In 2008, your columnist was in New York for Super Tuesday as well as the day Obama won the election. On Super Tuesday, Obama was still a candidate, battling the Clintons and others within his own party to secure his candidature. Later that year, when CNN called the election just after 11pm, there wasn’t a single person in Times Square (and there were thousands) your columnist encountered who didn’t have tears in their eyes, dancing around wildly and shouting themselves hoarse. Four years hence, the US feels a very different country and context. President Obama would bore his 2008 avatar to death – there’s occasionally the same smile, but no verve, no drive, no energising mantra that captivated so many just four years ago, and incredibly, no power to stymie the popularity of an opponent who represents for all his sartorial elegance, the worst of America. But it’s not just Romney – the entire system is corrupt, and this is a country in serious political decay.
Take the debates and specifically, the final debate, ostensibly on US Foreign Policy. No mention of Europe, India or climate change. There was just passing mention of cyber-security. There was no interrogation of Obama’s record on drone attacks and resulting collateral deaths, numbering cumulatively in the hundreds. There was no debate on why Guantanamo remains open, and what this signals to more repressive regimes around the world, Sri Lanka included. Nothing on human rights promotion, or engaging with the contested futures of MENA countries, post-revolution or civil war, beyond inane, simplistic soundbites on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and consternation about Egypt’s new government. Candidates tried to out do each other in professing their deep love for and loyalty to Israel. For long periods of the debate, both candidates concentrated on US internal policies more than its foreign policy in any shape or form. A Twitter account based on a single phrase – Horses and Bayonets – created during the third debate had just under an hour over 33,000 followers, an indication of how remarkably shallow US political discourse is, where reductio ad absurdum of expression and the ideational is somehow celebrated as the new normal.
In the famed sci-fi flick ‘The Matrix’, humans in a distant post-apocalyptic future have become mere sources of energy, fed and kept alive for a single purpose – to power a neural simulation that keeps them virtually content in actual physical bondage. Mainstream US politics today disturbingly mirrors this dystopic vision. It is unbelievably mind numbing in its banality, extremely insular and panders to voters who don’t want to or are unable to hold their leading candidates to account. Voters are (willing?) hostages to a degenerate political architecture so corrupt and unfair, Sri Lanka’s own electoral challenges pale into insignificance. Take the so-called Super PACS, which have come into play for the first time. They didn’t feature at all in the Presidential debates, precisely because both leading candidates are so reliant on this heinous campaign financing. The WSJ reported a few days ago that the total cost of the election is close to 2 Billion dollars. USAID’s entire programme budget for 2011 was a tad over 11 billion dollars. In fact, the elections will cost more than its total commitment to Peace and Security related programming for 2011, which was under a billion dollars. Google’s informative web based Campaign Explorer flags at the time of writing over 280 million dollars of ad spending for the Democrats and around 131 million for the Republicans. In comparison, over the course 2011, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – which responds to humanitarian crises and disasters around the world – got just over 278 million dollars for all its operations. Where is the accounting for this spending, and how democratic a leader can any President be when elected on this foundation?
There is an apocryphal adage that Presidential elections in the US are the most undemocratic in the world, no matter how well they are conducted within the US, because it impacts all of us, and we don’t even have a vote. Obama is enervated, and in 2012, essentially dishonest. Seen charitably, he is his own victim, unable in office to live up to the expectations he engendered amongst so many within and outside the US when aspiring to it. That Romney remains so popular is a humbling indicator of how inward looking, simplistic and dishonest mainstream politics are today in the US. But beyond telegenic individuals, a country that supports our own electoral reform and transparency in governance needs to gaze inwards, at its own rotting political architecture. The abject poverty of ideas and innovation and the silence over moral leadership tells its own story. The most cursory glance strongly suggests all is not well in the US.
And this is disturbing for all of us.
Published in the print edition of The Nation, 28 October 2012.