On US election: some thoughts

us presidential candidate pixel art

Source: pixelfigures.tumblr.com

I’m not an American – first and foremost, but let me share some thoughts about what I perceive as one of the world’s most bizarre electoral competitions throughout human history (perhaps some exaggeration, but anyway).

Truth be told, most elections are ‘intense’. Intense in a way that society gets polarized for quite some time, some stuff (perhaps altercation) occurs, then a candidate with the biggest shares of votes wins, and gets elected, and society gets back to their normal ways of life, all the way until the next election is scheduled. In the US context, electoral history has been dominated by the two parties alone: Democrats and Republicans. The observable pattern – most of the time – is a Democrat administration, or when voters are dissatisfied with their performance, simply punish by voting them out of office, replacing them with a Republican one.

Despite some major historical events, one can say that the political phenomenon is almost reminiscent of that in ‘Groundhog Day’: support your candidate, get crazy about him (or her), engage in online debate or vitriol, and once election result comes out, things go back to normalcy.

This time, it is a truly bizarre event if I would have to be honest. Not sure if Elon Musk’s ‘universe-as-a-simulation’ argument is correct, but sometimes it makes you question whether the creator of this universe (whether it’s God, or a 17-year-old super-player playing a universe-sized Sim-like simulation) is running on a bad script. Nobody knows, but you are free to make your own ontological deduction.

We’ve got Donald J. Trump – whatever title you want to attach, I’ll let you decide. Racist? Check. Narcissist? Check. Braggadocio? Check. What’s his task? Making America great again. Up to this point, I can hardly decide whether he wants to ‘become president of the United States’ or ‘make America great again’. Here, up to this point, Trump has become the sole Muslim-baiting, Mexican-baiting, African American-baiting, women-baiting great wall-championing candidate for the Republican party, as the media likes to refer. Even more confounding for us, the rest of the world (and majority of Americans I bet), Trump is getting massive support from a significant portion of US population, mostly from the largely White working-class groups. Is he ‘funny’ or ‘dangerous’? He’s so ‘funny’ to the way he already gets the world ‘alarmed’ at his presidential prospect. Building a wall that borders Mexico, proposing a ban on ‘Muslim’ immigration to the US from countries harboring terrorists (my country is one of them, although I am myself ethnic Chinese and ‘Buddhist’), imposing 45% tariffs from imported products from China, and putting global economy at stake by proposing ‘US debt default’ (the art of the deal, huh??), refusing to honor decades-long security commitments with its allies (NATO, Japan, South Korea, etc), and ‘pivoting away from the whole world to make America great again’. What I’m scared is his ideas, but what I’m scared even more is the way he has repeatedly flip-flopped his statement; saying one idea is ‘great and awesome’, only to end up saying ‘the idea is horrible, terrible, and dangerous’. The worse thing is he is still garnering significant support, and that shows no signs of abating. Reality is sometimes weirder than our imagination.

And then, all the way, we’ve got Hillary (insert whatever you want, ‘Killary’, Hillary-Monsanto-Goldman Sachs-TPP-Clinton, etc). A more sane and politically experienced candidate – having been in US Senate and being the most well-traveled Secretary of State), my opinion towards her is that she is hardly different from any other politicians. She flips-flops (say, on TPP), gets paid huge sums of money by Wall Street (you know, the big banks), and has close ties with some of the world’s nastiest dictatorships. More recently, she self-clones herself to ‘somewhat’ look like Bernie Sanders. I do not say she is a good candidate, either, given some of the existing controversies in her past track records. But, again, as a politician (and just like any other typical politicians), she is the one that can make huge promises, compromises with all sides, and delivers a portion of them. She envisions herself as ‘de facto continuing Obama’s third term’, only that she will be more hawkish in her foreign policy (as already demonstrated in Libya, and probably Syria should she get elected). You hate her simply because ‘you hate her’, but this is all the more given the fact that she is a centrist, and if one looks into the median-voter theorem (one of the most common theories in political science), the one that can stay in the median position is the one most likely to win the elections, because people would prefer ‘status-quo’.

Of course people had expectations of Bernie Sanders (and indeed very high). Despite his apparent failure to become the presidential candidate from Democratic Party, it is remarkable that he could build such a huge appeal within a time span of less than a year (ironically, so did Trump). Using his credential as a ‘democratic socialist’ – in fact I would consider him more as a European-style social democrat, he championed the ideas of free college, universal and free healthcare, and all the measures to force the ‘one-percent’ to pay taxes and support the poor, low-income, and working class in the United States. His zeal – and his enthusiasm – captured so many people’s attention, and even myself. To some degree, I actually felt the Bern. There’s always a but, nevertheless. I truly admire his ideals, but if I have to be honest (especially to Bernie bros or Bernie-or-bust people), Bernie’s Achilles’ heel has been that he has yet to detail his policy proposals on what precise measures he’s going to do to achieve his goals. It’s like he’s dreaming big – and extremely big, but he seems ‘stuck’ in continuously touting his dreams. I also have thoughts circulating in my mind that a Bernie Sanders presidency may struggle to put forward his ideas – especially amid the Congress, dominated by tons and tons of special interests, all of which may eventually force him to compromise and sacrifice some of his ideals. Unlike Hillary, Bernie seemingly does not appear ‘ready’ to become unpopular. Don’t we all realize that politicians are people who know when to attract popularity, and when to enact unpopular policies? I am trepidated by the prospects of a Bernie presidency not because of his ideals that will threaten economic stability, but rather his potential ‘inability’ to do so due to the tough reality of politics – forcing him to confront his own Icarian tragedy. Still, with the fact that Bernie is so close to the ‘core’ of the Democratic Party right now, to some extent this has also forced Hillary to adopt policy positions that are leaning, somewhat, to the left-wing of politics (although I may doubt her not flip-flopping), and largely changed the landscape of American politics these days – altogether with Trump.

Now the real conundrum is Trump. His sensationalist acts, his tweets (which look more like tweet-bots), his arrogance, and his extremely unpredictable temperament could have been ‘acts of suicide’ in other places. But, he’s gaining more popularity than ever. Trump supporters remain largely committed to support him. You may call them idiots, stupid, low-IQ, mentally ill, jerks, retards, paranoia-laden people, but the reality is much more complicating, and it is such over-generalization that continues to perpetuate why this guy could still maintain a huge, staunchly support base. With the fact that a huge bulk of his supporters are working-class people, perhaps I could show you one graph prepared by Branko Milanovic shown below:


Source: World Bank

Other than the world’s poorest population, the ‘biggest losers’ in globalization are the middle- and working-class population in the high-income economies, especially US – one of the most unequal countries among OECD countries. Trump phenomenon is not itself a unique phenomenon alone; Brexit, the rise of far-right populist movements, the resurgence of ultra-nationalism, are moments that can be very easily exploited by political Machiavellians, agitators, and demagogues (and I do not deny that Trump is just one of them). Also, it is not that Trump supporters are ‘blind’ of his wrongdoings: they know his misdeeds, but their assumption is: “better the devil you know”. As the US election in 2016 is one that pits two unpopular candidates, voters have only one option: select the one that is ‘less evil’ than the other. Trump supporters argue that they fully understand the ‘devil’ in Trump, but at least he’s ‘open’ about it, and they have this suspicion of ‘Clinton’, all the secret agenda, conspiracy theories, and stuff. Such vulnerability is a very huge rabbit hole that can be ceaselessly exploited by fellow demagogues to amplify their voices. Most people on the other side (and not necessarily Clinton supporters) fail to notice such pattern, and this is where they continue to chastise Trump supporters as being on the categories I highlight above. I am very sure there are Trump supporters who are not racists, bigots, or even from ethnic minorities (although he may say some bad stuff). In short, there is almost no ‘culture of dialogue’ between the two sides, and no wonder polarization becomes increasingly uncompromising and intense.

Part of this strange phenomenon, also, lays the blame on the intellects. Does a professor teaching in Harvard, or Stanford, or Princeton, understand the feelings of a blue-collar worker in Mississippi or Alabama? I am not saying that all faculty members are elitists (note that a huge portion of them are active on projects that try to empower communities), but given the growing inequalities in income, wealth, and economic and social opportunities, this is also another possible pathway that can lead to the rise of demagogues, regardless if a country is already a well-established democracy, or if a country is already high-income or not. The ‘understanding gap’ between the intellects and the rest of the country is huge – especially with the ivory-tower tendencies of the former – but I think I need to devote one special blog post that explains ‘the failure of intellectuals’.

This election, therefore, will be very vividly watched across the world. Whoever becomes the president – either it’s Trump or Clinton – will determine the future trajectory of the United States, and the international order as well. In spite of numerous existing domestic problems, US remains the world’s largest economy, and it remains a key determinant to stabilize the global order. The commander-in-chief whose credential is ‘the big bro in the Apprentice’ is not the one that will necessarily keep the order in shape; Clinton is by no means popular, either, but she understands what being a politician is – when to become ‘popular’, and when to enact unpopular policies. US’ global image has improved under Obama administration (after its notorious association with Iraq War under George W. Bush government), although it is not flawless. If Trump wins, it may be either the global order is at stake (if he is consistent with his big ideals, which I already doubt them given his own flip-flopping), or that many countries will simply ‘stay away’ from US. In the context of Asia, most countries – rather than risking war with China and asking US for security guarantee – will, no matter how unpopular it is, choose to cozy up to Beijing, given their substantial economic leverage.

The whole essence of this election is neither to ‘dump Trump (and his supporters)’ nor ‘lock her up’ (in the context of Clinton). It is about the next 4 years where US will go, and what the future generations will learn about political processes in their country. While obviously this is an unpopular election, as a non-American, I appeal to people there to please build up a ‘culture of dialogue’ between different political spectrum. For the rest of the world, I would say that we also need to prepare for the ‘worst-case scenario’ in the future. We may possibly witness big changes in the international order, but we don’t know.


Democracy as a ‘sinking ship’?



The notion of democracy has been going through a turbulent path these days. From a contemporary aspect, we can refer to phenomena like the Brexit, the rise of nativists-populists epitomized by that corn-haired Donald Trump, and most recently, the military coup attempt in Turkey last Friday. We criticize such outcomes as malcontent, harbingers of something more dangerous to come, or short-sighted, but if we take into account deeper consideration, aren’t all these enabled – either directly or indirectly – from the very core processes we consider as ‘democratic’ instead?

This is not an academic paper that tries to discuss about democracy (although I would be very interested to author one), but – as a way to showcase my right of civil liberties – let us have a frank discussion about it. First thing first, we need to acknowledge that there are no perfect political ideologies, even in the concept of ‘democracy’. To understand about the existing dichotomy, let us the origin of this notion back into Ancient Greece, somewhere around 6th (or maybe 7th) century BC. Aristotle, or our genius philosophy bro’ who invented almost every field we study today, postulated that the main aim of democracy is to achieve freedom. On the other school of thought, we got the other partners-in-crime (Plato and Socrates, one of whom the other betrayed) who argued that democracy is no different from mob rule, or most commonly referred to as ‘tyranny of the majority’. One alternative proposition – or maybe compromise – offered by these philosophers was to use the term ‘polyarchy’. Defined as ‘rule by more than one person’, polyarchy still slightly differs from democracy in that the former postulates a set of institutions, constraints, and procedures that aim to balance the utilization of democracy, which the latter actually does not posit. If we adapt these debates to contemporary settings, the resulting outcome – voila! – is polarization within the society. People debate on how democracy should be done and represented. One school wants maximum participation from the people – and the people alone, while the other wants a more procedural, representative, and legally-constraining measures to not let democracy ‘erupt into complete anarchy’, which this school dreads of.

Efforts to promote democracy have been tied in orthodoxy as part of the Western world’s foreign-policy approaches in their contemporary ‘nation-building’ projects. United States – the current world superpower – is still actively promoting this idea (though no longer as active as in the past), and is followed suit by other European countries. Through epic makeups, democracy is parceled and decorated as though they were ‘gifts from Santa Claus’. Except from the cases of US-led democratization in Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, most of their efforts have been largely mixed. Ironically, indeed, the idea of ‘democracy promotion’ was so subverted that the West ended up supporting any regimes they could label as ‘democratic’ – as long as they were anti-Communist. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Libya, Syria, etc) did not produce any tangible democracies; what we have is instead the rise of ISIS (or a more derogatory one, Daesh), the continuation of tribal, sectarian, and ethnic warfare, and regional instability. What the heck is wrong with all these so-called ‘democracy promotion’ things?

Many scholars have offered various answers and interpretations in order to answer such prevailing puzzle, but many of their explanations are contextually dependent on the regions they are specializing in. Experts such as Scott Mainwaring, James Fearon, David Laitin, David Collier, and Steven Levitsky have expertise in the Latin American contexts – and Collier and Levitsky have published a paper that aims to categorize democracies based on their knowledge in this region. On the other hand, we have experts such as Dan Slater, Tom Pepinsky, Eddy Malesky, Donald Emmerson, etc, who specialized in the context of Asia-Pacific region. We also have scholars that try to explain democracy from a political-economic framework, such as Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, and Stephan Haggard. And then we have scholars that explain democracy through massive global datasets that they have toiled to develop, such as Barbara Geddes, Adam Przeworski, Monty G. Marshall, etc. These are just some people I mention which papers I have read, and I’m sure there are way many more of them whose works I have yet to review. As each of them may offer some variation of insight about the dichotomy of democracy when compared to other issues, I can hardly type in through their postulation in this blog post (it’s too long, and I need to spend quite a large amount of time re-reading their papers).

The best explanation, I would emphasize, is to read Why Nations Fail, co-authored by Daron Acemoglu (MIT economist) and James A. Robinson (Harvard economist). They focus on the role played by institutions, which actually matter more than democracies do, in delivering outcomes from the authority to the people. Thus, here is the premise: if a country can not build an inclusive institutional setup that accommodates everyone’s interests, then the polity is designed to doom. While this book provides a largely historical perspective, in case you want to explore even further, you can try to read their another book titled ‘Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship’. With tons of pages of intricate econometric formula and analyses (which most people, and me – and even some grad students I bet – struggle to comprehend), they provide evidence as to how institutional setup established in the past can affect the political prospects of those countries. I do not recommend you (and myself) to read the latter before taking more Economics and Econometrics courses; Why Nations Fail itself already offers a huge range of fascinating case studies that are more exciting than your high-school history textbook.

In case you want the simplest explanation, I would suggest reading an article written by Fareed Zakaria, titled ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracies‘. Published in Foreign Affairs in 1997, Zakaria provided a thought-provoking argument about the need to differentiate the concept of ‘democracy’ and ‘constitutional liberalism’ (or, in simpler terms, rules and legal regulations that protect individual civil liberties). He attributed that the problem of many newly emerging democracies these days – back in the 1990s, when this article was published – was that these polities paved way for populists and strongmen to seek popular legitimacy to justify their autocratic rule. Going back to the ‘democracy promotion’ mode by US government and its allies, we all came to consolidate the correlation between democracy and ballot boxes alone, all the while overlooking other sets of factors and variables. Here, Zakaria had prophesied his pessimistic trajectory of how such populists – or other political agitators – made use of ballot boxes, securing the widespread support of the existing electoral base, all in the name of justifying their strongman-style rule, or implementing other policies many had thought could be a ‘shot in the arm’, but instead ended up as ‘gunshots in the arm’. Without a certain mechanism in protecting individual civil liberties, democracies can literally become what the ancient Greeks called as ‘tyranny of the majority’. Thus there came the phenomenon of illiberal democracies, where parties or regimes in power make use of elections solely as their defining feature of democracy to consolidate their power and empower their supporters, largely at the expense of protection of civil liberties. I recommend you to read this article, given its (ongoing) relevance to the present contexts in global politics.

Lastly, what about the question of polarization? In a seriously insightful paper, titled ‘Democratic Careening‘, Dan Slater actually refuted the argument by several scholars that ‘democracy is collapsing’. Instead, he stated that ‘democracy can not collapse, but rather careen’ (perhaps as you can see from the Paint-drawn illustration above). Democracy, to some aspect, can become like a ‘warzone’ with two opposing sides intensely fighting against each other – either on the streets or in the legislature – over the competing notions of democracy. He emphasized, in particular, about horizontal accountability (rule of law, checks-and-balances between state institutions) and vertical accountability (political participation among the public). The big ‘danger’ that could cause the war-zone to occur, in this regard, is when leaders in power cause both these features to compete against – rather than complement – each other. This can be achieved by leaders either disproportionately enlarging their executive powers to the degree that they become almost personalized, or that they agitate for mass mobilization among the supporters to take to the streets when there is any ‘threat against their legitimacy’. While Slater only focused on the comparative analysis of Thailand and Taiwan, this argument can be further expanded to look into other countries. Let’s say, the Chavismo phenomenon in Venezuela, how Erdogan rallied his supporters to take to the streets in response to the ‘coup attempt’ (or so the media said?), or the exploitation of ethnic, religious, or social-based cleavages to the ruling powers’ advantage.

This writing can be further explored into a further work, but I would rather stop here, risking the boredom of Internet readers (especially in the age where people simply share articles without really reading them or even clicking the links). In summary, I would say that democracy – in spite of its problems – can be ‘nurtured’, only if there are strong institutional setups from the beginning which can provide checks and balances on elected leaders, and all the while respect people’s civil liberties. Democracies matter, but so do institutions and the principle of constitutional liberalism. If implemented immaturely, we will continue to see any existing weird phenomena resulting from ‘democratic’ processes in the future, and even more half-baked democracies. Democracy is not sinking, but it can be bent in lieu of the desires of the leaders in power. Thus, I would rather advocate for the idea of liberal democracy, rather than ‘democracy’ in itself alone.

In the words of Ronald Dworkin, “democracy is a substantive, not a merely procedural, ideal.”


NB: In case you want to have some more independent study about democracy, here are some useful sources that you can refer to.

Readings (only two first):

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail

Francis Fukuyama – Political Order and Political Decay

Datasets (about the quality of democracy):

Freedom House – not too frequently referred to in academic discourse, but very useful in media and public discussions as the tone is much easier to comprehend

Polity IV – more complicating, but more useful, and is mostly referred to in academic discourse (on a scale of -10 to 10, dictatorships are labelled with scores -6 to -10, democracies from 6 to 10, and hybrid regimes, or what you call as ‘illiberal democracies’, scored precisely in between)


Hope these references help.