A Non-partisan View of the USA Elections 2020

In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem. George Carlin

Vitriol and Cynicism

I don’t know why it was important to teach this in Australia, but as a schoolchild, in Sydney, in my early teens I was taught that: “anyone in America can become president.” It’s an enduring memory from my early 1970’s period of schooling. I don’t remember the context in which it was taught to me, possibly social studies, or maybe from a teacher on an exchange from the USA.

Anyone can grow up to be president” has been widely taught to generations of American schoolchildren but it’s always been a myth [1. 2]. You only need to look at the names of presidential candidates over the last few decades: Bush, George H.W. then Bush, George W.; and then Bush, Jeb made an unsuccessful run for president in the 2016 primaries; Clinton, Bill and then Clinton, Hillary (unsuccessfully); then Biden, Joe as Vice President and now Biden, Joe as a presidential candidate, and as I write, as likely President-elect.

This list speaks a very different story, unless you belong to a very exclusive social clique or have a well-known family name, substantial wealth and powerful connections, don’t even bother aspiring to be a presidential candidate. In addition, you need the power of celebrity which is why politics is often said to be: “show biz for ugly people.” The skillset required is largely charm and charisma so that you can schmooze with wealthy backers to gain the obscene amounts of money needed for your campaign.

Instead of anyone having a chance of becoming president, what we see is the political counterpart to the rise of the plutocracy of the 1% of the global super-rich (Chrystia Freeland [3]). Indeed, the 1% are the targets of all that political schmoozing and are, in turn, the recipients of political largesse of tax breaks and other benefits: a non-virtuous circle of palm-greasing.

Much has been said about Donald Trump breaking all the rules and throwing conventional wisdom to the wind [4] combined with his incessant tweeting, often shouting IN ALL CAPS He has been a highly polarising figure, despite maintaining an approval rating of more than 40% for most of his presidency he seems, as I write, to have lost reelection in 2020. This without draining the swamp in Washington as he promised 2016 [5]. Indeed, according to bipartisan advocacy group: Issue One Action, the swamp seems to have grown a lot swampier with increases in lobbying activity and the “pay for play” persisting and spreading from Washington to Trump’s Mag-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he has conducted part of his presidency [6].

Mar-a-Lago in 2009 (source: Wikipedia)

Like many other conservative presidents and candidates, Trump received financial backing and support from the 1% plutocracy, notably the Koch brothers, Charles G. and David H. (1940-2019) and international media magnate Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of Fox News (2016–2019) and Chairman of Fox Corporation (2019–present). Trump favoured Fox News during his presidency and referred to the rest of mainstream news media as “lamestream.” However, during the recent elections, Fox Corporation jettisoned Trump once it became clear that he would not carry the 11 electoral votes from Arizona nor, likely, win the national vote count.

Thinking about the problems of political systems in any western-style democracy is enough to fill me with vitriol and cynicism! Fortunately, the next section is a positive proposal for voter-powered renewal in the electoral process, and not just for the USA.

Voter Power: Keeping the Bastards Honest

The well-known maxim of Lord Acton concerning “absolute power corrupting absolutely “or the Frank Herbert version (see quotation below) don’t apply to democracies because power is shared through a Parliament (or Congress) that is limited by constitutional law and conventions. The main problem with democracy is that people entering the political system think it’s about power: the power to get things done and the power to carry out an agenda.

Absolute power does not corrupt absolutely, absolute power attracts the corruptible.Frank Herbert

The important thing is though, mostly democracy should be about service to our fellow citizens. I take this as my starting point. Renewal of political systems in western-style democracies is mainly about keeping people with the wrong mindset out and attracting people with a service-oriented mindset into political office.

The simplest thing we can do is to ignore the party-political system and vote for the person rather than the party. Don’t vote for self-interested candidates that are more interested in looking after themselves than their community. Be that “enlightened” self-interest or not (see Addendum).  

Start using social media for sharing with friends and associates about the candidates who would stick to their moral values and principles under pressure. Rather than using social media to spread vitriol and menace. Consider standing for office yourself. Don’t assume that someone else out there would do a better job than you.

The party-political system is a large part of the problem So let’s put it on bypass — vote for the person of good character and sound ideas rather than the party. Use Google and research the candidates themselves. Use social media to share your finding of the positive qualities of the candidates.

This part is hardly original to me. What I think is more original is my proposal to voter power: voters need to understand more clearly that they have the power to hire and fire. If we have the wrong people in political office, then we as voters put them there. Likewise, if we have excluded more capable candidates then that’s our fault as voters too.

Addendum: Enlightened Self-interest

Ever since the fictional Gordon Gecko (played by Michael Douglas) uttered the words “greed is good” in the movie “Wall Street” (Twentieth Century Fox, 1987) it’s become widely accepted that self-interest in business can be in everyone’s best interest. When applied to Governance, we’ve accepted that a level of professional lobbying, political donation and partisan fundraising is necessary or even healthy for the national interest.

This concept of self-interest-as-virtue seems to have developed from a well-known quotation from Adam Smith which modern-day business and government accepts as an axiom without ever questioning it.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.

Featured image: Shutterstock/FGC

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[1] Stephen C. Smith, “Anyone can grow up to be president! (and other myths of the American presidential election process),” New Political Science Volume 15, 1994.  Available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07393149408429708; accessed: 07 Nov. 2020.

[2] One president to which the saying would apply is Andrew Johnson, who is widely regarded as one of America’s worst presidents, for instance, see the entry at the Miller Center website: https://millercenter.org/president/johnson.

[3] Ed Kilgore, “Did Trump’s Win Mean Anybody Can Be President?” Intelligencer, available online: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/did-trumps-win-mean-anybody-can-be-president.html; published: 04 Dec 2020, accessed: 07 Nov. 2020.

[4] Sara Swann, “The D.C. swamp has gotten swampier under Trump, report finds,” The Fulcrum, published: 17 Jun 2020, accessed: 07 Nov. 2020. Available online:
https://thefulcrum.us/government-ethics/drain-the-swamp

[4] Chrystia Freeland, “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else,” Penguin Group, New York, 2012.

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