The American Mid-Term Elections Ask Questions about Democracy, and Lessons for Fiji
|The cartoons tell all|
Two years ago Americans elected their first Black president and the world looked, very briefly, as if it might become a better place. Voter, and particularly young voter, expectations were high. America would become a fairer society with health reforms that would enable poorer Americans to receive free medical treatment when required; US troops would be withdrawn from a war in Iraq in which they never should have been engaged; and relations with the Muslim world would see a solution to the Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine conflict. It was still an American Century.
The President had hardly been installed than the American world turned pear-shaped, taking most of the rest of the world with it. Banks had lent billions of mortgage and other money to people with no collaterals and who could not afford them, re-bundled these shaky moneys with others equally shaky and passed them on, disguised, to other bankers and insurers. And then when the money was called in,and it wasn't there, many banks went bankrupt. The global recession had begun. The President did not cause the bankruptcies and the unemployment that followed. Indeed, he strove to avert the worst consequences of banker greed by massive state-backed loans to keep the American economy afloat. But his critics blamed him for providing the loans and then for not lending enough.
And then BP caused a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The President had nothing to do with the granting of the BP drilling licence or the spill but his critics blamed him for not doing enough.
The troops are coming home from Iraq but the situation looks no better there; the situation in Afghanistan remains bad; as does the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The President tried but the problems are too big to resolve in ways American voters wanted and expected.
The outcome? Democrats have lost the House of Representatives; barely held on to Senate; further actions and reforms by the President are severely compromised — and moderate America's hopes and dreams two years ago are likely to come to nought.
How can such a rapid mood change happen in the world's self-proclaimed greatest democracy? Is the American public so fickle? The first thing to note, of course, is that many Americans still voted for Obama's Democratic Party. The second is that many young people who voted for Obama two years ago did not vote at all in these elections. But this still leaves a large number of people who changed from Democrat to Republican: the so-called swinging voter. Why did they swing? Jobs, tougher living conditions, yes. Unfulfilled hopes and promises, yes again. Obama was held responsible for America's troubles, and his opponents were seen to offer a way out.
Soon they would also capture the attention — and support of talk back hosts, columnists, TV and the mainstream media. The Tea Party and the Republicans were on a roll.
But even if direct financial contributions to election campaigns were limited, it really would have had little effect. There are so many ways of making indirect contributions, and so many ways of “discouraging” counter-contributions.
The key to all this — and the key to democracy — lies with the media. The media need to be free to publish views contrary to those of their owners. But not so free that they seldom publish information to keep the voting public uniformed on important issues.
And that is where American democracy falls down. The media is a business owned by big business. The fact that one news channel competes with another means little. The competition is between businesses for better ratings and more advertising earning, not for more informative or investigative news of any consequence. Thus, the sex lives of film and sports stars are reported ad nauseum but readers are seldom left with sound, reasoned ideas on the pros and cons of health insurance reform or the war in Iraq. In such situations, rumour, ignorance and prejudice thrive and increase exponentially. There is no way rational opinion will make an imprint. Obama is a Muslim, a leftie, a non-American who caused the Global Recession, the unemployment, the oil spill and the overseas wars that are not being won.
The media say they are giving the public what the public wants, but this begs the question of who caused them to want the spectacular, the trivial and unreal in the first place, and who blunted their interest in matters that more importantly affect their livelihood and the livelihood of their world neighbours. There is also other question that can perhaps best be answered by looking at the computer toys of the younger generation. They may “want” to play computer games glamorising war, barbie dolls and notions of American greatness, but it is “good” for them? Is it good for the next generation to be made so ignorant? Is is good for any democracy to so ill-prepare voters for voting?
I may appear to be blaming the media businesses for this unwholesome situation. They play an obvious and important part but behind them are other culprits, the giant corporates, and truckloads of paid lobbyists, each bent on using the media and national politics for their own purposes.
The American people have been conned. Theirs is not a democracy where well informed citizens can make rational choices. They play a part, of course, and there are well informed voters, but for the most part most Americans are being used to vote for the interests of others with whom they probably have little in common, value or other-wise. The real America is one where the two major parties differ little from each other, where millionaires win elections and where businesses contest to help “their” party to win. Only occasionally is there a president like Barak Obama who does not fit this picture.
Lessons for Fiji
The lessons for Fiji —and all democracies— are loud and clear. Without a truly free and responsible media; without citizenship education in schools, and courses explicitly designed to help develop the thinking facilities of young people; without controls on the spending of political parties, without the de politicisation of the Methodist Church; without a healthy distance between business (and other vested interests) and politicians, government by, for and of the people cannot be assured.
Prior to 2006 a constellation of interests not too dissimilar to America used a similarly misinformed public to maintain its own power and privilege. Unlinking these interests and educating people to think differently will not be an easy task. This is why it is really a very short time until 2014.