by Jideofor Adibe
The current presidential campaigns in the US has exposed the underbelly of American democracy which should force us to re-think some of the assumptions we have about ‘mature democracies’ and ‘democratising states’. The classic assumption is that in mature democracies elections truly reflect the will of the electorate, with little or no ‘hanky-panky’ or ‘mago- mago’, while in the ‘new’ or ‘democratising societies’ authoritarian impulses and manipulative tendencies prevail.
American democracy is over 200 years old – whether you start counting from the country’s ratification of its constitution in 1788 or the time its first elected President George Washington took office in 1789. With its passion for freedom and liberty, the American brand of democracy is often held up as a model to many. Many do not therefore expect a prevalence of features and vocabularies that are often used to define climes where democratic practices are on the lower end of the democracy continuum.
Then came Donald Trump, the 70-year old real estate mogul and television producer. Since becoming the Republican Party presidential candidate, Trump has been giving us unique insights into the functioning of American democracy. Let us look as some of these:
Tenure elongation: This is a Nigerian vocabulary used to describe a suspected attempt by an incumbent to have an additional tenure in office beyond the constitutionally allowed limit.
Trump is not on record for accusing Obama of harbouring a third term agenda but until recently, several bloggers in the USA continued to accuse Obama of planning to use executive orders to achieve a third term tenure. The rumours were strong enough for Obama to deny it. He was quoted as saying that the US presidency is “a process in which the office should be continually renewed by new energy and new ideas and new insights.” He was also quoted as saying that even if the Constitution allowed him, his wife Michelle wouldn’t because while the job is a privilege, it takes a toll on family life. It should be recalled that the US Constitution expressly forbids American presidents from spending more than two terms in office. In fact in the history of American presidential politics, only two Presidents had done more than two terms in office – Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the USA (1901-1909) and Franklin D Roosevelt, the 32nd President (1933-1945). However rumours that Obama harboured a ‘third term agenda’ raises the question of whether American politics is being influenced by democratic practices (or is it aberrations?) in countries like Nigeria.
Rigging: ‘Rigging’ is probably Nigerian politicians’ contribution to political vocabulary. It is a generic word that covers all forms of voter fraud. It was never a word one could openly associate with American democracy BDT (Before Donald Trump’). Donald Trump has changed all that by accusing his Democratic opponent (and some Republican Party members) of planning to ‘rig him out’. In one tweet, on October 16 2016, Trump declared: “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places – SAD.” In another tweet same day, Trump said: “Election is being rigged by the media in a coordinated effort with the Clinton campaign, by putting stories that never happened into news!” In yet another tweet, Trump blamed “animals representing Hillary Clinton” and Democrats in North Carolina for an overnight attack on a local Republican Party headquarters in that state in October. On October 17 2016 Trump restated his belief that American elections are rigged: “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before Election Day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!” On October 27 2017, he tweeted again: “A lot of call-ins about vote flipping at the voting booths in Texas. People are not happy. Big lines. What’s going on?”
Trump also indicated that he might not accept the results of the election if he did not win, (though following criticisms, his running mate Mike Pence, said Republicans would accept the outcome of the November 8 contest between Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton).
Trump’s fears that the election could be rigged – just as elections in democratising states are routinely rigged- was shared by several respondents in a poll by Rasmussen Report published on October 24 2016. The poll found that the majority of likely voters think voter fraud is a serious problem in America today. Of those polled 32 per cent thought it is a serious problem, 26 per cent said ‘it is somewhat serious’, 17 per cent said ‘it is not very serious’ while only 22 per cent said ‘it is not at all serious’.
Still on fears of rigging, on October 29, 2016, Yahoo News reported that Police in Des Moines, Iowa, arrested a woman, Terri Lynn Rote, a registered Republican, on suspicion of voting twice (in early votes). Similarly, the CNN was forced to cut ties with Donna Brazile, the acting Democratic National Committee chair and a long-time CNN contributor, after hacked emails published by WikiLeaks revealed that she had provided questions to the Hillary Clinton campaign in advance of a town hall meeting and debate hosted by CNN during the Democratic primary.
With these revelations, many are wondering whether American democracy has suffered a reversal or whether it has always been so. And if rigging is now a big problem in American election as it is in the newly democratising states in Africa, should African states insist on sending international observers to monitor the US elections?
Is the FBI partial?
One of the concerns in African elections is about the neutrality of key state institutions – the police, army, secret services, the electoral umpire etc. The assumption BDT is that the neutrality and impartiality of such agencies in the USA could be taken for granted.
Currently there are questions about the neutrality or otherwise of the FBI director James Comey. On October 28, just 11 days to the presidential elections, Comey wrote to Congress about newly discovered emails that could be potentially “pertinent” to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server problem. The new emails were found on the laptop of ex-Rep Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of top Clinton aide, Huma Abedin. Weiner is under investigation for allegedly sending illicit text messages to a 15-year-old girl.
The FBI had earlier concluded investigations into the private email server issue and decided not to recommend criminal prosecution. At the time Comey wrote to Congress, agents had not been able to review any of the material, because the bureau had not yet gotten a search warrant to read them. The Democrats are accusing Comey of bias after claims that he had sought to withhold evidence of Russian support for Donald Trump for fear of influencing next week’s US election.
A big feature of presidential campaigns in the USA is opinion polls. If polls are anything to go by, Trump, as of today (November 2, 2016) has the momentum. He has for instance taken the lead on the ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll in which he trailed Clinton by 12 points more than a week ago (after stories of his boast of how he groped women).
But what is really the worth of opinion polls?
In Nigeria, we suspect opinion polls on elections of being rigged to create a ‘moving train’ narrative for a favoured candidate. Trump has said much the same about the polls when he was behind Clinton on most of the polls.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the way a question is framed could affect the responses obtained. For instance if you ask the question: ‘who are you likely to vote for in the election?’, many voters may conceal their true preference out of political correctness or fear of being witch-hunted. However if the same question is re-phrased to: ‘Who do you think will win?’, the responses may be different.
A clear demonstration of how voters could hide their true preferences is what is now called the ‘Bradley effect’. This is essentially about observed discrepancies between voter opinion polls and election outcomes in some United States government elections where a white candidate and a non-white candidate run against each other. Though both Clinton and Trump are white candidates, it is not certain how many of the voters share Trump’s bigoted views on ethnic minorities, Blacks, women and Muslims. These ‘hidden voters’ continue to be a source of hope for the Trump camp – in addition to the fact that his mostly white male supporters (according to opinion polls) are said to be more passionate about coming out to vote for their candidate than Hilary’s supporters, who are now battling to recover from the FBI decision to re-open the private email server issue..