The American Mid-Term Elections Ask Questions about Democracy, and Lessons for Fiji

The cartoons tell all
by Crosbie Walsh

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health reforms that would enable poorer Americans to receive free medical treatment when required; US troops would be withdrawn from a war in Iraq in which they never should have been engaged; and relations with the Muslim world would see a solution to the Afghanistan and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.

We had some inkling of what may happen when Sarah Palin appeared on the scene as Republican vice-presidential candidate. Glamorous, outspoken, an upholder of “conservative values” but not very well educated, quite ignorant on many world issues, and a person who saw everything so sharply in blacks and whites. Then six months or so out from the elections, there emerges  a group that would have been laughed off the paddock in most countriess: the “Tea Party, ” a well-organized group of mainly white, middle class women, who shared Palin's views of America and the world. They had learnt the lesson of how small nation-wide groups of enthusiasts equipped with the internet could help elect a President. Now they would do their best, equipped with cellphones, emails and blogs to made the remainder of his term almost untenable. The blogs and the cartoons they spawned are of particular interest because they played on Obama being Black. Some claimed he was a closet Muslim. Others said he was not born in America and was not a true American citizen. Fiji watchers will be all too familiar with the intended purpose of this sort of rumour.

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.

Not an ordinary roll, but a massive bank roll. The largest amount of money ever spent in a mid-term elections. NZ and many other countries place limits to the amounts candidates and parties can spend on election campaigns. This is one reason why smaller parties have some chance of being elected. Not so in America.

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.


Cornileus said…
Thoughtful post, Croz

Liu Muri said…
Vinaka, Croz. Very well said. I have become very sceptical of media freedom that the pro-democracy pundits are seeking for Fiji, I recommend they read Norman and Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" and the Propaganda Model which says that media is there to look after the interest of the rich corporate, the advertisers and the elite who matter to media companies. The common citizens can go to hell, as the free media becomes the lapdog of the rich, mighty and the elites. That is the model of free media that threatens democracies in third world nations, especially countries in Asia and the Pacific, including Fiji. So the next time we speak of a free media, better understand what free media is really about. The biggest threat of media is from within, who owns it and what their interests are. So as Croz has said about USA, a free media does not necessary mean a flourishing democracy.
Imprimatur said…
@Liu Muri....

The frightening thing is that we should fully understand just how ignorant and confused about this the former Fiji Media Council was. Not one single member appeared to have a handle on what you say and on what Croz Walsh has explained in full. The Media is a manipulated and partial world and we need to 'get this' and understand how it all works. In a working democracy this should be fully grasped by any educated adult. Those who are not sufficiently informed will be manipulated and literally 'sent to hell'. So, "caveat emptor". Let the buyer (of newspapers and media) beware! Intelligent, avid curiosity is required. So few in Fiji are trained at school or even at tertiary level for this.
Jon said…
Your first comment (“…Americans elected a black president…”) highlights the debatable merits of classifying people by skin colour.

To you (and millions of others), Obama is ‘black’.

Conversely, to most in Fiji he would be termed ‘part European’ since he has a ‘white’ mother.

To others, such as South Africans, he would be considered ‘coloured’.

To be perfectly, pedantically, correct he should (if we need to consider race at all) be termed ‘mixed race’. As such he’s not unique. He’s merely the most recent in a long, uninterrupted line of mixed race American presidents since all those who came before him were Anglo Saxon – a mixture of the Angles, the Saxons and goodness knows what else.

In the South Pacific today we only need to stand back and look at our sons, our daughters, or our grandchildren and realise that ‘mixed race’ accurately describes all of us.

I realise that this wasn’t the point of your article however it does indicate your final comment, “…educating people to think differently will not be an easy task…” is true for all of us in so many different ways.
Croz Walsh said…
@ Jon ... Biologically speaking you are absolutely right but "ethnicity" is more than race because it embraces cultural factors and is how people see themselves and how others see them.

To take two examples: In Fiji a child born of a Fijian father (or an illegimate child born of a Fijian mother who does not state the race of the father) is a Fijian for purposes of voting and land entitlement, but a legitimate child born of a Fijian mother and a non-Fijian father has no such entitlement. Witness the status of the Kai Solomoni.

Example two: Europeans often harp on the fact that biologically (i.e., racially) no "full blooded" Maori are left, but this is not the way Maori identify themselves. Anyone who has some Maori ancestry and who identifies as a Maori is accepted as Maori by other Maori. In my view, that's the way it should be. And of course a person may be Maori in some situations and not Maori in another. Just like we wear different hats to fit the occasion. Thus I am a father, a husband, a pakeha, a teacher, an old man and a supposed coup apologist to fit the occasion — but only where my self-identification and that of relevant others coincide.
An ideology of Superman said…
@ Jon and Croz......

Valid points from you both. And it gives us pause to consider that for so long in Fiji we have had a lop-sided view of this ethnic question and "who belongs where". For instance, how can it be that for some Part Europeans (as we so disrespectfully term and categorise) one half of being was "in the ascendancy" so to speak for around one hundred years, only to be supplanted by the "other half" in a coup d'etat? Except that in the coup d'etat of 1987 racial homogeneity was demanded: the iTaukei were to be 'pure' and not 'part'. Nothing else would suffice?

Now this is pure fascism and the philosophy of the German Reich; the role and the overlordship of the 'ubermensch (Superman ideologically put?) as argued for in Friederich Nietzsche. Of course, in post-colonial terms it might be seen as an understandable reaction to what came before? And that is all part of our cruel and protracted journey towards liberty and true democratic self-determination. It could be said that such distorted views of the self might be a recipe for schizophrenia. Rather like the distorted self image that results in physical obesity or in anorexia. Whichever, it is dysfunctional and unhealthy.

Is it helpful to add that Nietzsche eventually became insane and died in 1900? We are told: "Unfortunately, the peculiarities of Nietzsche's output have had a consequence he would himself have found deeply annoying: he has become nearly all things to all men".

Something that cannot be said of Professor Crosbie Walsh. We thank him for that.

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