signet Classics).

18. “Election Center, 2008” (Online: Web), accessed on June 19, 2008, URL; http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/. An excerpt of the article: “The Texas Republican Party is telling a vendor who sold campaign buttons it considers racist at a state convention over the weekend that he’s no longer welcome. The head of the Texas GOP says they will neither tolerate nor profit from bigotry. Jonathan Alcox, the sticker dsogner, says he was trying to be funny, and based the button on a political cartoon. He describes himself as an independent who may vote for Obama.”

The author is a Lecturer, Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar.

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