Democracy can thrive only in the presence of an independent media. The on-going US elections show this. With the social media becoming ubiquitous, candidates cannot circumvent transparency, openness and accountability. While managing their campaign for the Radio, TV and Print, American presidential candidates are doing all they can to woo supporters on Twitter and Facebook, which reach millions of voters.
In the last two weeks, the American media have shown their power of scrutiny over the candidates. Of course, the media power may go to damage a candidate to the benefit of the other. However, the American media have shown that the person vying for the highest position needs to prove his own quality, commitment, character.
To me, the US elections seem rather strange. I have been living in a country where neither the media are able to prove their independent and objective character in covering the elections nor do the candidates take the media reporting seriously. People hardly punish the political leaders based on the media reporting of their character and commitment.
When I landed on October 4 in Los Angeles, California, to meet my son, who has been doing a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, the second round debates of the presidential elections were a few days away, with Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in a neck to neck campaign. However, the debates that took place following my arrival changed the elections campaign with Hillary Clinton leading the opinion polls against Trump, whose remarks and past personal matters published by the media ruined his campaign.
I have covered the elections of India, Bangladesh and my own country Nepal and observed elections in some African countries, where campaigns are dominated by pamphlets, wall paintings, political rallies and mass meetings, although there is a growing use of Television, Radio, Print and Social Media as well. However, the media impact the campaign little. Voting patterns remain almost the same in these elections. Nobody talks substance, about ideologies, ideals and essence of democracy. From my student days, I have been very much inspired by the book, Democracy in America, written by Alexis de Tocqueville, a French sociologist and political theorist, who traveled to the United States in 1831 to study its prisons and returned with a wealth of broader observations that he codified in the influential book of the 19th century. With its trenchant observations on equality and individualism, Tocqueville’s work remains a valuable explanation of America to Europeans and of Americans to themselves.
I saw in the US that democracy is not merely holding the elections and casting votes. It is also about the commitment to the liberal democratic ideal. In Nepal, where an overwhelming number of people are subsistence farmers, the experiment in democracy may take another century to work in full swing.
Although the Americans have inherited all the fundamentals of liberal democratic values evolved in Europe, they completely implemented them in practice even before the Europeans did. Freedom, liberty, rule of law, equality, fraternity and respect to rights of man are fundamental characters of American democracy. Be it a late comer Nepali or Bhutanese or African American, Indian, Chinese, Latino or early settler European white, no one faces discrimination as such. Going through the Facebook and Twitter statuses of Nepalese in America, one can see the diversity in their opinion in favor of both the candidates. Despite their grooming in an authoritarian society and authoritarian political environment, the Nepalese is Diaspora in America, uphold the ideals of democracy although their views tend to be cynical, as if they were observing the practice in their country of origin against basic democratic ideals. They are more careful and objective in observing the American politics.
From the first American President George Washington to the current President Barak Obama, a major transformation in the American way of life has come about in the last 250 years. However, the country has retained the constitution that declined the right to vote to slaves from Africa and Women. Electing Barak Obama, an African American, for two terms and now close to electing Hillary Clinton, a woman, America has proven its Constitution is a living document. For a country like Nepal, which has already changed six constitutions in 75 years, the American constitution should be an example to draw on.
Politics of Same Nature
Political cultures, however, do have some similarity. In the recent presidential race, Presidential Candidate Donald Trump even expressed that his defeat means the electoral rigging by his rivals. Nepalese journalists like me are tired of listening to similar remarks from politicians, who end up with the formation of high-level inquiry commissions, following their suspicion of rigging in every election results.
Recently, there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism in South Asia and Neal is no exception. However, there is a lot to learn from America. Although George Washington began his last will and testament with the phrase, “In the name of God, Washington respects all the practice of religions in a civilized manner. The practice of religious tolerance by the first president of America is still intact. Washington could be seen as laying the groundwork for the diverse and multicultural country America was and was to become. In fact, even after America’s 200+ Freedom, Liberty and Tolerance, which were propounded by Washington, are the fundamental values of America.
Washington was an Enlightenment politician who drew inspirations from the political and social philosophies of Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the like and was on par with other American Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The ideals framed by these three are still intact and enjoyed by all Americans. They believed in individual, equal rights, democracy, a proper, non-political place for religion and superstition. They espoused reason and logic and encouraged the courageous engagement of all citizens with their governments and governors.
The current ideals of American democracy have evolved in almost two centuries of experiment. Jefferson who believed in a "wise and frugal Government, has a major contribution in American constitution. In an effort to minimize the influence of the central government, he reduced the number of government employees, slashed Army enlistments, and cut the national debt. Similar to his predecessor, John Adams, Jefferson had to deal with the political war waged between his Republican Party and the Federalists. The battles were focused on the nation's judiciary branch. The landmark ruling in Marbury v. Madison, which established the independent power of the Supreme Court, was handed down during Jefferson's presidency.
In the past, politicians used TV debates, posters, leaflets and live speaking events to get their messages across. While all of these still exist, one method has, over the past ten years, started to blow them all out of the water: that is, social media. According to the recent reports, 73% of Americans are now on social media and that’s an upward trend that shows no signs of stopping.
Social is, in its purest form, a platform. A method with the potential to reach millions of people, and in politics, that’s half the battle. Platforms lend themselves well to imagery too which can be hugely more effective than dry, disengaging text. It’s cliché to say a picture says a thousand words, but imagery can really help a campaign in ways that nothing else can. While a large majority of Americans use social media, virtually all of 18-34 years olds use it. Some 98% admitted in a recent study that they had used a social platform at least once in the past month. If one can follow Trump and Hillary on Twitter and Facebook, thousands of messages are being sent through these platforms, with endorsement, support or criticism by the respective followers reaching to the tune of millions.
Trump has always been a fan of social media and actively uses it to promote his campaign. With his often controversial sounds and snippets, the medium suits his campaign style perfectly, with his often controversial sound snippets that are easily shareable. Much of Trump’s campaign is built around ‘virability’ and he shares a lot of videos on Facebook. His inflammatory use of Twitter has always been a trademark of the man and goes a long way to explaining his huge online audience. Trump has more followers than his opponent, with 6.3 million on Twitter.
Similarly Hillary has a very engaged following and also benefited greatly from celebrity endorsements on platforms like Instagram. Most notably she got a selfie with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West and received full backing from the couple. Other stars including Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler have also publicly backed her. Hillary had by far the most engagement on one post on Twitter: her post, which shared a link to an interview with One Direction where they discussed climate issues, was retweeted nearly 60,000 times
Although American presidential elections campaign is changing, what remains is the people's strong belief in ideals of democracy. Unlike other authoritarian regimes around the world, candidates’ campaign on the planks of democratic ideals and the media are watchful on this. This is what the beauty of American Democracy is. Given the present level of personalization and accusation in the campaigns, there are some frustrations as well for the future. As Winston Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. After voting and elections of new president, American voters will forget the campaign: what they uphold is American values and ideals.
(Los Angeles, California)