Global Watch

United States: Land of the Discontented

US election.jpg

As party nominations for the United States’ 58th presidential election on 8 November enter the home stretch to battle it out, evidence is mounting that democracy in the US has become seriously dysfunctional.

In an article last week in the New York Times, after furiously contested political party primary elections for nomination as candidates in New York, columnist Frank Bruni wrote: “American voters are displeased with the candidates they’ve been given. They’re disengaged from the process that winnows the field.”

This assessment comes on the back of an opinion poll just released by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal that showed that 68% of American voters couldn’t imagine themselves casting a vote in the general election for Trump, while 61% said the same about Ted Cruz and 58% about Clinton.

Illustrating how far the election process for the US president falls short of the democratic test, the Democratic pollster and strategist Mark Penn, in a commentary published in The Hill, has calculated that on the basis of support for the two main parties’ (Republican and Democratic) frontrunners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, they only need 10 million votes out of 321 million people to secure nomination.

And, in the case of Trump, not even those 10 million votes might in the end hold the final sway.

In another report by BuzzFeedNews last week it emerged that top leaders in the GOP are hatching a secret plan to nominate Mitt Romney from the floor at a contentious “brokered party convention” in Cleveland, where final nomination will take place.

If Trump’s domination of the GOP’s primary polls throughout the process, a small group of wealthy donors and die-hard loyalists close to Mitt Romney will be ready with a strategy to win him the nomination from the convention floor,”  wrote McKay Coppins.

This possibility first surfaced in a Washington Post report about “Trump panic” consuming the GOP establishment and how friends of Romney are “mapping out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight”.

Penn argued in his article that the way the system currently operates is increasingly reflecting the will of powerful activist groups and political extremes.

“Would-be nominees needn’t worry much about the roughly 40% of Americans who at least technically consider themselves independents — a group that’s grown over the last decade — or the 60% who say that a third political party is needed.”

No, these candidates “can just double down on elements of their base. Rather than bring the country together, they demonize their opponents to hype turnout among select groups, targeted by race, religion or ethnicity,” Penn observed.

Internet and social media influence

To what extent the influence and impact of the internet and the proliferation of social media platforms have also exploded in this situation, is illustrated by the fact that most candidates now employ “digital directors” and “directors of rapid response” as part of their campaign teams.

It has become a dominant element of especially Clinton’s main rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Bernie Sanders, for whom a “digital army” has developed in the social media space.

It is, however, a new phenomenon in the social and political sphere not without its problems for politicians and political parties over which it has very little control. What has happened to the Bernie Sanders campaign in some ways reminds strongly of what happened in that space around the issue of racism a few months ago in South Africa.

SanBuzzFeedNews reported last week: “But the social web has also shown off the worst of Sanders’ supporters. Writing in her endorsement of Clinton this week, progressive writer Joan Walsh complained of harassment from online supporters of Sanders that the Vermont senator’s campaign aides have been aware of for months. Walsh called them ‘the Berniebot keyboard warriors’ but they’re more commonly referred to as the Bernie Bros.”

For example a Sanders supporter, in the comments under a photo of New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Clinton posted: “Their vaginas are making terrible choices!”

The Sanders campaign was forced to respond and his director of rapid response, Mike Casca, tweeted a simple but urgent request to the Sanders’s digital cohort. “Cool it,” he begged.

The following tweet is now permanently pinned to the top of his feed: … “if you support @berniesanders, please follow the senator’s lead and be respectful when people disagree with you.”

Conclusion

What is happening in the American presidential election race illustrates that it is not only in South Africa that there is a potentially dangerous divide developing in the supposed democratic dispensation between organised politics, as in parties, and the majority of ordinary citizens.

And as, Bruni writes in his column referred to above: “… the manner in which so many voters use the Internet in general and social media in particular, to curate and wallow in echo chambers that amplify their prejudices, exacerbate their tribalism and widen the fault lines between us.”

While the internet and social media are great tools of empowerment for ordinary citizens, they also pose great challenges to democracies globally.

Also read: Is South African democracy as healthy as we think?

by Piet Coetzer

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