The political stalemate in the United States challenges many of the commonly held notions about democracy in the nuclear-armed, north American nation of more than 330 million people. The incumbent, authoritarian president, Donald Trump, at 74 already one of the oldest leaders in the G-20, is clinging on to power and refusing to accept defeat by the even older opposition leader, Joe Biden.
In advance of the election, Trump built a barricade - a
"non-scalable" wall - around the presidential palace, officially
known as the White House, in the country’s
coastal capital of Washington DC, which only added to concerns that he may not give up power if he lost.
For the watching world, the question is how did it come to this?
How could a country that promotes itself as a model democracy across the planet
- "the shining city on a hill" - be so bad at conducting elections
and containing a rogue president?
Strategically located between two of the world's largest
economies, Mexico and Canada, America is a country of deep contrasts - of
breathtaking natural beauty, natural resources and friendly people, but also of
ethnic divisions and massive inequality and poverty. It is a country that leads
the world in scientific and technological discovery, yet is ruled by a corrupt,
rapacious elite and struggles to come to terms with the legacy of its racist
and colonial past.
Similarly, while Trump and Biden have much in common - both are
wealthy and accused of corruptly exploiting public office to corruptly benefit
themselves and their family members - they represent very different visions of
the oil-rich country, long regarded an island of stability
in a troubled region.
Four years ago, frustrated by a political elite that had presided
over years of declining fortunes and betrayed hopes, a section of the American
society, primarily made up of members of the ethnic white majority living in
the vast rural interior of the country, turned to Trump, a political outsider
with a hateful message which exploited ethnic divisions, demonised immigrants
and refugees and promised a return to a mythical great past.
Yet Trump has achieved the opposite - by wrecking the nation's
traditional alliances and exacerbating its internal divisions, he has weakened
the country and lowered its esteem in the eyes of the world. Even the economic successes, the foundation for
his re-election campaign, have been blighted by
his mishandling of the global pandemic which has so far led to the needless
deaths of nearly a quarter of a million of his fellow citizens.
Biden has now been elected by the other
half of Americans, a coalition of ethnic minorities and moderate whites, also
on a platform of a return to a mythical past, only a more recent one. He has
been essentially charged with undoing the chaos of the Trump years and healing
However, the idea of a pre-Trump utopia is fiction. The fact is
Trump is a symptom, not the cause of America's problems; he simply exploited
what existed long before he appeared on the scene. Fixing the country will take
more than replacing him with a member of the ancien régime.
One might say that the problem is both camps are not looking back
far enough. As the political unrest that swept the country in the months
leading up to the election indicated, the issues plaguing the US date back to
its founding as the first English colony, the genocide that accompanied the
conquest of the native population, the enslavement that allowed the
exploitation of its resources and the discrimination that legitimises to this day
gross inequality and allows the few to profit off the labour of the many.
As with other countries struggling with traumatic pasts, the US
needs to come to terms with the legacy of that past which continues to poison
ethnic relations between its citizens today. Here it could learn from other
former colonies, such as South Africa and Kenya, which have experimented with
truth and reconciliation commissions.
In addition, the US will need to examine and repair the systemic
faults with its democratic arrangements. Although the country likes to think of
itself as having escaped the clutches of colonial monarchy after securing its
independence, the truth is just like many former colonies that retained
colonial states after securing independence, in the US, the monarchy was
reincarnated in the form of its powerful presidency.
Over the last two centuries, Britain's first-born has continued to
increase the power of that office while simultaneously untethering it from
constitutional restrictions. Where democracy was once thought of as a way for
the people to rule themselves, the country has transformed it into a mechanism
for basically appointing a king.
In the mould of their former colonial masters, Americans have come
to treat their presidents like greater mortals and saviours, ascribing to them
messianic qualities, carving massive monuments to them on mountains and
treating their words as pearls of wisdom from on high. Vice President-elect
Kamala Harris's description of Biden in her acceptance speech is in the same vein:
"We have elected a president who represents the best in us. A leader the
world will respect and our children can look up to. A commander in chief who
will respect our troops and keep our country safe."
It is this path that has led the country inexorably to Donald
Trump. In order to reverse course, the US will need to pursue reform of its
system, to reintroduce accountability and to pare back some of the powers of
the presidency. Rather than focusing on choosing rulers, it has to encourage
the participation of its citizens in the governance of their state.