Written by the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspaper
Quite unlike this milieu in which any politician can obtain even a high court injunction to stop presidential election processes, the presidential election in the United States will hold tomorrow and the result will be clear before November 9. The U.S. mainstream media has continued to repeat a fact that it is an election like no other. They say America has never been so divided. The two leading candidates, Donald Trump, of the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party have abandoned issues that have always reflected the American values and indeed their ‘American exceptionalism.’
In its classic forms, American exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. But the current politics with bitterness involving two white Americans has clearly distorted the so-called exceptionalism to the extent that the Republican Party that launched the ideal as an enhancer of the ‘American Dream’ in 2016 parades a presidential candidate, Trump who does not believe in ‘American exceptionalism.’ It is a paradox too that, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gringrich, who wrote a book on “American exceptionalism: A Nation Like No Other,” is one of the strongest supporters of Trump, who has publicly denounced believers in such a phony doctrine. Ironically, it is the Democratic candidate, Mrs Clinton who believes in the exceptionalism of the U.S. that Trump has disavowed.
“The United States is an exceptional nation,” Mrs. Clinton said the other day at the American Legion’s national convention in Cincinnati. “It’s not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger than any on Earth, it’s also the strength of our values.” Clinton added: “Our power comes with a responsibility to lead.”
But Trump doesn’t “like the term.” He questioned whether the United States was “more exceptional” and “more outstanding” than other nations. He also said that those who refer to “American exceptionalism” were “insulting the world” and offending people in other countries. He derided politicians who use the phrase. That is America, their America now.
The election campaigns have not only divided the country, it has raised some questions and dust about race relations, among other negative connotations in a country that prides itself exemplary whenever political pluralism and diversity come to be discussed.
But the more immediate question is what the campaigns of the two political parties tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. democratic experiment that might hold lessons for democracy in Africa.
Trump’s strongest supporters are Americans who prefer strong men to strong institutions. Trump is openly tribal. He says he is not a democrat. He has promised authoritarian leadership to an angry majority of Republican Party members. They don’t only fear a loss of status, they also resent globalisation and immigration that a President Trump would radically reform. They are scared of terrorists and want a more assertive America dominated by white Christian male: “Make America great again” is the campaign magic wand that has sustained the maverick Trump.
Trump’s demagogic genius has been to circumvent the Republican elite and appeal directly to the party’s alienated majority. He has gained support from both only on the basis of their shared hatred of Clinton.
However, Clinton won the Democratic nomination on a completely different ticket, which included a celebration of American diversity and concessions to a progressive faction demanding greater economic justice.
Africans have had bitter experiences with demagoguery, authoritarianism and foreign exploitation. After all, they live on the world’s most ethnically diverse and fractious continent.
And so achieving greater freedom and equality for all identity groups has long been African democrats’ primary goal. By contrast, American democrats have traditionally been preoccupied with individual rights. On both continents at the moment, democrats are testing variations of these ideals. These are experiences they might usefully share.
Democracy is best defined as a political experiment whose sole aim is to keep the experiment running. And a constitution limits and shares power among all parties to the agreement.
It will be recalled that America’s 1789 constitutional bargain excluded many. Most notably it excluded women and most egregiously African slaves in what today would be deemed a crime against humanity. How America’s two major parties have dealt with excluded identity groups’ demands has defined their priorities since the 19th century. And in the 1960s the Democratic Party lost a large faction when it passed civil rights legislation. Virtually all the white segregationists who controlled the bloc of southern states quickly turned Republican and remain so till date. The effect was to further hinder the centuries-long struggle by African Americans for full and equal voting rights.
In this election, Democrats are more determined than ever to advance equal rights for all groups, however self-identified, within constitutionally acceptable limits.
And so America’s Democratic Party is now perhaps the world’s most diverse political party. And like most other voters the world over, Democrats cast ballots primarily according to their self-ascribed identities. They do so with an agreed party platform of supportive policies. Which was why there were striking visual differences between the two U.S. national conventions. Republican delegates were nearly all white. By contrast, the Democrats could be mistaken for a meeting of the United Nations, although with more women and fewer suits.
This same loose coalition of Hispanic, Asian and African-Americans, plus the young and the well-educated, gave Obama his two terms in the White House.
Demographically they are America’s emerging majority. Lately they started acquiring proportional representation appropriate for equal standing in America’s evolving version of democracy.
According to a recent political report by an African researcher, lasting political reform will be possible only if a more pluralistic majority gains greater control over America’s national institutions.
For 227 years the Constitution has ensured disproportionate power for small states. This has helped perpetuate the domination of descendants of a founding group of Europeans.
What is in it for Africa? The African Union is quite different from the U.S. But it has adopted a long-term vision, Agenda 2063, that envisions pan-African integration by democratic means.
More immediately and substantially, the African Union’s Constitutive Act of 2002 enshrines a consensus that supports democratic development in all 54 African states. The African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance commits all member states to hold periodic credible elections and invite AU observation.
States will no doubt invoke traditional rights of sovereign equality to impede Pan-African integration. This is analogous to the persistent claims of America’s 50 states against encroachment of federal authority. Therefore, Africa’s approach to democracy differs from America’s in another important way. It focuses more on ensuring ‘horizontal equality” among diverse cultural and ethnic groups, rather than among individual, or “vertical” rights.
Highlighting this distinction helps clarify the historic nature of America’s 2016 presidential election. Democrats are seeking greater horizontal equality. For Republicans the focus is on the unfettered rights of individuals. Take the issue of gun ownership.
Lately African commitments to democratic governance, nationally and regionally, appear to be faltering. Leadership provided by some African countries including Nigeria in founding the AU and advancing an African Renaissance is missing. No new champions have emerged.
We are witnessing authoritarianism being revived under leaders more like Vladimir Putin than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
Africa’s democrats therefore, have a special stake in the outcome of the U.S. 2016 election.
Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, which most Africans would like Democratic Party to win, the AU should consider new ways to strengthen ties with leading African-Americans. They are, after all, the richest and most influential segment of Africa’s global diaspora, the so-called sixth region of the African Union.
Meanwhile, the Obama presidency has achieved much more than the American whites have credited to him. But more than any outgoing president in recent history, his rating hit 55 per cent at the weekend, thanks to the power of the free press, democracy’s strongest weapon.