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Published on Wednesday, November 22, 2000 in The Hindustan Times (India)
The Embarrassed American
by Vir Sanghvi
‘America still has a power that transcends the feebleness of our politics. However puny our politicians may seem, giants stride across our cultural, business and scientific life.’ David Ignatius, formerly of The Washington Post and currently Executive Editor of The International Herald Tribune, wrote these words in an edit page article last week. Ignatius is probably one of the most thoughtful and readable editors in American journalism today; so anything he writes is worth a second look.

Even so, I read his piece with mounting amazement. Written from Paris, it described some of his experiences over the past week — a concert of Leonard Bernstein’s show tunes that had the audience roaring for more, and dinner with Olivia de Havilland, the American actress who now lives quietly in Paris. His theme was appropriate enough for these times despite the mess that is the US presidential election. America still rules the world through popular culture and the media.

My amazement was provoked by his tone. My God, I thought to myself, this man is actually apologising! He is trying to reassure Americans (the piece appeared in The Washington Post) that even though they are the laughing stock of the world, there are still things they can be proud of.

What a strange feeling!

For decades, Americans have been lecturing the world on the strength, fairness and vibrancy of their system of Government. They have appointed themselves the "world’s greatest democracy". (What does ‘greatest’ mean anyway? If you say that India is the world’s largest democracy, then this is a statement of fact. But greatest? That’s no more than an opinion). President Richard Nixon became so fond of his role in global affairs that he continually referred to himself (even after he had been disgraced and booted out of office) as ‘leader of the free world’.

Over the last three decades, America has conducted what it considers state-of-the-art presidential elections. Candidates speak in sound-bites, policies are carefully recalibrated after testing with focus groups, debates follow a standard format, polls tell us who is leading where, and then, even as many voters have still to cast their votes, the networks declare the winner.

This year, everything went wrong. The candidates were bores; neither had any policies left after the recalibration process was through; the debates were dull; the polls were so deadlocked as to be no use at all and the networks made fools of themselves by prematurely declaring a winner and then backtracking madly.

But much worse than the failure of this year’s election has been the fallout. As the candidates have traded charges, it has become clear that far from automatically throwing up a winner, the election process is so complicated that the vast majority of the citizens of the ‘world’s greatest democracy’ don’t even understand it.

Say what you will about the average peasant in Bihar but he has a much better idea of how Laloo Yadav and his wife get to keep the Chief Ministership within the family than the average American has of how his President is elected. All the evidence suggests that only a tiny proportion of Americans even understand what an electoral college is, let alone how it works.

Then, there is the counting process. In India, we know that it is possible to stuff ballot boxes, to capture booths and to prevent the disadvantaged from voting at all. But if you can control these abuses of the electoral process (and to the credit of the Election Commission in the post-T.N. Seshan phase, things are better than they have ever been), then the counting itself is nearly always fair and rarely a matter of controversy.

In America, things should be even better. Not only is booth-capturing unheard of but the counting process relies extensively on machines which should be infallible.

Well, not quite.

Much to the embarrassment of Americans, what is coming through is this: each time you count the votes, you get a different result! If you count them by hand and not by machines, then a different winner emerges. So, naturally the current loser wants them counted by hand. And as predictably, the winner thinks that a hand recount is an abuse of the democratic process.

Inevitably, this dispute ends up with the judiciary. In India, we would go to the Election Commission for immediate redressal and only later would the matter go before the courts. But among the institutions of democracy that America has never seen fit to bother with, is an independent Election Commission.

So, it has to be the courts and here a completely different factor — which startles all foreigners who have a limited knowledge of democracy, American style —comes into play. Are the judges on the Florida Supreme Court Democrats or Republicans? Apparently, six out of seven are registered Democrats. Could this affect their ruling? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

For foreigners who have been watching this spectacle unfold with mounting disbelief, the final message is: the next President of the US need not be the man who won the most votes (because of the electoral college). His election will be determined by the will of some people as deciphered by machines (one winner) or hand counts (another winner), and adjudicated by judges who may well bring party politics into the final decision.

World’s greatest democracy, eh?

But it gets worse. Remember the 1960 presidential election, the one that TV commentators keep telling us was the first to be decided by the power of television? The one that Richard Nixon would have won had he worn make-up to erase his five o’clock shadow?

Well, it now turns out that TV may have had nothing to do with the outcome. There have always been rumours that the voters of Cook county swung it for John F. Kennedy with a little rigging from Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley. According to Peter Carlson in The Washington Post, there may have been something to those rumours.

"In Chicago, where Kennedy won by more than 450,000 votes", writes Carlson, "local reporters uncovered so many stories of electoral shenanigans — including voting by the dead — that The Chicago Tribune concluded that the election of November 8 was characterised ‘by such gross and palpable fraud as to justify the conclusion that (Nixon) was deprived of victory’".

But it wasn’t just Chicago. In Texas, where Kennedy won by a suspect 46,000 votes, the Republicans demanded a recount. "But the Texas election board, composed entirely of Democrats, had already certified Kennedy as the winner," writes Carlson.

Rarely have Americans been as embarrassed globally as they are today. When President Nixon was revealed to be a crook, Americans felt no shame. Instead, they took pride in a system of laws that spared nobody, not even the President. When Kenneth Starr produced his pornographic report into the Lewinsky affair, some Americans felt sorry for Bill Clinton and others did not. But nobody felt embarrassed about a process in which the Presidency was turned into a long-running TV series pitched halfway between the O.J. Simpson trial and Deep Throat. This was an example, they said, of the transparency of the American system.

But now, there are no excuses. If this is how the President of ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, the ‘leader of the free world’ is really elected then — gosh! — one begins to wonder about the fate of the ‘free world’.

And yet, while I am enjoying the unusual spectacle of The Embarrassed American — as, I imagine, is every non-American everywhere in the world — I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Americans. All systems have their quirks. In Italy, they have lurched from one unstable coalition to another. In Britain, the first-past-the-post system effectively disenfranchised Liberals and Social Democrats. In India, the absence of an electoral college means that the voters of UP have a disproportionate say in choosing our leaders.

But only Americans get the international embarrassment. And it is easy to see why. As Ignatius notes, America dominates the media. The good news for Americans is that they can see themselves on CNN whenever they go and watch re-runs of The Bold and the Beautiful in every country.

But the bad news is that when they screw up, the whole world sees them make fools of themselves, live on TV.


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