Opinionista Ivo Vegter 8 November 2016

The sheeple shall govern

Democratically elected leaders rule with apparent impunity, all over the world. They lie to the people, strip them of freedoms, and rob them of wealth, without ever facing consequences at the ballot box. This is no less true in the United States than it is in South Africa.

Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill said this in the House of Commons in 1947. On another occasion, he said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Yet he also had a romantic view of the common voter: “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”

Especially in a country recently liberated from minority rule in which the majority were cruelly oppressed, it seems an article of faith that everyone should have the right to vote. Historically, democratic government has been strongly correlated with freedom and prosperity.

But the trend lines have been going south, lately. According to Freedom House, there has been a decade-long slide in global freedom, fuelled by rising xenophobia and growing authoritarianism and intolerance of dissent. Over the last 10 years, 105 countries became less free, and only 61 became more free.

Notably, the trends in the US, while still enviable by global standards, are not pointing in the right direction either. On press freedom, government accountability, corruption, government transparency, and economic freedom, that country has been sliding during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

If there is one thing the current US election teaches us, it is that democracy does not guarantee good leadership, nor does it guarantee liberty and prosperity. On the contrary, people reliably vote for parties that have harmed them in the past, out of fear that the alternative must be worse. Partisan loyalty is a powerful thing. So one can’t help wondering, what motivates people when they actually cast their vote?

Polls are not always correct, but the late boost for Donald Trump resulting from new revelations of the mendacity of Hillary Clinton does not seem to be enough to carry him to the White House. On election day, major polls showed Hillary Clinton edging out Donald Trump by a margin of over 3%, although, like her husband in 1992, she is not anticipated to win 50% of the popular vote. The margin is also uncomfortably close to the margin of error for most polls, so anything may yet happen. Yet it seems certain that these two very flawed candidates will account for the lion’s share of the vote, between them.

It might appear reassuring that this can happen in one of the most sophisticated, wealthy and free countries in the world. In South Africa, people routinely bemoan the fact that the ANC continues to win elections, despite a persistent lack of service delivery, employment and economic growth, as well as growing evidence of corruption and even state capture by private interests.

In reality, it is not reassuring at all. It is a profoundly depressing demonstration that a corrupt establishment, in which government rules for the benefit of big business cronies, is a very stable and self-perpetuating form of government. This is no less true for Africa than it is for the supposedly free countries of the West.

Neither major party in the US likes its presidential nominee. There has been open revolt in the Republican Party against Donald Trump, whom they see as a reckless, bombastic outsider who does not represent any wing of the party. Meanwhile, Democratic voters are incensed that their favoured candidate, the popular socialist Bernie Sanders, was not only the victim of electoral fraud, but humiliated himself by endorsing the very establishment candidate against which he had campaigned.

The result is that Americans have the choice, to quote Jill Stein, leader of the Green Party, between a fascist and a warmonger. I would say the choice is between xenophobic protectionism and a corrupt establishment.

The Democratic nominee is a pathological liar who fails to distinguish between personal and public interests, and who routinely trades government favours for big donations from the rich and powerful. If her many sins do not catch up with her in office, the best Americans can hope for is a perpetuation of the corrupt system that has brought the world so much misery since the turn of the century. Reckless banks will remain too big to fail. Favoured corporate interests will continue to enjoy tax credits and subsidies, enriching only their shareholders and directors, instead of their customers. The redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, through inflationary monetary policy and quantitative easing, will continue. Responsible savers will continue to be punished for the sins of irresponsible debtors. Ill-considered wars will remain the order of the day, with unpredictable but deadly consequences.

As Thomas Sowell put it: “Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has the qualifications, the track record or the personal character to be President of the United States.”

He eloquently enumerates the reasons why both candidates fail these tests, before making the point that the choice should probably come down to who will appoint the most ideological justices to the Supreme Court. Hillary Clinton has made it clear she wants judges that will overturn previous rulings upholding freedoms, while Donald Trump, Sowell thinks, has no such ideological aims. Still, it’s a gamble.

Drowned out by the noise of the duocracy contending for the bulk of the vote are Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, candidates for the Libertarian Party and Green Party, respectively. The latter is unlikely to get more than a percent or two, and although Johnson is close to breaking the 5% barrier, which will earn his party federal funding for future campaigns, his numbers have slipped far from the 9% he enjoyed as recently as September.

Even though the two major US parties have betrayed both their voters and their values, and ultimately nominated candidates that broke all records for dislikeability, American voters are streaming to the polls to vote Republican or Democratic as if nothing happened. They’ll ensure that the next president is unlikely to reverse America’s slide towards less individual freedom and more government control.

Although everyone surely has a right to choose their leaders, it is a sad reflection on the state of global democracy that those leaders can lead the people off a cliff, curtailing their liberties, lying to their faces, and robbing them blind, without any fear of losing their votes. DM


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