We are taken aback by the harsh mood of the election, the anger and ferocity of the campaigns. Of course, the stakes are high; the effort is to defeat the opposite side, preferably with a knock-out blow. But the bitterness of the adversity, the venomous charges levelled against the candidates, leave many of us stunned. Granted that the two sides will attack each other, but the air of hate and contempt is suffocating. I have lived through ten US presidential elections, seven of them at close range as a capital resident. I have not seen an election as acrimonious as the current one.
The world has taken a long time to go from the rule of a monarch (usually a drunk, whoring scoundrel) or of some aristocrats (typically marauding, sycophantic hoods) to the rule of the people. Aristotle called ‘democracy’ the rule of the mob, and that is the rule we, the ordinary people, want. But now the scoundrels and hoods are taking their revenge. From the US to India, certainly including the charming bastions of democracy like China and Russia, elections everywhere have become a money driven game of manipulation. You and I have a measly vote each, but from Koch brothers in the US and to the Ambani brothers in India business leaders have expert publicists and lobbyists manipulating thousands of voters. Not to forget political leaders who have an army of paid trolls influencing millions of minds through social media. Today the ‘selling’ of a president – or a prime minister -- is no different from the selling of soap or snake oil.
But even this atmosphere of animosity is less disastrous than the other part which is hardly noticed. The main idea of a presidential election is not the elevation of an individual, but the ‘electing’ of an option, the collection of ideas and policies of which a candidate is both an advocate and a symbol. How does the public make its choice if a candidate does not say anything about the policies he likes and, in fact, scorns the idea of talking about policies? Just as in India, where there was no talk in the last election about the terrible plight of farmers or the lagging economic progress, in the US there is no real discussion about the life-and-death issues like gross inequality or climate change or even budgetary profligacy.
The presidential election we are about to see will be like a polished play you can see on Broadway, where there will be drama and fanfare, concocted and choreographed. There will be excitement at regular intervals, exactly as you expect in a decent stage production. There will be heroes and villains, comic and tragic side characters, all played with breath-taking competence so that you can believe them. I expect there will also be small snafus and a couple of medium-sized bombs to keep you in suspense – with any luck, resolved by Supreme Court divinities, exactly along party lines.
What you will not see is a genuine look at the issues like stable income, inexpensive education and decent healthcare for the vast number of people in the country. What you will not have are solutions to the most horrendous problems, such as homeless people, helpless drug addicts, minimum-wage workers and their impoverished children. What you will not hear, if the last several years are any guide, any genuine, root-cause coping with the burning problems of widespread racism, police brutality and pockets of scandalous and growing poverty.
Does this seem an over-pessimistic portrayal? It is simply a realistic assessment of a society that is sinking slowly in the global ranking of social progress. According to the Social Progress Index 2020, where experts assess the relative quality of life in different countries, the US has dropped nine positions in the last nine years and is now 28th in the world. Its traffic fatality rate and sanitation facility and internet access are behind most advanced countries. Its universities are the best in the world, but its basic education ranks 91st, comparable to Uzbekistan and Mongolia. Its medical technology is the world’s finest, but it is 97th in providing health care access, comparable to Mongolia and Jordan.
Elections come at rare intervals, but they demand a chance to be open and fair with people, share honestly your policies, explain them to the nation and not bluff people with false promises of national strength, military power and divisive strategies. You must humbly show your hand and let the voters choose. That is the ground rule for playing the game of democracy.
Kicking the chess board does not qualify as a style of playing chess. And a face-down board is the crest of a country that has fallen on its face.