Next president will face a darker world
Radicals of left and right like to say that the American election is an affair of sound and fury, signifying nothing. One guy in a suit replaces another guy in a suit, the two mostly agree on the basics: the economy, capitalist; foreign policy, hegemonic.
To be sure, American elections remain battlegrounds: a resurgent right has, in the past two decades, drawn sharper lines on a culture war that puts sexuality and its effects at the center of a national debate. Homosexuality, abortion and reproductive rights are divisive issues. But radicals believe that overall, little changes: An elite governs, and largely governs the same way regardless of party.
Yet both capitalism and hegemony have served the U.S., and much of the world, better than any other obviously available option. In the last few years, democratic practice has certainly seen a number of setbacks: The victory of the conservative group Citizens United in having the Supreme Court overturn the provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 – which had prohibited corporations and unions paying for political propaganda independently of the candidates’ campaigns – is only the latest obvious example. But U.S. civil society remains among the liveliest, most rambunctious and exemplary in the world, a large part of the reason why the U.S. is still the destination of choice of those yearning to breathe a little freer (and earn at least a little more).
Yet the “nothing changes with elections” view is gathering popularity, especially overseas, where the limits of democratization are tighter than they were four years ago. The next U.S. president will have to deal with a world that is likely to offer little in the way of democratic inspiration, as the Arab spring did for a time in 2010.
It’s been heartening, certainly, to see the turn toward parliamentary democracy in Myanmar – and the creation of a parliament in which veteran dissident Aung San Suu Kyi has both a seat and a voice. Heartening too has been the peaceful passage of presidential power in Georgia, the first time in that republic’s post-Soviet independent life.
But these are small states; beyond them, there is little that is encouraging, or likely to be so, for democrats. Look to China, where the parallel “election” of Xi Jinping as Party and state leader remains a dogma surrounding an enigma. The dogma is the right to rule the Communist Party; the enigma was deepened by Xi’s disappearance in September. One Beijing-based journalist says (based on a highly placed source) he was hit on the back by a chair hurled during a particularly robust debate among leading officials. If so, the turbulence behind the smooth faces of power is greater than usually thought. But the story does little to clarify whether this man — both a victim of the Cultural Revolution after being sent to labor in the fields for his re-education and a winner of its aftermath, as his father was restored to a high functionary’s post — will continue his predecessor’s anxious search for greater openness. In October 2010, departing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told Fareed Zakaria that “China will make continuous progress, and the people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.”
Does Xi agree? The China leadership watcher John Garnaut, with little to go on, opined that, “In the few examples known publicly, Xi has shown himself to be a capable politician, seeming to appeal to all key constituencies, even those whose interests and ideologies are irreconcilable with one other He has played the anti-Western card and the Maoist card, yet while defending private enterprise and sending his daughter, Xi Mingze, to study under a false name at Harvard University.” So we don’t know. What we do know is that, at least until now, the monopoly rule of the Party has spurred double-figure growth and the raising of hundreds of millions from poverty – feats which allow China, and many in the West, to claim that whatever the country’s popular base, its achievements deserve support.
We do also know that democracy is under great strain in parts of Europe that, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will need at least five years to battle through the turbulence of the euro’s woes. At the same time she is arguing for a closer, tighter, more disciplined central control over all countries’ expenditure – a clash with democratic choice that becomes more urgent by the month. In Italy and Greece, populism of the left and the right (it’s often hard to distinguish between the two) laps around the established parties: in France, President Hollande’s early honeymoon has definitively ended, and the entente with Germany, so long the motor of the European Union, is strained. To the east, neither in Europe nor out of it, Vladimir Putin congratulates himself and his allies on having faced down a protest movement that, a year ago, was widely believed to have the power to destabilize him. Stability and order are again the watchwords, which have enough popular support to sustain his third presidency.
Most of all, the great breakthrough of the Arab Spring is now regarded as a threat as much as a liberation. An unusually apocalyptic piece in the New York Review of Books argued that “darkness descends on the Arab world.” No one knows what will become of the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia, poised between accommodation with secularism and Islamism. As the British Prime Minister David Cameron trips around the conservative regimes of the Gulf and of Saudi Arabia, trying to sell weaponry, the rulers of these states warn that “Britain risks confusing democracy and human rights movements with revolutionaries who, they say, want to replace the current monarchies with Islamic republics.” There are hints that such a confusion may mean no more deals. In the East, China, Russia and other authoritarian countries have competitive weapons systems that don’t come with lectures on human rights.
Negative, confusing and wildly expensive as this U.S. election has been, it remains the central ceremony of a democratic state that continues to deserve its name. But the next presidency will see a darker world than the last one. Churchill’s old saw about democracy, delivered in 1947 – “the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” – has been used by democrats ever since as a self-congratulatory little joke. It’s not so funny, now.
PHOTO: The moderator drops a voter’s ballot into the ballot box at the Danbury Town Hall during the U.S. presidential election in Danbury, New Hampshire November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi