Thinking Aloud

What the 2020 US presidential polls have made clear: To work, democracies need more than elections

Supporters of President Donald Trump gathering to make their opinion heard in Lansing, Michigan, on Nov 23, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

The recent presidential election in the United States, which has long held itself up as a "shining city on a hill", or a model democracy for the world, threw up more heat than light.

Some have lamented that the stalemate after Nov 3, with an incumbent leader casting doubts on the process and outcome, lowered the standing of the US in the world and undercut the case for liberal democracy.

Others at the other end of the ideological spectrum have declared pretty much the same, triumphantly, if somewhat prematurely.

Most significantly, in my view, the election has made clear how vital, and fragile, democracy is; how it can so easily go wrong, with crucial outcomes of polls sometimes turning on a few hundred votes; and that elections have consequences. Even in mature democracies, voters have been known to hand power to those who use it to subvert the very system that made their election possible.

The upshot of this is clear: To work, democracies need more than elections.

They must be underpinned by a shared political culture, with conventions and values that are respected and upheld by all players. They have to be supported by strong institutions - from trusted election officials, independent civil servants and judges, and also a credible and trusted media.

Democracy cannot function in a world of alternative facts, fake news, and the winning of arguments by sheer assertion and reiteration.

Nor can it thrive in a society where voters chose not to be engaged, allowing themselves to fall into opinion bubbles, outsourcing their thinking and decision-making to others, whether that be big technology companies or foreign powers only too willing to oblige.

Indeed, a thoughtful book by technology writer Jamie Bartlett, The People Vs Tech: How The Internet Is Killing Democracy, points to several prerequisites for a functioning democracy - active citizens, capable of making important moral judgments; a shared culture of democracy, including a spirit of give-and-take and the willingness to compromise; elections that must be free, fair and trusted; manageable levels of equality among all stakeholders; competition in the economy and autonomy in the civic sphere; trust in the system, which is fostered by the authorities remaining in touch with and accountable to the people.

The most critical of all of these, to my mind, is trust.

Voters must believe that the system, which purports to be the rule of the people by the people, genuinely reflects their interests and the popular will.

Which is why Mr Donald Trump's continuing insistence that the election was fraudulent is so corrosive.

Although most observers now accept that he lost, the vast majority of his supporters believe his unbacked assertions that the election was "rigged" or "stolen".

Remote video URL

Caricatures of the over 74 million voters who backed him, though, often paint them as naive, or plain wrong-headed.

Yet, this reflects the very condescension that these voters have grown weary of from the country's political and intellectual elites.

Rightly or not, these voters believed that Mr Trump reflected their hopes and fears, and would safeguard their interests.

As The Economist summed up well in a recent editorial: "Whether you support them or not, Mr Trump and his fellow populists came to power as a response to the failing of democratic governments.

"In rich countries, working-class voters came to believe that their politicians did not care about them, after their living standards stagnated and they became worried about immigration.

"In central and eastern Europe, governments seeking to join the EU paid more heed to Brussels than their own voters. In developing countries, corruption sent the message that the ruling classes were chiefly interested in their own bank accounts."

Taking up this idea on how policy failures and political missteps can fuel the rise of populism, Mr Bartlett cites Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who pointed out in their book, How Democracies Die, that this demise is not always associated with bullets or bust-ups.

Instead, it can happen insidiously, with elected or appointed officials undermining trust in key institutions, egged on by polarised and angry citizens.

The real threat, adds Mr Bartlett, could arise when large numbers of people conclude that "democratic values and institutions no longer solve social problems, reduce crime or create jobs".

Trust v tech

But trust in the democratic system can also be gradually whittled away, with voters oblivious that it is even happening.

As Mr Bartlett notes in his book, which presaged the thinking in the recent Netflix hit The Social Dilemma: "We live in a giant advertising panopticon which keeps us addicted to devices; this system of data collection and prediction is merely the most recent iteration of a long history of efforts to control us; it is getting more advanced by the day, which has serious ramifications for potential manipulation, endless distraction and the slow diminishing of free choice and autonomy."

Through sheer distraction or inattention, many voters are allowing themselves to be manipulated, their views formed and biases reinforced by the information and opinions served to them - supposedly for free - by tech companies with their opaque algorithms, which they chose to click on, read, like, and share.

Meanwhile, Big Tech is watching, parsing, and serving more of whatever is mostly likely to catch their fancy, the better to present advertising messages from the highest bidder.

This leaves the electorate open to being swayed not just by political leaders, but also by commercial and ideological players, at home and abroad.

Polarisation and the press

The ultimate check on the growing polarisation so evident in many societies today must lie with voters who take the trouble to stay well-informed, arming themselves with knowledge and the ability to make their own political choices and weigh up their long-term interests.

But this is increasingly difficult in an ever more complex, hyper-connected, fast-changing world, with citizens so buffeted by the welter of fake news, designed to mislead and confuse.

The polarisation seen in some societies is often mirrored in the media. Anyone toggling between the US election reports on CNN and Fox News in recent weeks might well have wondered if they were reporting on the same event.

Voters will therefore be greatly aided in exercising their civic duties by a responsible, credible media, which aims to provide them the information they need, separating fact from fiction, rational arguments from unsubstantiated assertions, striving always to be accurate, balanced and fair.

Unfortunately, when media organisations are unduly focused on chasing eyeballs and revenues, often with newsrooms starved of resources, they risk losing sight of this public service mission.

The underlying problem here is that the business model that gave rise to professional newsrooms and helped sustain them has been fundamentally gutted by the rise of tech companies, aggressively pushing news for "free", in exchange for data on readers which might be sold to advertisers.

As media guru Ken Doctor notes in his book, Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape The News You Get: "The question we face is how we're going to pay professionals to get us the news we need.

"We see National Public Radio (NPR)-like membership models, community and national foundation interest, civic-minded investors and event-oriented business models. We hear about non-profits and community trusts... we hear about news businesses being absorbed, leveraged, and (maybe) protected by global conglomerates.

"We talk about new tax approaches that may fund news and information, as our Western European neighbours have been doing for decades. We see experiments with micro-payments and new online subscription initiatives. Finally, we see the potential of a reckoning with the big search-engine aggregators who, today, get a pretty big piece of the pie, and have a problem with sharing."

While none of the above might be a silver bullet, the good Doctor rightly concludes that for democracies to remain robust, societies are going to have to decide that "reliable news and information is at least as worthy as Starbucks of our daily tithing".

One for all

The great US President John F. Kennedy once declared: "One man can make a difference, and every man should try."

While this might be slightly out of kilter in these gender-neutral times, his statement remains relevant and carries a double significance in the light of recent developments.

Yes, one man can make a huge difference, whipping up populist sentiments to win power, and then wielding it to undermine institutions, cajole officials, vilify political opponents as well as professionals in the media, and even appointing people to key roles to entrench his views and position.

Alas, this can happen, even in a democracy, and some mature ones at that.

If the much-cherished rule of "by the people, for the people" is to prevail, then every one of us should try to do our part, as engaged, informed and active citizens, striving to ensure that those who promote political sweetness and light, trump those who would sow division and discord.

Ultimately, democracy depends on you and me.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.