November 11, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
I was in class Tuesday morning when the news came in that Barack Obama had won a second term as president. The election had, of course, been a topic of conversation both inside and outside of class since our arrival. Our teachers, as well as some people on the street who followed such things (the majority, I should mention, have more pressing concerns than American politics) would often ask us who we wanted to win, who we thought was going to win, what we thought the biggest differences between the candidates were, etc. The news media here followed the election quite closely. Debate summaries appeared on the front pages of newspapers, coverage of Hurricane Sandy included discussions of its potential implications for the election, and the stances of both Obama and Romney on a host of issues, both international and domestic, were analyzed. I found the way in which journalists here described (or attempted to describe) the nuances of our electoral system to be most interesting, however. Articles would mention terms such as “swing states” and “electoral votes” but provide very little information as to what they actually meant. News coverage would include hypothetical situations in which one candidate would win the popular vote but lose the actual election (not that we need hypotheticals to know that that’s possible) and even one in which, through a series of quirks that would result in the Senate being split 50-50, Mitt Romney would wind up winning the highest office in the land with one catch: Joe Biden as Vice President.
The result is a general sense of bewilderment at our strange and antiquated method for choosing a leader. How can Americans, the self-styled “protectors of freedom,” have such a blatantly undemocratic electoral system? This confusion, however, in my experience, is not the sort of dismissive smugness one might expect in, say, Europe, where grandiose notions of American exceptionalism have become something of a joke. Here, while American foreign policy is often viewed with a sort of skeptical wariness, many Indians, glancing at their own corruption-mired grinding political bureaucracy, look at the superpower on the other side of the world with a sort of admiration. Although India has spent much of her history throughout the Cold War if not playing for the “other team” than at least making walk-on appearances, there is a sense that, as the “world’s largest democracy,” it shares a certain kinship with the system’s biggest promoter. And as ugly and divided as politics has gotten in the States, as clearly as the SuperPac nightmare has shown the influence of the money of the few over politics as a whole, as clogged and dysfunctional as our Houses of Congress have become, there is still a sense here that there are many aspects of our government that are to be aspired to.
Yes, corruption plagues our political system, but would you ever think to try and bribe a police officer?
Yes, our social safety net is a shameful mockery in the West, but most of the world is not the West, and a good portion of this majority live in slums.
Yes, our nation’s infrastructure is in a sad state of disrepair, and, as Hurricane Irene revealed, in need of serious upgrading, but much of the recovery from the storm will occur in a matter of weeks, not years.
Yes, our judicial system is slow and imperfect, but its laws are respected and enforced.
Yes, our politicians are self-serving sloganeers, but when was the last time you saw one squander public funds on statues and memorials to themselves?
Of course there are exceptions to these generalities, but my point is just that: they are exceptions. We have graft, we have cronyism, and the wealthy and influential continue to flout the rules or, when they cannot, simply remake them. Show me a place (or a time, for that matter) where this does not happen.
Watching the election results come in on Indian television and reading about it the next day in the newspaper, it was impossible not to notice the enthusiasm and approval with which journalists noted that a coalition of minorities had come together to reelect the president. There was also much discussion of the fact that the first openly gay senator had been elected. I suppose everybody likes an underdog story (even if analysts had been predicting Obama’s victory for weeks).
This is not to say that we should all pat ourselves on the back and just be happy with what we have. There is no way around it: our politics have become horribly dysfunctional, and I think we can all agree (albeit for different reasons) that the status quo is untenable.
I guess I’m trying to say that we face some serious challenges ahead and perhaps the biggest and most important one is the question of what type of a role we want our government and its institutions to play in our society.
There are many things Americans can learn from India. Its incorporation of ancient and vast cultural and linguistic communities into one nation has been the object of countless studies and historical analyses. Its century-long struggle for independence is admired across the world. Its status as the largest, as well as one of the poorest, functioning democracies has left scholars struggling to explain its continued viability as a state. Its merging of the modern and the ancient presents a fascinatingly vibrant mosaic that has left artists, musicians, writers, linguists, historians, economists, theologians, and political scientists awestruck.
India, however, like many poor/middle-income countries (once again, even here, India proves difficult to categorize) can also serve as an example of what happens when institutions of government are left to stagnate. The wealthy work out systems that avoid interaction with Indian bureaucracy at all costs. Private companies truck in supplies of filtered water. Virtually every large house has a diesel generator to combat frequent power outages. Scores of elite private schools operate across the country, leaving public education to the poor. Laws and regulations are openly ignored. These include, of course, building and labor codes, the tragic results of which could be seen recently in India’s next-door neighbor. The private charities left to serve the poor, in spite of the best of intentions, are nowhere near sufficient.
For all of their flaws, the United States has some of the strongest and most well-respected institutions of governance in the world, but they did not become this way on their own. We invested in them. We built them. Our shared institutions hold us together and give us all a stake in the continued existence and prosperity of our society. Our roads, our schools, our social services, our parks, our laws, our regulatory agencies and, yes, even our taxes. By neglecting them we are not simply doing a shameful disservice to the least of us, we whittle away at the ties that bind all of us. We expand our government’s capacity to serve the interests of the privileged through its lack of capacity to serve the interests of us all.
Does this mean that we’re on the way to becoming India? Of course not. No more than we’re on the way to becoming Italy or Spain, which is to say: at least not in the foreseeable future. And I do want to be clear about one thing: the answers to our problems do not lie simply in making our institutions bigger. In many ways, India’s bureaucracy problem is not the result of too little governance, but of governance that does too much to hinder and too little to help. What India is, however, is an example of the importance of effective institutions of governance, which require, at a minimum, sufficient investment – investments a significant portion of our politicians don’t seem to want to make. Many may say we’d all be better off this way: that the wealthy earned theirs, that regulations are unnecessary burdens and that any sort of redistribution is wrong; but the winners will always say that the race was fair, even if they started two feet from the finish line.