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2012 Election

The Extraordinary Spectacle

November 7th, 2012. Today, Democrats woke up to the thrill of victory, while Republicans suffered the bitterness of defeat. Many people of both parties didn’t wake up at all, since they had never gone to bed: at least that was my case as I watched the election unfold from Munich, Germany. CNN didn’t predict President Obama’s re-election until around 05:45 a.m. Central European Time, and even then, Ohio, Virginia and Florida were still in some doubt.

Mitt Romney was gracious in his concession speech; President Obama was obliging as well in his victory speech. Both men played their role well by calling for a united people, and the need to reach across the aisle to get the business of the country done. This is very laudable; I am skeptical that the sentiment will outlast the CNN rebroadcasts of the election.

The results of the election were very favorable to the Democrats: not only did they win the Presidency by a significant Electoral College margin[1], they actually gained seats in the Senate[2] by staging some upsets (like defeating incumbent Scott Brown in Massachusetts) and by defeating some unpleasant rivals (like candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock). Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives[3], which was never really in doubt, but that may not be a bad thing. Republicans will be forced to revise their obstructionist tactics of the past two years in the face of a clear mandate from the people for the President.

Today, Democrats are euphoric and Republicans are undoubtedly angry and divided. Tomorrow, they must get back to work: there is a fiscal cliff to avert and millions who remain out of work, homeless and without power.

There will be time and opportunity to discuss the implications of the electoral results on the US political landscape soon enough and I won’t be shy about chiming in. But for now, I want to step back and look at the U.S. election from a distance.

The Extraordinary Spectacle

On November 5th, I read a series of articles in German magazine Der Spiegel that analyzed the elections, the candidates and the course of the country. “Notes on The Decline of a Great Nation”[4] and “America is no longer a role model for the rest of the world to emulate”. It was very timely. I thought of these articles frequently as I watched the media coverage last night and I reflected on what had gone before.

  • I saw the rise and fall of the Republican challengers to Mitt Romney in a bruising, no holds barred primary.
  • I saw both candidates traveling the country, attempting to convince rather than coerce.
  • I saw the leader of the most powerful country on earth submit to a televised debate where he and his opponent took questions from their ultimate masters, the citizens.
  • I saw the government of the world’s foremost superpower peacefully submit its legislative and executive mandates to the will and sovereignty of the people.
  • I saw people of all colors and creeds standing for hours to make sure their voices were heard.
  • I saw 120 million Americans get out the vote.
  • I saw reason and common sense defeat the power of billions in advertising.
  • I saw people gathered together in fellowship with their countrymen, to celebrate or commiserate.
  • And had Mitt Romney won, I am certain I would have seen the peaceful transfer of that vast power into his hands.

 

  • I did not see police in riot gear wielding truncheons and teargas.
  • I did not see agents of the secret police carting off dissenters or opposition candidates.
  • I did not see show trials for political crimes
  • I did not see tanks crushing students underneath their treads.
  • I did not see airplanes bombing urban centers of the opposition.

 

The editors of Der Speigel, and many others, see the U.S. elections and they see a media circus. Undoubtedly it is a bit of a circus. It is passionate, it is chaotic, it can be vituperative and nasty. Politics in the U.S. have been both popular and partisan since the Founding. The electoral campaigns of Federalists versus Republicans[5] and ante-bellum Democrats versus Republicans were far more brutal and personal than anything a modern campaign would dare[6].

That’s American democracy in all its vigor, whether you like it or not. For all its warts and ugliness and the occasional hanging chad, it has worked well[7] for the past 223 years.

Where else can a young, obscure politician – who is, incidentally, black and named Barack Hussein – become President and face off four years later against a member of an obscure, geographically narrow and distrusted religion? Where the President’s race and the Governor’s religion have been insignificant factors in the campaign? Europeans deride our belief in “American exceptionalism” but America continues to give proof that it is indeed an exceptional nation – not always, but often enough to surprise, delight and inspire[8].

The Year of Contrasts

2012 was not only the year of the US elections. We had the privilege of watching the elections in Russia, the decennial transition of power in China, and the first free elections in Egypt….ever?

The “elections” in Russia were so farcical that even the hardened and cynical Russians protested in mass numbers[9]. Until Russian security forces began throwing protesters and journalists in jail, shutting down media outlets and passing out jail sentences after admirably brief show trials[10].

Outsiders watched with interest the courtly and highly symbolic process that was supposed to lead to a seamless transfer of the Mandate of Heaven to the next generation of the Chinese Communist Party. That was until the Party was rocked by the massive scandal of Bo Xilai[11], an up-and-coming maverick in the party who has becoming uncomfortably popular with the masses. His political defenestration pealed back the layers of secrecy that the CCP so assiduously uses to cover the enormous scale of corruption that exists at all levels of Chinese government and society. The Chinese people, who will not case a single vote this November to elect their leaders for the next decade, were sufficiently outraged that the Party felt it necessary to clamp down severely on any hint of dissidence or discontent, threaten journalists and shut down their already rigorously censored media outlets[12].

Do the editors of Der Speigel consider these to be role models for the world? Governments who are so afraid of their people that they must lock up three women who used nudity as a protest tool, and an old blind poet?

Only in Egypt were there encouraging signs. I saw mass demonstrations, I saw passionate debate, I saw people desperate to vote – many for the first time in their lives. I saw all parties declare that the victory of the opposition would lead inevitably to the collapse of the government and the ruin of the country. I saw the first democratically elected President of Egypt assume power, stare down his generals, and promise to observe the rule of law and the will of the people before their representatives in Parliament[13]. It all sounded very familiar.

The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly poses challenges and makes both the US and Israel uncomfortable. Yet Egypt deserves its chance at democracy, and the support of the United States in making that democracy work. Egyptians are not going to copy-and-paste our Constitution or Bill of Rights; but that is no reason to immediately condemn the Brotherhood as a hotbed of fanaticism. Time and the responsibilities of government will temper them. The key is to ensure that they can make a going concern of the Egyptian economy and that the next elections are as passionate, as chaotic, as much of a circus even if vituperative and nasty: so long as they are free and peaceful.

I challenge the view of Der Speigel and the many America sceptics around the world. In a time when autocratic states will stop at nothing to hold on to their power, even to the bombing of their own citizens; when democracy in Europe is increasingly challenged by the rigors of austerity,  recession, demoralization and hopelessness, I believe that America remains a role model for others. Take democracy with it warts and defects; the alternative is barbaric.

So I say to all my countrymen, Democrat and Republican: celebrate these exceptional elections and be proud of them. God bless America.



Sources and Notes:

[1] 303 to 206, with Florida’s 29 votes still in doubt as of the time of writing.
[2] 53 to 43 with 2 independents (likely to caucus with the Democrats) at time of writing.
[3] 233 to 194, with 8 races outstanding at time of writing.
[4] “Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation,” Divided States of America, Der Spiegel, 05 November 2012
[5] Thomas Jefferson was routinely called the anti-Christ by his Federalist opponents, and defeated Federalists threatened to take New England out of the Union in 1800 and again in 1812.
[6] In the wake of the Election of 1800, Aaron Burr was so incensed by what he perceived to be the pernicious opposition of his fellow New Yorker Alexander Hamilton that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and killed him.
[7] With the obvious exception of the 1860 election.
[8] CNN showed images of people all over the world celebrating President Obama’s reelection, with many citizens of African nations dancing in the street. After elections in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Spain, France and Russia, no one was dancing anywhere.
[9] “The Farce of Russian Elections,” The Washington Post, 04 December 2011
[10] AP Wire, “Russia Protests: Dozens of Arrests At Opposition Rallies,” The Huffington Post, 31 May 2012
[11] “Bo Xilai Scandal: Timeline,” BBC, 26 October 2012
[12] “Chinese Internet crackdown on Bo Xilai rumors continues,” Committee to Protect Journalists, 13 April 2012
[13] Londoño, Ernesto, “Egypt’s Morsi replaces military chiefs in bid  to consolidate power,” The Washington Post, 12 August 2012

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