Originally published in The Conversation, September 29, 2016 (link)
This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
The final act of what has been a long and exhausting US presidential campaign officially began last Monday night, when Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump met at Hofstra University in New York for their first presidential candidate debate. The highly anticipated face-off between the real-estate entrepreneur and the former First Lady failed to reveal anything particularly new about the candidates or the actual state of the presidential race. The 2016 campaign has been going on for so long that very few stones have been left unturned by either the opposing camps or the media.
The White House, most independent polls suggest, is still Clinton’s to lose. After Monday night, it is clearer than ever that she is the more ‘presidential’ of the two. Compared to Trump, Clinton is obviously more competent, relaxed, and articulate.
After spending the best part of her adult life moving freely through the higher echelons of American politics, she has indeed acquired, beyond dispute, the indispensable experience to do the job. She understands fully the complexities and hazards that the leader of the most powerful country in the world must face daily.
Trump, by contrast, sits on the far opposite end of the spectrum from Clinton. Until very recently he was just a rather colourful entrepreneur with a weakness for stamping his name on imposing buildings, appearing on reality TV shows and marrying beauty queens. Before officially entering the Republican presidential race, last year, Trump’s main claim to political fame since 2011 was as the most outspoken supporter of the so-called “birther” conspiracy (the claim that Barack Obama was ineligible for the presidency because he wasn’t born in America – an allegation the Republican Party nominee finally repudiated only a few weeks ago).
The debate, however, was also a reminder of one important caveat about the system of representative democracy: the system is only as good as the representatives the people elect to govern. If the elected forego their duty to act on behalf of the people once they are in power, the system is ultimately destined to fail.
After all these months, and after Monday night, can we really say Hillary and Donald are beyond doubt the best possible candidates to represent the majority of American people? Is there no real alternative? Is it too late for voters to send a signal that does not betray the spirit of democracy but rather fortifies it?
Are they fit for the task?
With just over 40 days to election day, an estimated record-breaking 81.4 million Americans tuned in on their TVs on Monday night to watch the candidates answer questions by Lester Holt, the NBC News anchor and host of the debate. Many more millions in America and across the world also watched via live streams on the web.
The presence of a flamboyant, unpredictable and politically incorrect candidate like Trump promised fireworks, a show to remember, not to mention countless soundbites for the mainstream media and the many social-media enthusiasts who weighed in online. The fireworks, however, never lit up the sky. There were a couple of misfires, some trifling quips, but overall the night turned out to be a mildly forgettable affair.
The majority of media pundits assigned victory in the debate to Clinton, on points. Though the former US Secretary of State never really managed to deliver the knockout blow many of her supporters had hoped for, she was able nonetheless to produce a series of consistent, well-aimed jabs at her opponent, making her the undisputed winner.
Trump, on the other hand, despite prevailing in the Twitter-hashtag-trend contest, only managed to deliver a largely incoherent and rather jumbled performance that was barely worthy of his maverick reputation. Though he started quite well, it didn’t take long for him to start losing his grip on the event.
During the early stages of the debate, the real-estate-entrepreneur-turned-TV-star-turned-politician was his usual self, though his characteristic cockiness seemed under the effect of some powerful sedatives or a self-restraining order. As the night progressed, however, he gradually caved in to pressure and spent most of his time (allocated and not) in his corner, trying to defend himself, throwing punches into the air but rarely hitting his target.
The debate told us nothing we didn’t already know about the candidates. Trump still has no clear policies. Once you probe his claims they all start to fall apart. A few times, Holt stopped just short of calling Trump a liar (as when the moderator reminded the candidate that there is no legal constraint preventing him from releasing his tax declaration during an IRS audit); other times he pulled him back on track and force him to answer questions he seemed to be trying to avoid (like on the issue of bringing jobs back to America from abroad: “Back to the question, though,” Holt cautioned Trump. “How do you bring back — specifically bring back jobs, American manufacturers? How do you make them bring the jobs back?”)
Before the night was over, we had confirmation – if we ever needed one – that Trump is a shrewd opportunist with very little regard for the middle class and minority groups. At one point, when Clinton accused him of rooting for the housing crisis so that he could ‘go in and buy some and make some money’, Trump quipped back with his customary bullish grin: “It’s called business, by the way.” Oddly, Clinton let the remark pass, somehow missing a critical opportunity to show the audience the heartless side of Donald J. Trump, the entrepreneur. It was her one true chance to deliver the knockout punch she was looking for. It was a perfect situation. She should have stopped talking, look Trump in the eye and then say: ‘They are called people, stupid!’ But she didn’t. Despite her many years of experience as lawyer and as a politician, Clinton is not the kind of debater who can come up with one of those one-line-quip that can sink a candidate’s campaign and make some presidential debates memorable.
Trump, on the other hand, hit Clinton on her record and managed, somewhat successfully, to paint her as a significant part of contemporary America’s problem. While he didn’t dare to call her by his favourite moniker, Lying Crooked Hillary, he hinted at it by describing her as the perfect embodiment of the mainstream politician who has failed the American people for far too long – who has ‘been doing this for 30 years’ and is only ‘just starting to think of solutions.’
But Trump’s efforts overall were more like hit-and-miss. The lack of a continuous live feedback (during the whole debate the audience rarely broke the NBC-imposed silence) might have been one of the culprits for his lacklustre performance. Like a stand-up comedian who needs his audience’s laughter to confirm that his jokes work, Trump is a public performer who needs continuous reassurance that he is doing well. Without the live audience reaction and with Clinton maintaining unwavering self-control throughout the night, Trump started to lose focus and eventually fell into his infamous rhetorical style, which mostly consists of random repetitions of key words such as ‘strong’, ‘winning’ and ‘wrong’. At some point he even made the case for his strength of character by simply repeating several variations of the theme ‘I have a strong temperament’, which produced the unintended effect of making the audience laugh spontaneously.
Despite her apparent calm, Clinton, however, never really managed to connect with the audience. She seemed somehow unemotional. She cracked a smile or two and urged the audience at home to go to her website to fact-check Trump’s statements, but she was not captivating enough in her rhetoric or demeanor to flip the many undecided voters watching the debate. Even against a stumbling Trump, she failed to dispel, once for all, the doubts many voters still have about her.
In the minds of those undecided voters she was and still remains an embodiment of all that is wrong with the establishment; she is just another Washington politician in the hands of powerful interest groups; someone who probably doesn’t really care about the people at the lower end of the scale; she is a candidate who unabashedly is more likely to support policies that benefit the few but exploit the many (like she did initially with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement).
In hindsight, one may argue that her real stroke of luck in this campaign was Bernie Sanders, whose strong focus on social issues forced Clinton to shift her platform more radically than she had probably intended to do. To beat Sanders during the Primaries, she cleverly repositioned herself, moving from the center more to the left by finally renouncing the TPP, starting to attack Walls Street and showing more care for the middle-lower classes.
Like a kid who, having just lost a fight, refuses to admit defeat, Trump hinted that his lackluster performance was a result of his excessively cavalier attitude towards Clinton. He could have really done some damage to her reputation, but he decided otherwise. He could have attacked her for allegedly spending ‘hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many of which are absolutely untrue’. Instead, he chose, to be more respectful: ‘I was going to say something…extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.”
He was apparently referring to his decision to hold back on attacking her on more delicate matters (probably Bill Clinton’s infamous infidelity track record) to avoid hurting Hillary’s daughter, Chelsea. After the debate, however, Trump seemed to suggest rather menacingly that the time to be cavalier has now passed.
Neither Clinton, and certainly nor Trump showed the audience that they are indisputably the right candidate for the job. At the end of the night, it became even more apparent that the absence of a credible third alternative or a less dubious candidate (Bernie Sanders, for instance, had he been the Democratic Party nominee) are the only reasons either of them still has a chance to succeed Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
Overall, despite being a mediocre event, Monday night’s debate told us that the first round went to Clinton and, if the early polls, focus groups and the countless pundits are to be believed, on November 8 she will emerge as the first woman to be elected President of the United States.
Should American voters and democrats around the world rejoice? She might not be the perfect candidate, but she is certainly the lesser of two evils. Anything but Trump, that seems to be the consensus among moderate observers. Indeed, the orthodox view on the matter seems to be that undecided voters, heartbroken Sanders’ supporters (over 12 million voted for him), or worried Republicans should all turn up at the polls, hold their nose high and pick Clinton as their chosen candidate – regardless of what they truly think of her.
That vote would be the action of a true American democrat. But would it, really? Is there some room for a counterargument, that though somewhat challenging and, admittedly, rather Utopian, is equally respectful of the spirit of democracy?
The marriage between representation and democracy is a product of the 18th century, when the amalgamation of the old Greek ideal of assembly-based democracy – a model which “was direct and participatory to an astonishing degree” – and that of representation seemed the best possible solution for governing large nation-states (in both America and Europe). A large suffrage means that democracy can only be enabled by ‘representation’. Since, as famously argued by Hanna Pitkin, “the room will not hold all, the people would rule themselves vicariously, through their representatives”.
This particular system of democratic government, however, is far from perfect. Too often, as in the recent past, especially in countries like the US, where lobby groups and money play a fundamental and rather distorting role in politics, the representatives seem to represent not the voters, the people who cast the ballots to elect them, but the interests of the few who bankroll their campaign. The ongoing fiasco of passing much needed gun-control laws at both the Federal and State level epitomises the failure of democratic representation mechanisms in America: despite the alarming and growing number (almost on a daily basis) of gun related incidents; despite the fact that polls show that the majority of the American public is in favour of some form of gun control (for instance, expanded background checks on gun sales), the powerful National Rifle Association lobby, for decades now, has had an unblemished track record in stopping any attempt at even mild legislation on matters related to gun ownership.
If the system is rigged, if it is not representative of the voters and unable to properly reform itself from within, why then must the people continue to play the game of bowing to pre-imposed norms? Why, if Trump and Clinton are both unloved candidates, with the lowest approval ratings for nominees in recent history, should American citizens vote for them?
Why must they choose to hand the presidency (and with it the launch codes of over 5,000 nuclear warheads) to a man who “can be baited with a tweet” or to someone who, though admittedly less obnoxious than the other, represents the continuation of the status quo that has cost the lives, fortunes and dreams of millions of people not only in America but across the globe? Because the archaic mechanisms of two failing and highly criticised parties, the limping remnants of a bygone era, said so?
Can’t the cycle be broken? After all, if we look at the numbers, it becomes apparent that those who voted for Clinton and Trump to be nominees represent a small minority (only about 9%) of the American public. What if, then, come November 8, millions of Americans cast a different vote? What if, come November 8, Americans decide to take the road less travelled, maybe not unlike the fictional New Yorkers voting in the 1985 comedy Brewster’s millions? In the film, Richard Pryor plays Montgomery Brewster, who, to inherit $300 million dollars must spend $30 million in 30 days. Brewster soon realises that embarking on a costly campaign for Mayor of New York will allow him to hit his target. So he decides to run a ‘protest campaign’ on the slogan: ‘none of the above’.
What he hadn’t counted on was the actual possibility of victory. When it becomes clear that he might after all be elected Mayor (and with it earn a salary that would cost him his inheritance), he withdraws from the race. The voters however follow his advice and write on the ballot ‘none of the above’, effectively annulling the election.
If on the morning of November 9, Americans were to wake up in a country where millions of voters followed Brewster’s advice and, instead of holding their nose high, bravely stood up to the system and wrote on each ballot neither Hillary, nor Trump, but simply ‘none of the above’, wouldn’t that be a real sign of democratic power? Nothing short of a wonderful extraordinary act of civil disobedience?