CAMBRIDGE – With its presidential election over, the United States can finally take a breather from campaign politics, at least for a while. But an uncomfortable question lingers: How is it possible for the world’s most powerful country and its oldest continuous democracy to exhibit a state of political discourse that is more reminiscent of a failed African state?
Maybe that is too harsh an assessment of Africa’s nascent democracies. If you think I exaggerate, you have not been paying close attention. The pandering to extremist groups, the rejection of science, the outright lies and distortions, and the evasion of the real issues that characterized the most recent election cycle set a new low for democratic politics.
Without question, the worst offenders are America’s Republicans, whose leaders have somehow become enraptured by ideas that are beyond the pale in other advanced countries. Of the party’s dozen presidential candidates, only two (Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) declined to reject scientific evidence concerning global warming and its human causes. But, when pressed on it, Romney was sufficiently uncomfortable about his position that he wobbled on the issue.
The Darwinian theory of evolution has long been a dirty word among Republicans as well. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and an early frontrunner in the Republican primary, called it just a “theory out there,” while Romney himself has had to argue that it is consistent with creationism—the idea that an intelligent force designed the universe and brought it into being.
Likewise, if there is an archaic idea in economics, it is that the United States should return to the Gold Standard. Yet, this idea, too, has strong support within the Republican Party—led by Ron Paul, another contender for the party’s presidential nomination. No one was surprised when the party’s platform gave a nod to the Gold Standard in its convention in August.
Most non-Americans would find it crazy that neither Romney nor Barack Obama supported stricter gun-control laws (with Obama making an exception only for assault weapons such as AK-47s), in a country where it is sometimes easier to buy guns than it is to vote. Most Europeans cannot understand how, in a civilized country, both candidates can favor the death penalty. And I won’t even get into the abortion debate.
Candidate Romney was so cowed by his party’s obsession with low taxes that he never put forth a budget that added up. It was left to his spinners to explain, as The Economist put it, that this was “necessary rubbish, concocted to persuade the fanatics who vote in the Republican primaries.”
Obama, for his part, catered to economic nationalists by attacking Romney as an “outsourcing pioneer” and calling him an “outsourcer in chief”—as if outsourcing were evil, could be stopped, or Obama himself had done much to discourage it.
So rampant were the equivocations, untruths, and outright lies from both camps that many media outlets and nonpartisan groups maintained running lists of factual distortions. One of the best known, FactCheck.org, an initiative of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, confessed that this campaign had kept them exceptionally busy.
Some of the most egregious examples included Obama’s claims that Romney was planning to raise taxes by $2,000 on middle-income taxpayers and/or cut taxes by $5 trillion, and that Romney backed a law that would outlaw “all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.” Romney went even further, claiming that Obama planned to raise taxes by $4,000 on middle-income taxpayers; that Obama planned “to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements”; and that Chrysler, bailed out by the Obama administration, was moving all of its Jeep production to China.
None of these claims was true.
“It’s been that sort of campaign,” FactCheck.org’s analysts wrote, “filled from beginning to end with deceptive attacks and counterattacks, and dubious claims.”
Meanwhile, over the course of three televised presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, climate change, the signature issue of our time and the most serious problem confronting our planet, was not mentioned even once.
One can draw two possible conclusions from America’s election. One is that the United States will ultimately be undone by the poor quality of its democratic discourse, and that it is merely at the start of an inevitable decline. The symptoms are there, even if the disease has not yet infected the entire body.
The other possibility is that what is said and done during an election makes little difference to a polity’s health. Campaigns are always a time for cheap populism and kowtowing to single-issue fundamentalists. Perhaps what really matters is what happens after a candidate takes office: the quality of the checks and balances within which he or she operates, the advice offered, the decisions taken, and, ultimately, the policies pursued.
But, if American elections are nothing other than entertainment, why is so much money spent on them, and why do so many people get so exercised over them? Can the answer be that the outcome would be even worse otherwise?
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, elections are the worst way to select a political leader, save for all other methods that have been tried—and nowhere more so than in America.
Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard University, is the author of “The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy.”