Democracy, assumptions and misnomers: The US 2020 Presidential Elections

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Nov 12 2020 11:14 PM

The various reactions to the recently concluded US Presidential Elections reveal so much about how democracy, particularly voting and people’s participation, are understood differently by different people. There’s so much diversity in opinions, which is but expected; apart from the fact that different peoples have different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, the greater number of people are mainly participants and not necessarily serious observers of politics. 

The kind of opinions that have been coming out however somehow show that societies have reached an unprecedented level of polarization. Opinions are becoming less and less informed, nothing much but bare assumptions, even misnomers. There is so much discontent as much of the world seems to have become more and more unstable; many have lost and are still losing so much from economic uncertainty, and the pandemic has only made matters worse. Many are made vulnerable by empty promises and rhetoric from political leaders, which explains the polarization. As desperation abounds, everyone and anyone will affirm, even cling to any assertion that is made, regardless if true or reasonable or not, as long as it favors or is sympathetic to them. This explains the advance of populism today.

If only the issue or issues at hand are not that serious, we can just sit back and at best be amused since many of these assertions made relative to the recent US elections are nothing more than hilarious. There is a need however to put things in proper perspective, lest the situation deteriorates to further inanity. We all have our own biases but we have to make it a point to exert every effort to be more objective and make better sense of the prevailing situation. Only then can we hope at the very least reach a more common understanding of issues which is a requisite to finding resolutions to many of the problems we all face today.

Let us start with the common declaration that because Joe Biden won the election, the world will now be a better place. I can agree to a certain extent that at least there is a chance that with a new US president, US government policies would be more predictable, even reasonable. There are so many examples that may be cited, from the EU-US trade to NATO and even US-China trade. These are, of course, part of the 2016 Trump campaign promise to “Bring back jobs to the US”.

The role of the US in the world, on the other hand, is a lot more than just trade and jobs. It is difficult, of course, but that’s the reality that the US has to play, that a US president has to be sensitive to; it has to include trade and jobs as that’s what makes the US economy thump, but it is fundamental that it plays its role in keeping the world stable. It is not any other country that is or can be concerned only with what it benefits from or what it can get from the global market. Like many other leading countries, it should be aware that for it to actually sustain its developed state and remain stable, the whole world has to remain stable. It cannot hope to gain anything, especially economically, in an unstable world.

For example, one of the disagreements between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump in the G7 Summit in August last year was not whether the US should reconsider its trade spat with China. It was more because Trump could not offer some details on how he was going to proceed with the issue given that his problems with China sounded alarm bells in Europe. Many were concerned it could tip an already weakening global economy into a recession. The US has to tread carefully on how it deals with China and even with other countries and so many other issues because there are consequences beyond its borders. The point is that US deals are often not the usual single issue or single objective deals. It is always more, if not in fact something else, but concealed by a deal on another issue.

Take the case of the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, commonly referred to as KORUS. Trump wanted it abrogated because, in his own words, “It was a Hillary Clinton disaster”. No less than Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn disagreed with his president in a tense exchange in the White House in August 2017, as narrated in the book "Fear" by Bob Woodward. Cohn was explaining that it was a lot more than trade and in fact the US is gaining more from it than South Korea. Trump insisted without giving any more explanation and without trying to understand what was being explained by his men, and he even wanted to pull out US troops in South Korea. His advisers explained then that it would be a lot more expensive as it will require more Navy carrier groups to secure the region and that the whole approach in South Korea, that is from trade to security, should be considered. Still, come 2018 or just a year into his presidency, the US would be renegotiating the deal with South Korea. Cohn in the end served only for a little over a year in the administration.

And this disagreement with his own people is but common. Rex Tillerson was State Secretary only for a little less than the period Cohn served. Tillerson called Trump a “fucking moron” in the same tense meeting mentioned above. In Tillerson’s reckoning, Trump was speaking as if the US military was a mercenary force for hire. If a country wouldn’t pay for them to be there, then they shouldn’t be there. The assumption was there were no American interests in forging and keeping a peaceful world order.

So, yes, perhaps with a new US president, the approach would be different. How different it will be has yet to be seen, but it’s quite early to say the world will be a lot better of just because there’s a new US president. There are so many reasons why it’s quite early to expect anything, beginning with the fact that the new president would be busy with a serious much-needed housecleaning. This is not only with the policy mess Trump is leaving behind, but more because of the worsened economic situation due to the pandemic. In fact, more than any of these, we have to ask why Trump was elected president in the first place, and that will give us the reason why we should not expect anything significant from a new US president anytime soon. The world has changed significantly and the US has been weakened significantly.

What elected Trump in 2016 is the same reason he lost to Biden in the recent election: the economy. And this is the tricky part. Trump, with his simplistic approach to policy, managed to effect higher wages and boost confidence in the local economy. The average worker’s pay grew more than 3 percent in a year under his presidency. It doesn’t mean however that the US economy under Trump performed better than previous US presidents. The economy was growing by 2.5 percent in Trump’s first three years but this is well below the growth under the Clinton, Reagan and Johnson administrations and just a little better than Obama’s except that the latter presided over a period of recession. And so basically, his economics isn't that bad, but only for the US. This good economic standing, on the other hand, was wiped out overnight by the pandemic. Unemployment reached Great Depression levels to as high as 19.7 percent. Of course, it is a pandemic, and many would not necessarily fault Trump for the economic slump. The American voters then would see their politics differently from the way we non-Americans see it. And this is where most assumptions and misnomers come from.

When the count was still ongoing, a foreigner-friend posted on social media that if Trump wins, it will be a huge disappointment. The message seems to suggest that Trump is bad and therefore should lose. Elections, nor democracy, however, is not always about what is right or true. It should be, and that’s what most of us want it to be. The reality, however, is it is not, and this has long been the debate between leading political theorists. We don’t need to discuss much of it here, but we can cite a leading theory of Schumpeter which was very much influenced by Weber’s market-based theory that simply says democracy is a method by which people elect representatives in competitive elections to carry out their will. His book even asserts that there is even no certainty that elected representatives will actually and with certainty carry out the will of the people. In fact, even if we assume that democracy is about right and wrong, how sure are we that what is right is the same for all the people? Not with local people and certainly not with people in different countries.

A local pundit even asserted amid the election count that Trump could still win because Americans are willingly misled by Fox News. I take it to mean then that the assumption is that a good majority of Americans watch only Fox News and nothing else, not CNN, MSNBC etc. I thought for a while that many, especially people in developed countries, get their news more from the internet. So, the Associated Press should be another good source. 

The reality, however, is that more than news, people are fed fake news, and propaganda has become more and more significant in politics, especially in relation to elections. Because anyone and everyone can and is, in fact, now some kind of a journalist. With the many avenues in social media, it is difficult to go out of one’s way to fact check every news feed. So, is it right to just blame Fox News? Whether or not Fox News is consistently right wing and tends to give out fake news or propaganda, it is not only them that’s doing it, and that it has been effective is simply because there’s an explosion of information that no one can possibly determine which one is true or not all the time. In my case, I make it a point to consider only news from the usual traditional media organizations and compare how each reports the same news. Still, it is not a guarantee.

Perhaps, it is just human nature to be affected emotionally by elections which leads some to make thoughtless assumptions. The opposition here in the Philippines was jubilant over Biden's victory, believing that now, the US will be on their side. The US has always been on the side of whatever is in their interests. It’s a pity if we will rely on them to resolve issues that we should be resolving ourselves. We should have already taken a leaf or two from our history where the US committed to do something but did something else, starting with a pledge to just emancipate us from Spain. We shouldn’t rely on the US in resolving local issues nor should we rely on China or any other country. We should be resolving our own issues.

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To me, what is clear are the following: whatever is to be expected from a Biden-led US, the US government should put a lot of things in order, especially given the damage brought by the pandemic. Second, the US is no longer the global power that it used to be. It still is, but if it does not relearn working with other countries, it won’t be as much influential. In fact, it will be able to do more of the first if it is able to do much of the second. Lastly, and this is what’s important for us here in the Philippines, whether or not we have become closer to China, what is clear is that we have declared the country open for the same business and partnership with every country and with other powers. Before, we were more a US partner and the others lesser or just something else. The US has to do a lot more to influence Philippine politics, and especially the 2022 presidential elections. 

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.