Asian Editors Circle

Is US electoral democracy failing?

Authoritarian regimes and dictators around the world must feel vindicated by the just-concluded presidential race in the United States, the one-time champion of liberal democracy that had a habit of exporting - if not imposing - its political system and accompanying values to the rest of the world.

It is not so much the final outcome of last week's race as the entire democratic process that is being questioned or scrutinised.In the run-up to the Nov 8 election, spectators of American politics were served a contest between two candidates, both with flawed characters and problematic backgrounds.

The American media had rightly, if not unkindly, described this as an election where voters had to choose between the lesser of two evils. When that choice fell on Mr Donald Trump rather than Mrs Hillary Clinton, there was more indignation, both at the outcome as well as the electoral process. What went wrong with the system, many people asked?

To describe this as a systemic breakdown of the electoral process would probably be going too far, and give pretext for countries to conveniently discard or to forget liberal democracy. Maybe it is worth recalling that just eight years ago, the same system gave America its first black president in Mr Barack Obama, who was re-elected in 2012. This year, the same system almost produced the first US woman president.

Still, the 2016 American presidential race, from the process to the final outcome, gives plenty of ammunition to those who doubt the ability of liberal democracy to produce great leaders. The timing could not be worse, coming as the US' superpower status is waning, through a combination of its own failing strengths and China's rise.

Americans need to look at the role of the political parties and the way they produced presidential candidates. Surely a country of 320 million people deserved better choices than Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton... This year's voter turnout, estimated at 58 per cent, is another reflection of growing public apathy. If this is democracy, then many nations around the world want none of it.

Enter the China model. The system has proven efficient, effective and delivered the economic goods and is now being touted as a better option than liberal democracy for developing countries in search of a nation-building model. One caveat about the China model, though: Forget freedom and basic rights, the fundamental tenets that underpin liberal democracy. What matters is that the system brings economic growth, development and prosperity. The suppression of some freedoms and rights is the price nations have to pay to ensure stability, a prerequisite to development. Freedoms and basic rights can come later, if at all.

In The China Model - Political Meritocracy And The Limits Of Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2015), author Daniel Bell showed how China introduced a meritocratic system that produced leaders the nation can be proud of. It ensures periodic changes of the guard to prevent China from becoming a dictatorship.

Though not a perfect system, it offers a degree of predictability and stability sorely missing in liberal democracies. But if countries are not comfortable with the cost to freedom and basic rights of the China model, they should take another look at US democracy and consider 2016 an aberration.

Americans need to look at the role of the political parties and the way they produced presidential candidates. Surely a country of 320 million people deserved better choices than Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton. How their track records and flawed characters got past the political screening system is simply baffling.

The US electoral process - including primaries and conventions - is simply too long and too expensive for any other country to emulate. This year's voter turnout, estimated at 58 per cent, is another reflection of growing public apathy. If this is democracy, then many nations around the world want none of it.

The US electoral system actually has built-in self-correcting mechanisms, such as the two-term limit for the presidency and various institutional checks and balances to prevent the emergence of a despot. The First Amendment, and the independent media, ensure that people will always have the right to speak up and to be heard, even if they have made the wrong choice.

But these may not be enough to restore faith in liberal democracy's ability to throw up great leaders. America can help restore faith in liberal democracy by carrying out the necessary electoral reforms. It needs to show once again that democracy is the best political system in selecting leaders because it is based on the principles of respect for freedoms and basic human rights.

Yes, America can be great once again. But it might be asking too much to expect that of the newly elected president.


  • This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Is US electoral democracy failing?'. Print Edition | Subscribe