US elections: Toxic populism challenges democracy
Mark Twain reputedly said that God created wars to teach Americans geography. It can be said that God put Donald Trump in the White House to teach America how to protect democracy. Whether the lessons are being learned remains an open question. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have now been declared the winners of the 46th Presidential race. Biden received over 74 million votes, the highest ever in a presidential election in the US.
Trump had announced himself the victor on the election night, demanded that counting of mailed-in votes should be stopped (claiming this to be illegal or fraudulent without any evidence), complained about the election being stolen, and mounted legal battles to press his claim.
Biden, in contrast, had called for calm, unity and patience, and expressed confidence about victory when the counting was done.
Trump had beaten the opinion polls and predictions in 2016 for a surprise win of the presidency. He had run as the candidate against the political establishment of Washington, vowing to "drain the swamp," make America great again (whatever that meant), reduce immigration and build a wall on the southern border with Mexico. He derided international trade agreements and embarked on a trade war with China, the second largest economy in the world.
He pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, calling climate change a hoax. He mismanaged the Covid-19 pandemic abysmally, causing over 240,000 deaths and still counting, with the highest death and infection numbers in the world. He blamed China for causing the pandemic and stopped US funding to the WHO, the agency coordinating the global response to the pandemic.
Trump kept trying to dismantle the Obama-initiated national healthcare plan that offered health insurance to all citizens and coverage of pre-existing conditions, calling it "socialised medicine." He promised a better health plan but failed to come up with any, while risking the loss of insurance coverage of millions.
Trump's misogyny and behaviour towards women resulted in lawsuits. His administration notoriously separated young children of asylum seekers from parents and placed them in cages. Now, parents of hundreds of them cannot be traced.
Trump's lies in public statements and his tweets (his favourite means of public communication) spawned a fact-checking industry and obliged Twitter to post warnings about misleading information from the President. He declared the press and electronic media to be the enemy of the people.
Trump branded the Black Lives Matter supporters as rioters and looters, refused to condemn white supremacists, declared himself a staunch promoter of law and order and boasted of unanimous police union support from across the country.
He stood by Israeli PM Netanyahu in his aggressive policy of annexing Palestinian neighbourhoods and shifted the US embassy to Jerusalem, shedding all pretence of neutrality in the Arab-Israeli dispute. He boasted of friendship with autocratic rulers such as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad-bin-Salman and North Korea's Kim Jong-Un. He claimed a special relationship with Russia's President Vladimir Putin when US intelligence agencies were concerned about Russia's interference in the US election process.
Amazingly, Trump garnered over 64 million votes, more than he won in 2016. He built a loyal support base of older, less educated whites and evangelical Christians, bolstered by all kinds of people disaffected with the prevailing system, including a proportion of Blacks and Latinos. The Latino votes handed the critical Florida electoral college to Trump and almost 20 percent of Black voters supported Trump.
Trump has so far refused to concede the election and vows to continue court battles, hoping to bring it to the Supreme Court, where conservative justices appointed by him hold a strong majority. He will try to obstruct the succession process and urges his supporters to take their protests to the streets.
Conservative populism as a threat to liberal democracy is a global phenomenon that has emerged in the beginning of the 21st century. I had written in a column in this daily earlier, "Donald Trump managed to create a support base among the electorate by invoking white male working class resentments and real or imagined fears about various things—non-whites over-running the country, global trade taking away American jobs, hordes of illegal immigrants depressing job markets and causing crime and violence, and Muslims waging a war on Western Christian civilisation."
Politicians everywhere appear to be taking cue and are trying to apply this populist formula to gain political advantage. Playing on people's fears and prejudices is an old populist trick. A populist support base, once created, is not easily shaken by logic or evidence. Outrageous words, actions and policy or non-policy are the stock in trade for populist leaders.
Cases in point are Brazil's Bolsonaro, Europe (including Austria, Hungary, Poland and even France's Macron and UK's post-Brexit Boris Johnson), Philippine's Duterte, and closer to home, India's Narendra Modi and his BJP-led ruling coalition. The good news is that the nail-biting finish in the US has shown that the electoral system there works smoothly, thanks to tens of thousands of election officials and workers in the states and local counties under both Republican and Democratic state administrations.
Demography is another reason for hope. The Republican support in the "red" states such as Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia has dwindled in 2020 and this trend will continue. The Black population and other minorities, women and urban-suburban educated people are growing; diversity of the population will prevail in the political voice. Kamala Harris, the first woman to be elected as the Vice President, a child of immigrant parents of Indian and Jamaican origin, is an iconic part of this wave of the future.
Trumpism will, however, not disappear quietly into the setting sun. As Kamala Harris said in her victory speech on Saturday night, "America's democracy is not guaranteed, it is as strong as our willingness to fight for it; it takes struggle and sacrifice to protect it." And Biden said, it is time to build and heal, root out systemic racism and restore America's soul with compassion, empathy and concern. The new administration has a big job cut out for it.
There are two major and obvious lessons here for nurturing democracy in Bangladesh. First, the electoral machinery has to be made independent and functional, enforcing its rules and mandates. Second, those who want to be major political forces and steer the country to the future must cultivate and earn the trust of the youth, women and the ordinary citizens; they must rebuild the organisation and structure of the respective political parties from the grassroots, giving all a genuine voice.
Manzoor Ahmed is Professor Emeritus at Brac University.