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An impressive but erratic U.S. democracy

With the tremendous vitality, impressive democracy, and busloads of inanity of the American presidential elections behind us now, the people and government of the United States now turn quickly to some pressing policy priorities. All the energy that went into predicting who will win is now going into guessing what President Barack Obama will do at the start of his second term. After watching the process close-up for the past two months, I would offer the following random observations.

The democratic process in the United States is now a two-headed monster, with an impressive state-by-state and local government electoral system, and a dysfunctional national decision-making system in Washington. On the electoral side, American citizens do have the opportunity to elect and dismiss their leaders and shape new policies if they choose to do so, but their margin of doing this is very thin. Nearly 90 percent of incumbent officials routinely are re-elected across the country (often because incumbent parties redesign their voting districts to serve and re-elect themselves), but Senate and presidential races often are unpredictable and very close in their final vote count, as was the case this year.

On the national policymaking side, the political system is deeply polarized, with the Senate in Democratic hands and the House of Representatives controlled by the Republicans. Washington has a hard time dealing with major national decisions such as health care, immigration or fiscal reforms without threats, boycotts, stalemates and frightening brinksmanship.

Americans refuse to come to terms with a fundamental contradiction in their national values. They complain about the country’s deep polarization and the inability to achieve consensus in Washington, but at the same time they hysterically trumpet their values of individual freedom and deregulated capitalism. Well, the combination of those two trends since the Reagan-Thatcher free market revolution of the early 1980s has resulted in the runaway commercialization, privatization, personalization and fragmentation that define the U.S. today, in politics as in commerce. Businesses, the mass media, churches and politicians alike all cater to increasingly narrow segments of the population – White, poorly educated middle aged women, or young, Hispanic urban professionals, or elderly, well educated Asian-Americans, for example – and this fragmentation of society will only worsen as long as unbridled personal liberty and free market capitalism remain the cornerstones of American life and values.

The United States remains very distant from the rest of the world, largely ignorant and uncaring about what happens beyond its shores, other than for the purposes of security and trade that are mostly handled in an ad hoc manner that lacks a clear philosophy or feel for global engagement. For the United States, the world still remains a series of targets and markets that either must be threatened, sanctioned and bombed, or embraced in free-trade agreements, with few other options in between. Foreign policy played no role at all in the election campaign, despite the United States’ involvement in the war in Afghanistan, its anti-terrorism campaign and drones-based killing spree across Asia, and its increasing sanctions against Iran.

Much speculation fills the media these days about how Obama could or should move on Iran, Syria, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the ongoing Arab uprisings and transformations. There is no sign that he plans to do anything new or dramatic, except for some speculation that he may explore the possibility of direct, high-level negotiations with Iran to break that logjam. The interesting thing about these four issues is that they now seem to be deeply interconnected in many ways, especially in how the status of both Syria and Iran impacts on every major country and political dynamic in the Middle East. This suggests that a coherent, forward-looking and robust American policy that tries to deal with the four issues simultaneously could possibly succeed, where separate approaches to all four have not worked very well, and have probably reduced rather than enhanced America’s standing in the region.

I have heard from people close to the Obama administration conflicting views about whether he will or will not make another attempt to push for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement in the coming year, when his political capital is highest. The likelihood of that happening seems very slim to me, given the strength of the Likud-led right wing in Israel and its ironclad ability to influence the majority in the American Congress. Obama’s only chance to break this control of Congress by Israeli right wing zealots and their American colleagues is to frame a new push for peace as being in the American national interest, and go over the head of the pro-Israel fanatics in the U.S. to gain the support of the American people, but there is no sign that he will or can do this.

President Obama will be preoccupied with major domestic issues in the coming year, so the only area where I would expect he might make some new moves would be Iran.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by The Daily Star. He tweets @RamiKhouri.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 10, 2012, on page 7.
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