US electoral democracy: signs of failure or fatigue?
To describe 2016 as a systemic breakdown of the US electoral process would probably go too far, and would give pretext for countries to conveniently discard or to forget liberal democracy.
It is worth recalling that just eight years ago, the same system gave America its first black president in Barack Obama, who was reelected in 2012. This year, the same system almost produced the first US woman president.
Still, the 2016 US presidential race, from the process to the final outcome, gives plenty of ammunition to those who doubt the ability of liberal democracy to produce great leaders. The timing could not be worse, coming as America’s superpower status is waning, through a combination of its own failing strengths and the challenge to US supremacy.
Enter the China model. Because it is a system that has proven efficient and effective, and certainly delivered the economic goods, it is now being touted as a better option than liberal democracy for developing countries looking for the right kind of nation-building model, including the way they pick their leaders.
One caveat about the China model, however: Forget freedom and basic rights, the fundamental tenets that underpin liberal democracy.
What matters is that the system brings economic growth and development and raises people’s prosperity. The suppression of some freedoms and rights—big or small is relative—is the price nations have to pay to ensure stability, a prerequisite to development. Freedoms and basic rights can come later, if at all.
In “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy,” author Daniel A. Bell shows how China introduced a meritocratic system that has produced leaders the nation can be proud of. The leaders that have come out of this system have consistently produced rapid growth rates that turned China from a large poor developing country to the world’s second largest economy in these last two decades.
It is not a perfect system by any measure, but it is a model that has evolved in China out of the socialist system that the founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China launched in 1949.
But if countries are not comfortable with the costs to freedom and basic rights that the China model entails, they should probably take another look at US democracy, and consider 2016 as an aberration rather than as a system that is failing, a system that is suffering from fatigue and needing reforms.
Americans need to look at the role of the political parties and the way they produced presidential candidates. Surely a country of 320 million people deserved better choices than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. How their track records and flawed characters got past the political screening system is simply baffling.
The US electoral system—including the primaries and the conventions—is simply too long and too expensive for any country to emulate. For that price, Americans should feel they are being shortchanged by the system.
This year’s voter turnout, estimated at 58 percent, is another reflection of the growing public apathy toward the electoral system or the candidates it produced.
The US election has become one big and long political show for selecting the most popular, but not necessarily the most capable, candidate. One could compare it to “American Idol,” but even that reality TV show has been pulled out due to viewers’ fatigue.
If this is the picture of democracy, then many nations worldwide would want none of it.
In many countries, liberal democracy is no longer considered the best political system for selecting national leaders. It is not the only way forward. The China model has never been a more attractive alternative in those countries, including Indonesia, still grappling with nation building.
America can help restore faith in liberal democracy by carrying out the necessary electoral reforms. It needs to show once again that democracy is the best political system for selecting leaders because it is based on the principles of respecting freedoms and basic human rights.
Yes, America can be great once again. But that would probably be asking too much from the newly elected president.
Endy Bayuni is editor in chief of The Jakarta Post.
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