Friday, 30 December 2016

The State of Democracy in 2016

Learning the Poignant Lessons of US General Elections 2016  
Democracy is a slippery political concept. Many definitions abound, but none particularly helpful in furthering understanding. Many advocates of democracy attempt to define democracy in real life; dressing it up with civil liberties, popular elections, free press, free speech, right to bear arms … etc.  In post-2016 general elections, it seems natural that Americans have difficulty grasping the nature of its model of democracy.       Democracy empowers Governments to promote the welfare and well-being of its people, and not the development of its own political concepts.  Functional democratic processes can facilitate positive and progressive national development. Otherwise, democracy would face irrelevance, or change and even oblivion.

Myth of The Popular Vote in US Democracy

The US electoral system is better understood in the context of its form of political Federalism, which describes the constitutional relationship between the Federal Government and its 50 States (and Territories).  Basically, the individual States are governed independently with very minimal interference by the central Federal Government.  It also translates to political and electoral influence by the States through its Representatives in the US Congress (and Senate).

During the US General Elections, the States holds concurrent democratic elections on the 8 November every 4 years to choose their preferred Presidential Candidates by assigning “Electors” to represent the State in accordance with its population size at the Electoral College who convenes on the following 19 December to “elect” the winning Presidential candidate officially.

In 2016, the Electoral College, represented by all the 50 States, elected Donald Trump by a margin of 306-242 to be the 45th US President for 2017-2020. President-Elect Donald trump is also the most popular Republican President to ever receive 62.4 million votes.

The overall popular vote does not matter in the election of the US President. The overall popular vote is immaterial and irrelevant in the US, unlike countries like Mexico, Austria, Australia, Germany, France, East Timor and several others.  The Chief Executive of many developed countries (United Kingdom, Japan, India, Singapore … etc) are elected indirectly, and their political and electoral legitimacy do not depend on the overall popular vote.

The US electoral landscape consists of 50 States and 3,112 Counties (or Constituencies). On 8 November 2016, Donald Trump won 2,622 Counties (84%) to Hillary’s 490, and won 30 States (60%) compared to her 20, garnering an average of 56% votes in those 30 States to 53.5% by Hillary in her 20 States.

The State of California voted massively for Hillary by over 4.3 million votes is effectively responsible for all of Hillary’s 2.8 million popular votes over Trump.  Without the moderation by the Electoral College, that one State alone, California, would have over-whelmed the entire national vote and disenfranchised all other non-Californian American voters. When Californian votes are excluded, Trump’s 58,474,401 popular votes exceed Hillary’s by 1.4 million.

Clearly, in the context of American politics in 2016, the Electoral College provides the US Presidential Elections with a more democratic outcome in determining the more “popular” President, where using the national popular vote would have failed to properly articulate the democratic aspirations of 128 million US electorate for a President Donald Trump.

Myth of a Neutral Free Press – The 4th Estate Lost Its Way.

In the aftermath of the 8 Nov elections, the legitimacy of Donald Trump electoral victory over his opponent Hillary Clinton was decried by many otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable pundits, scholars and news reporters who pointed to his 3.8 million popular votes deficit relative to her.

During the weeks before the Electoral Colleges 19 December vote, the major media in their TV and newspapers perpetuated the fake news of Donald Trump’s “illegitimate” electoral victory based on the hollow basis of popular votes.  In fact, throughout the 2016 election cycle, the traditional major US media became personal and partisan in their coverage of all the Presidential candidates in open preference for Hillary Clinton.

One major US media in July 2015 even decided long before Donald Trump became the Republican Presidential nominee to report him only in its “Entertainment” pages. Basically, the newspaper has decided ahead of the US electorate that Trump should not be taken seriously.  Without any apology, the policy was changed on 7 Dec 2016, one month after Trump became the US President-elect.

US media bias in favour of Hillary Clinton and her family’s Clinton Foundation is both baffling and unfathomable to any averagely intelligent audience.  There is no explanation by any of the biased media why Hillary should be so favoured or actively supported. Precisely what they hope to gain from her Presidency if elected is unknown.

It is even more mysterious why even the powerful Washington Post, winner of 47 Pulitzer Prizes and famous for its expose on President Nixon’s Watergate Scandal expose and coverage, as well as other highly reputable investigative journalism media would not dare or want to expose or failed to unpack Hillary’s historical and personal ineligibility for the highest office of the land.

Throughout the US Presidential cycle 2016, the media failed miserably to play its 4th estate socially responsible role as the watchdog of a democratic society and the defender of the citizenry’s democratic rights which include disseminating the naked and undiluted facts and information to empower informed opinion in the exercise of electoral choice.

By not exposing “fake news” and actively participating in their fabrication together with other “non-news”, the media increasingly pollute the public sphere entrusted to them.  And as the public sphere of rational and reasoned conversations became dirtied and clouded by fake and non-news, the public trust in the media lost its bearing as the major media leaders adopt a “we-know-better” role to manipulate public opinion to anchor its own interests to the status quo web of political and power economic interests.

Have the media learnt nothing from the 2016 US election?  A major media reported, followed by others, that Trump’s Campaign paid $12.5 million to his own businesses during his campaign for planes, hotels, land transport, food catering, staff payroll … etc which he would otherwise have to pay 3rd party vendors. Of course, not reported is a comparison with 3rd party costs which would be helpful to readers for better, more complete understanding, and to also inform their readers that Trump himself actually also contributed $68 million to his own Campaign.  How does this constitute “real” news?

Is this “fake news” or “non-news”?
A man who spent his own money on himself? Or a “stupid” politician who is still out of pocket by $55 millions? And is the fact that this same politician, whose personal worth has been valued at more than at $6 billion, also rejected the $400,000 Presidential annual salary that he is now entitled to (which amounts to $1.6 million during his 4-year term).  In fact, none of the media reported that Trump’s opponent Hillary did not contribute a single dollar to her campaign but instead raised more than $1 billion, only to lose the general elections.

Why is it not news to the media that Americans will be having a “free” President for the next 4 years?  Instead, the same media has spun a “Conflict of Interests” story on President-elect Trump, who stands to forego more than a few hundred million dollars in foregone business deals, Presidential salaries, election expenses and profits from his current businesses.  Even current President Obama could expect only a $45 million book deal which together with his $3.2 million salary over the last 8 years would have enriched him by less than $50 million, a paltry sum to Trump! Whither the “conflict of interest” for President Trump?

Traditional media should abandon their self-assumed role as makers and manipulators of public opinion.  They should re-imagine, re-examine, and then recalibrate their role as the keeper of a neutral public sphere for democratic expression and action, especially in the light of new social media where everyone can aspire to be a news producer and news fabricator.

To return to public acceptance and credibility, the discredited media should acknowledge and lead public opinion and action against the web of pervasive corrupt practices and illegal behaviors revealed during the 2016 election cycle. The chief scourge of a democratic society is corruption.

The Corruption of Democracy

The FBI investigations continued. The election of Donald Trump as the next US President prevented a travesty of justice had the investigations been stopped under a President Hillary into her alleged perjury to the FBI and a Congress Select Committee on her illegal email server, as well as the ongoing FBI investigations into her family’s Clinton Foundation, specifically her alleged “pay-for-play” quid pro quo access to power players while as US Secretary of State from 2009-2013.

Hillary was alleged to have used her official position as Secretary of State to grant favours to major Clinton Foundation donors in contravention to US laws.  More than 55% of her non-governmental visitors and meetings were Clinton Foundation donors.

Leaked emails from Hillary’s illegal private server also provided confirming evidence of the unlawful collusion between her State Department and the Clinton Foundation.   The emails also showed how major Clinton Foundation donors gained access to her with their Foundation ties. Emails, all of which belongs to the US Government, were also illegally destroyed despite their official requests by Congress and the FBI.

Democracy is synonymous with the rule of law according to the principle that it shall be applied without fear or favour equally on every person. No one is above the law.  Without a system of laws, legal procedures and fearless judges, democracy would not survive. President Trump would have to decide with his new Attorney General as to whether to proceed with the prosecution of Hillary Clinton and associated persons/parties involved in the alleged corrupt and illegal activities at the Clinton Foundation.

At the minimum, a Special Prosecutor should be appointed to convene a Grand Jury to determine whether there are sufficient evidence to indict and proceed to a court trial for a final criminality verdict.  The decision on the fate of Hillary, the Clinton Foundation and other involved persons should now be rightfully placed in the hands of a jury of their peers.  Only with this leadership initiative can democracy begin to restore the rule of law in the US.

It is Always about the Economy of the People, Stupid!

Enough of the Russian hacks, Presidential candidates with flawed personalities, vote riggings, the Clinton corruptions and FBI investigations!  The democratic outcome of the US elections has a much simpler explanation.

Former US President Bill Clinton already observed in 2015, a year before the elections, that the Obama years resulted in hopelessness among the white working class. African-American or Black Americans are also worse off compared with when President Obama took office in 2008.

According to the US Census Bureau, more Black Americans are now struggling below the poverty line, from 25.8% in 2009 to 26.2% in 2014, in spite of their 30% improvement in employment, in mostly low paying jobs, but remains twice that of white unemployment.  Their real median income accordingly drops from $35,954 to $35,398.  Black home ownership decreased from 46.1% to 41.9% over the same period. The US Department of Agriculture also reported a 58.2% increase in food stamp recipients among Black Americans from 7,393,000 to 11,699,000.

Overall, the American economy has been sluggish and non-performing to the degree where people feel significant improvements for nearly all of President Obama’s 8 years. There were only 6 quarters of good news out of the 31 quarters before the elections, despite steady jobs growth, mostly in low paying jobs.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on US Election Day on the 8 Nov 2016, the economy, terrorism and healthcare ranked as the top three concerns facing Americans voter. The poll of about 35,000 people found that 25% of voters picked the economy as the “most important problem”.  Another 14% named “terrorism/terrorist attacks” and 13% picked healthcare.  When other things are considered, the people in a democracy expect their political choice to deliver benefits and satisfaction with credible impact; otherwise, they will want a change of leadership.  And they have decided that change to be President-elect Donald J Trump.

Key Lessons for Other Democracies

There is no guarantee that the new American choice will reverse the American economic, political and social decline since 2001.   The obvious limitation of democracy is the belief that democracy is the panacea for the social, economic and political production of the greatest good and benefits for the largest number.

Truth is, democracy does not and has never promised the delivery of beneficial political and social development or high quality public economic goods.  There is no basis to assume or presume that democratically-elected governments and high-quality public economic goods are in fact synonymous.  The facts of history seem to be on the side of the benevolent dictator, the paternalistic autocrat, the corporatist, but not the democrat.  The continuous decline of the US economy, and her socio-political divisions along racial, religious, life-style, female choices and philosophical is just another example of the impotence of democracy to transcend human greed, failings and our natural insatiable need to acquire and control power, wealth, influence and people.

There is no one type of democracy.  American democracy is only one of the many models in existence.  No model is superior to any other, by any standard or indicators of measures.  Whether it is British parliamentary democracy or the Swiss direct democracy by canton or the ancient Greek direct participation model or Singapore corporatist democratic socialism or the popular mass democracy whose “popular vote” seems to appeal to many Americans after the US elections, none would have altered the mood of the American electorate for the immediate end of Obama’s 8 years of hopeless change and empty promises in exchange for the risk of a new Trumpian message of “Hope and Change”.

Basically, the democracy interruptus lesson of 2016 is that when your team did not win the Finals of the ballgame, it is not the colour of the ball or its shape or its rules, but can more directly find attribution and culpability in the players, playbook, captain and managers.  Essentially, flawed (especially corrupt) candidates, the absence of clear messaging, lack of voters-centred policies and the arrogance of political entitlement explained best the effective functioning of US democracy in her 2016 general elections.

Democracy merely provides a decision-making frame for the governed to make choices among who shall govern them.  Democracy is not a quality management standard with a checklist of best practices and good conduct procedures.  Understanding this true nature of democracy prevents an over-rated and false conception of democracy.  The many forms and styles of democracy in various countries have evolved to suit their respective contextual domains.

Is a mass-based popular democracy better than a “bad” democracy (for example, like the US Electoral College according to many pundits, scholars and news commentators) and better than a benevolent democratic dictatorship?  We can now understand why the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described democracy as the “worst form of government except for all the others”.  Ultimately, the test of the democratic pudding lies in the palate and stomach of the electorate.

Singapore manages democracy as a governance tool in the manner that works for us since independence 50 years ago; with regular free and fair elections and in a political climate characterized by freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of religious beliefs and the freedom of choice.  If these were what democracy could facilitate, it shall be great!  If not, democracy should get out of the way as we journey toward a better, more prosperous, fairer and equal society of one Singapore and one nation.  Hopefully, the American people begin to re-learn these basic truths about democracy before their next general elections in 2020.

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