Monday, July 28, 2014
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America’s Third-World Politics

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 US 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 non-partisan 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 US 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.

Read more from our "Four More Years for Obama" Focal Point. 

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  1. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    For an educated politician it seems irrelevant what people think about Darwinism. It only undermines their credibility and demands flexibility. Actually there are places in the world where elections are less worse and the excesses of American political entertainment would be unthinkable. But certainly there citizens do not elect politicians into office who robo kill individuals in other nations with drones. Their politicians also don't talk moral values and national ideas, like wet African dictators, but they do their duty. Thank's god their nations are not deceasing world powers but functional states.

  2. Portrait of Fernando Giuliano

    CommentedFernando Giuliano

    I think the problem is not limited to cheap campaign populism. The stubborn Congress gridlock has been going on for two years and there's no end in sight. I think what is going on in the US is a good reminder that "good institutions" are to a large extent endogenous. All it took for good institutions to look more like third-world ones was a huge financial crisis with persistent economic effects. Just like the ones third world countries are too used to witnessing.

  3. Commentedjames durante

    Rodrik appears to accept the the premise that the USA is supposed to be, in some way, a "democracy." The Constitution centralized economic and political power in the federal government and set up a whole host of barriers to democratic governance. As the wealthy, Constitutional framer Governeur Morris put it, "the evils experienced under the Articles of Confederation resulted from an excess of democracy." Or, as Hamilton opined, "the masses are asses."

    So a Roman style Republic was fashioned that would secure aristocratic rule in the Senate, separate the executive from the people via the electoral college, and confine the House to the fewest powers and shortest terms.
    Strict voting requirements would prevent the rabble from participating.

    Now much has been amended so new barriers to "people power" have become necessary. Total corporate control over media, unlimited corporate spending, a lobbying industry that freezes out anyone without serious money, etc.

    The elections do not live up to democratic ideals because we don't have democratic ideals. The purpose of the state is to secure unequal distribution of wealth and power. It does a reasonably good job of it (as it did in Rome until the inevitable collapse).

  4. CommentedWilliam Wallace

    The ugliness of politics, including the outright lies and zesty mudslinging, is nothing new to US politics. What is new and has been transforming democracy everywhere is the incorporation of new media, starting with television.

    Far from pondering written positions published in the local papers in order to deliberate over issues and candidates, we now have to decide who is the cutest on TV, has the catchiest sound-bites, or convinces us more in an emotionally laden mini-movie called a campaign ad. Couple all that with an internet that, unlike newspapers of old, will allow any crackpot viewpoint to be published and gain the traction it otherwise would never have had.

    Just like misery, opinions love like-minded company, especially those opinions that are least thought out. The internet is making 99% of us "more stupider."

  5. Commentedlt lee

    "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."
    I find it odd that people has to quote Churchill who is not any kind of god to reassure himself and the readers that western democracy is a better system.

  6. CommentedDuncan Green

    Hmmm. Oldest continuous democracy? US women got the vote in 1920, New Zealand women in 1893. Then there's Jim Crow, Native Americans, and what's still going on in Florida and elsewhere.....

  7. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Rodrik is right in his analysis of what characterizes the system of constant denial of the glaring symptoms of a stark reality, which must be abhorred in such a manner that the unreal is believed by a whopping majority; this needs a constant whipping of misleading information that could be backed by theory as well. This whole ensemble resembles the wrong corporatization of the process, which is single minded in its pursuit of exceeding its objectives, at whatever costs. It also shows that for any victory, it could well mean the loss for democracy or vice versa, as margins are determined not by sheer might of the policy choices, but much more frills that is engineered through careful investment in the public square.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  8. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Although everything the article is saying is true, we should not single out the Americans.
    The same sleepwalking is present everywhere we look from Europe to China, from Australia to Russia or the Middle East.
    And it all stems from the present human system which fails miserably on two counts.
    One hand we still remain as fragmented and polarized as ever, looking at everything in an angular, black and white fashion, enemy/friend, terrorist/freedom fighter, north/south, west/east, developed/ developing, communist/capitalist, conservative/liberal, stimulus/austerity and so on.
    In the meantime the world has become round, global and interconnected, we all overlap on so many levels that there is no way of separating nations or even individuals from each other in terms of influence and dependency.
    On the other hand we still stubbornly keep on pushing the constant quantitative growth economy despite all the clear signs that it has become self destructive, destroying individuals, nations and whole globe with it.
    When people are faced with such a distortion in between the external reality and the dreamlike system they imagine they live in they have no other option but to behave in an illogical, illusory sometimes ridiculous way to justify why they keep on doing the same unreasonable, stupid and downright destructive things.
    Any new state is a new opportunity to look into the mirror and finally start taking the present existential conditions seriously, and start adapting to them.
    I agree with the article that after this US election campaign, and in general how people handle the crisis, it is very doubtful if America and the rest of the world is ready for such a self examination and self adjustment.
    Unfortunately if we do not do it willingly, consciously then very unpredictable and volatile events would force us to do the same as the system with its absolute natural laws is not going to change, only we can change.

  9. CommentedPeter Thom

    The Romney economic plan specifically called for a 20% across the board tax reduction. The Tax Policy Center estimated this would amount to approximately $4.7 trillion. So what are you saying? Obama exaggerated by rounding up?

  10. CommentedMarc Freed

    While walking to vote yesterday it occurred to me that New York, which has 21 elected represetatives in Dc, has over 200 professional athletes (not counting the football players who play in New Jersey). So at a very simplisitic level, I am about 10x more likely to have a random encounter with New York Yankee than I am to meet any of my state's members of Congress. While I would much rather meet any Yankee than any member of Congress, this did not strike me as a particularly healthy measure of democracy.

    Perhaps, to the list of long-term remedies for our political malaise we ought to add the idea of increasing the number of our Congressional representatives by a factor of 3 or 4. Increasing the size of our Congressional delegations to reduce the number of people each one represents would enable more people to beome engaged in the political process. More importantly, it would make it less attractive for wealthy activists to donate vast sums to congressional candidates whose votes mattered only 1/3 or 1/4 as much as they do now.

    Only a live experiment would tell us if such a change would raise the level of our political discourse, but other democracies with lower ratios of voters to elected officials do not seem to suffer as many non-sensical arguments as we do.

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