Democratic uncertainty before elections in America and Ukraine
The 2008 U.S. presidential-election campaign has been watched with much anticipation, both at home and abroad. The comparison between Ukrainian and American election campaigns is no longer an emotive...
The 2008 U.S. presidential-election campaign has been watched with much anticipation, both at home and abroad. There’s a woman vice president on the Republican ticket, and an African-American being fielded by the Democrats for the nation’s top job. Whichever party wins, history will be made.
At the same time, history is being undone, a history of civility, of national unity and public trust. Americans have not been so divided since perhaps the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement, and it shows.
At that time, democracy was pushed to its limits, as the exercise of free speech and public assembly was marred by riots and assassinations.
The ethical lines and policy debates, however, were more clear back then. That doesn’t mean that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were spelled out, but the issues pretty much were. You were either for or against the Vietnam War; sensitive or insensitive to the full enfranchisement of Blacks and other minorities.
To some extent, these issues provided the background for the 1960 presidential race between the promising John F. Kennedy and his more conservative opponent, Richard Nixon.
To paint this year’s election in the same colors is misleading.
The casualties from the Iraq war are a fraction of those from Vietnam, and draftees do not fight modern U.S. wars. As for tensions at home, America’s modern silent majority has a pretty clear conscience, if no longer a clear majority.
Yet, the intensity of this year’s election campaign has an intensity of eruptive proportions: maybe because race is just as much of an issue as ever in America, or because the financial feeding trough doesn’t have enough to feed everyone anymore.
Whatever the reason, the country’s reputation as a vigorous democracy may suffer the biggest loss in this year’s election.
Rumors of voter fraud are already ripe. The Democrats say they want to increase turnout, while the Republics accuse them of signing up everyone from the illiterate to the non-existent.
Although it is tough to top the smear campaigns unleashed by George W. Bush, both McCain and Obama have spent plenty of airtime getting personal.
In this, they have been aided by the country’s anything but objective mass media. Americans have long gotten used to sensationalism in their news broadcasts, but when major TV networks turn into cheering squads for one candidate or another, one has to be concerned for freedom of speech. Opinion polls don’t offer any relief: The numbers flashing before viewers’ eyes are as suspect as they are contradictory. If Mark Twain were alive today, he would have probably said: There are lies, damn lies and election polls (instead of statistics).
Last but by no means least in the list of assaults on democracy is the actions of officialdom. In Ukraine, there is a concept called ‘administrative resources’, meaning the aiding and abetting of a candidate’s cause by his supporters in the government or state apparatus.
Although not unique to Ukraine, the practice appears to be taking hold in America, with state officials coming up with all kinds of curious interpretations of voting rules.
The comparison between Ukrainian and American election campaigns is no longer an emotive vehicle or tactical hyperbole. That would be unfair to Ukrainians, who have come a long way in developing democracy during their country’s 17 short years of independence.
And – let’s remember – Ukraine has come from the authoritative, one-party traditions of the Soviet Union, which U.S. presidents such as Kennedy and Nixon were always making out to be the bad guys.
Indeed, until Ukraine’s internationally televised Orange Revolution, the concept of democracy fit Ukraine like a pair of medium sized Y-fronts on a heavyweight sumo wrestler.
Since then, the country’s media have gone from being all but completely controlled by one power hungry and paranoid political leader to a collection of money hungry and populist oligarchs. And Ukraine’s elections, although painfully frequent and repetitive, more or less express the will of the people.
Nevertheless, free media and fair elections are nothing to look down your nose at. Unlike Americans, Ukrainians have a pretty vivid memory of what life is like without such democratic pillars.
America could use a reminder. Taking into account what happened during the last presidential elections, the country might be well into a downward slide on its democratic beliefs, the same beliefs that it loves to preach to the rest of the world.
Ironically, Ukraine is also in an election year – it’s fifth national poll in as many years. The country just cannot seem to get it right and thus has to keep calling on its citizens to decide. Although costly and potentially destabilizing, repeat elections still represent democracy at work. Ukrainian democracy continues to fight to stay afloat.
This year, however, the elections may not take place at all. And unlike with the 2008 American contest or Ukraine’s own epic 2004 race that led to the Orange Revolution, the voters themselves (much less the global community) don’t seem to be particularly enthusiastic about voting for anyone in Kyiv.
This might mean that the ghosts of Ukraine past such as nasty smear campaigns, a biased media, interfering officials, unreliable polls and fraudulent voting might rise to their former levels. And if they do, they will hardly be recognized as ghosts at all, but instead as the spirit of modern politics as practiced in the world’s most self absorbed democracy of all – Ms. America.
There is little doubt these days that Ukraine and America are seriously divided countries. In Ukraine, the split is historical, linguistic, religious and geopolitical. The country’s center and west look West, while the east and south prefer closer ties to Russia.
In America, a much younger culture but also much older democracy, the divide is less tangible and may even separate members of the same family and certainly those of different generations. All the same, it has chipped away at the country’s once sturdy pillars of civility, public trust and respect for democratic traditions. And so strangely, the political prognosis for both countries is democratic uncertainty.