With just over a week to go until election day in the US one cannot help wondering whether the wacky process that is leading up to these elections is merely a reflection of a festering malady in the American political system, or whether it reflects – in an extreme manner – a general phenomenon that has afflicted Western democracies in what was expected to be a new golden age of democracy in the post-Cold War era.
The symptoms of the malady seem on the surface very American. The two candidates are both products of the American dream, which in many respects is today also an American lie. Both are white, affluent, around 70 years old – quite unlike the majority of Americans today. Hillary Clinton was born to a family of relatively modest means, who rose thanks to her brains and ambition, gaining a wealth of political experience, but apparently inclined to cut corners.
Donald Trump was born into money, and turned into a billionaire by taking advantage of every trick in the book that favors the wealthy – the same book that he claims to be part of the rot which needs to be cleared in order to “make America great again.”
Most of what has been working against Clinton in these elections is bad judgment – such as her decision not to stay at home and rest for several days when she caught pneumonia, and her decision to use a private email server for sending emails connected with her work as secretary of state in Barak Obama’s first administration. This was certainly irresponsible on her part, even though far there is no proof of criminal acts.
Trump has turned all this into political hay in the most cynical manner, claiming that Clinton is not physically fit to be president, and that she is “crooked” and ought to be locked up. The fact that compared to Clinton he resembles a distorted surrealist painting, and that the truth and the facts are for him inconveniences that are regularly pushed aside, doesn’t seem to bother his supporters, whose abhorrence of anyone or anything that resembles liberalism is much greater than their respect for the truth and facts.
Most of what has been working against Trump in large sections of American society are his big mouth, his contempt for “political correctness,” women who insist on being more than just sex objects, Muslims, Mexicans and apparently also liberal Jews, who are still a majority within American Jewry. His history of sexual harassment doesn’t help, though as Trump himself points out, his record is no worse than Bill Clinton’s.
The fact that large sections of American society are apparently not disturbed by all this, nor by Trump’s refusal to state that he will accept the results of the elections, no matter what they are, or his suggestion at a recent election rally that the elections are superfluous and he should simply be appointed president, is evidence that not only liberalism but also democracy itself is not exactly the touchstone of close to 50 percent of contemporary American society.
There is no doubt that the American system of elections – in the absence of an accessible register of valid voters (such as that which exists in Israel) – makes it much easier to cheat (though no system is fool-proof). But Trump’s conclusion that the electoral system is rigged in favor of the liberals, who he alleges control the media, and is consequently invalid is unheard of in any other Western democracy.
Nevertheless, even if all of this seems to reflect a domestic American socio/political malady, it is not just an American story and problem. It is not only in the US that the political establishment is in the doghouse. The political establishments in many Western democracies seem to be at its wits end when it comes to offering real solutions to the security, economic and social problems of our day and age, rather than just taking care of their own interests.
It is also not only in the US where large sections of the society have been left behind by the modern, post-industrial age of globalization, and it is not only in the US where the leaders, who believe in the merits of the free economy, have not been honest enough to admit that the way the free economy is being implemented is perverted. It is, for example, a basic principle of economic theory that in foreign trade, trade imbalances among states are rectified by means of exchange rates. That simply does not seem to apply between China and the rest of the world. So Trump is right when he claims that current trade agreements are faulty, though he is wrong when he suggests that protectionism is the solution.
On another level, elections that are based primarily on negative campaigning rather than ideological and programmatic differences are not unique to the US. A book recently published in London demonstrates that this is a trend in most democracies today. This is partially a result of the fact that none of the politicians have solutions, so they resort to mud flinging.
With the experience of the past few months, I wonder if, were a restart of the whole election process in the US possible to before the primaries, the results would be any different.
The writer is a political scientist.