The entire world was in awe of America during the 2008 US presidential elections. In the throes of one of the most economically painful periods in America’s history, Obama, then a relatively unknown figure in politics, rose to the occasion and reminded his fellow countrymen that theirs was still a great nation… they had every reason to hope, he said, for better days lay ahead. America, he argued, had undergone more trying times in its history and emerged stronger and more prosperous.
In the backdrop of two wars and an economy in free fall, rather than play to their fears and anxieties, he entreated his fellow countrymen of various ethnic, religious and political stripes to draw inspiration from the spirit summed up in America’s motto (E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One) and unite around the shared values that bound them together as one nation and as one people. Only by standing together, he cautioned, could they emerge triumphant from their challenges.
Even if many of his promises now seem lofty in retrospect, Americans held on to the message of hope. It resonated with them because he reminded the nation that its greatness derived not just from its military or economic supremacy, but also from its soft power and core values of openness and tolerance woven, albeit with imperfections, into the fabric America’s DNA since the country’s inception. That message was so compelling it reverberated around the world. Beyond the shores of the United States, American democracy shone bright. Obama’s story –his rise from humble beginnings– was seen globally as the very embodiment of the American Dream.
8 years on, that message has been severely undercut by the current state of America’s political discourse.
If Obama’s ascent to the presidency depicted America’s democracy at its finest, the rise of Donald Trump symbolizes the exact opposite. Today’s presidential debate, played out on national stage and viewed by millions of people around the world, was a damning indictment of America’s brand of democracy as we’ve come to know it. Observers are baffled by the current nasty and vacuous political discourse that culminated in the grotesque spectacle that was last night’s presidential debate. If that was democracy in action, then is it really the best mechanism for picking the right person to lead a nation? Did the putrid, acerbic confrontation better inform voters of the bigger issues at stake for the future of their country? If not, of what essence is the process? These are legitimate questions that observers of US politics around the world must ponder; questions that the defenders of this version of democracy must reckon as they take stock of the events thus far unfolded this campaign season.
From Beijing to Moscow, critics of the US system of governance would feel vindicated in their view that the American model isn’t the only viable –or even the best– form of political or economic arrangement. Even if misguided, they would be right to point out that the degradation of American public discourse may be emblematic of larger forces at play: take for instance, the inherent contradictions of unfettered market forces causing the buildup of internal economic and social pressures; the specious assumptions underlying policymaking that such contradictions are necessarily self-correcting; and the resultant wholesale decline of the alleged moral superiority of its system of governance. These are some of the fundamental fault lines that drive the popular disenchantment that has come to define this election cycle and undermine the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of both critics and admirers alike. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, this certainly damages the American brand and further erodes its soft power in a world where newly emerging powers are pressing for the reconfiguration of the current international order at the expense of US preeminence.