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On American democracy and Obama

February 4th, 2009 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

After a couple of 18-hour days in a tight circuit between office desk, conference room and hotel room,  today was a revelation.  A 90 minute massage at a tasteful spa during office hours, followed by a lovely Teppanyaki buffet dinner with sake.  Wait, I get paid to do this?  As I told Zhen, we are like infants or people lacking the ability to form long-term memories, no matter how tough the times, a couple of hours of relative release and we are suddenly happy again.  Bizarre, but better for the psyche, I guess.

So instead of watching the two new episodes of Gossip Girl I have waiting in iTunes, I spent a couple of hours (??!) penning my thoughts on American-style democracy and Obama’s election in response to an email I got today.  I thought I’d post it for posterity.

I’ve recently been reading Joseph Stiglitz’s “Making Globalization Work”, and while it is a very good read (of course), one of the things that has irked me is the illogical knee-jerk praise of American-style democracy, often falsely equated with “more democracy”.  Stiglitz frequently reminds us of his views on democracy and his preference for “more of it” in the American style, although when it comes time to back this preference up, the best he can do is say that “economic success is fully consistent with democracy” (p56), while arguing that government interventions are critical for development – the same types of interventions that are have historically been most effective under less democratic forms of government (e.g. technocratic or autocratic systems in China, and Singapore).


In my view, the commonly encountered paranoia and distrust against “undemocratic” forms of government (read, non American-style democracies) often seen in newspaper editorials, political commentary and general punditry stems from a uniquely American and dysfunctional view of government.  So called “paternalistic” or technocratic forms of government inherently require higher levels of trust and specialization of function, and to me it is no coincidence that this description precisely describes the increasing sophistication of higher societies and civilizations.  Make no mistake, in modern society all of us are already fully dependent on all sorts of institutions and third parties to make decisions for us to maintain life as we know it – medical researchers, journalists, financial institutions, legal experts.  Accepting all these other dependencies (call it blind faith) but expressing distrust against the government (the only relevant unit of society beyond the family for Singaporeans) is simply logically inconsistent.  More importantly, in the US it is based on the inevitable sense of betrayal that arises from their many glaring failures of government – the blighted inner-city ghettos, the soaring budget deficit, the embarrassing/lethal foreign wars, the crippled public school system, the social security time-bomb… which only begs the question, why should we adopt their system of government at all given their failure rate at all levels (city, state, nation, international)?  It is clear that many other governments have managed decades of success (by any measure) in other countries – the Scandinavian social democracies, the Asian Tigers, tightly controlled Vietnam and China, even Suharto’s Indonesia… all these demonstrate that a government’s performance does not necessarily have the implied relationship of more democratic = more successful.  


To the contrary, it is easy to argue that goals can be much more efficiently achieved in less democratic situations.  Just try imaging the inevitably nightmarish outcome of India attempting to stage the 2008 Olympics in Delhi or Mumbai (highlights include flagrant corruption, choking pollution, inevitable construction delays, ballooning costs and at least one deadly terrorist attack).  Successful governance and American-style democracy (or even more democracy) are poorly correlated.


All this begs the question of what we are supposed to be measuring when evaluating a government or system of government.  I say government is a means to an end, rather than an ends in and of itself.  To be pedantic, a government’s sole purpose for existence is to perform pre-defined governing functions such as maintaining law and order, representing/defending the country’s interests at the international level, and also raising the standard of living for all within its borders by providing key infrastructure and services as well as overseeing economic development.  To hear many pundits talk, you would think that democracy is an end in itself, and that countries should all be striving to increase “democracy”.  I beg to disagree.  I think the only benefit that can be attributed solely to increasing democracy is the “feel good factor” that is itself a conditioned reflex born out of America’s disillusionment with their government (and to a lesser extent from Europe’s disillusionment with Fascism).  Americans blindly believe more democracy must be a good thing, let’s not fall for that fluff.


Trust is the only thing that matters when thinking about how a government makes people feel – we trust that the government is broadly accountable to the governed, and more importantly that the government, just like any other organization, is working its hardest to satisfy its mandate.  On this point I find it baffling to hear any Singaporean expressing any kind of distrust of the government, and especially bizarre to hear a well-educated (elite, if you like) Singaporean express suspicion or doubt towards the government, even in the abstract.  Everyone knows people in the Civil Service, and among educated people, everyone knows fairly senior people in the government.  In other words, there is no real “us versus them” division between the government and Singaporeans (unlike in the US or France or Russia or even Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan).  I know my ex-colleagues in the government investment corporation, my aunt in the tax bureau, my uncle in the public utilities board and my classmates in the foreign ministry and economic development boards are all trying to do their jobs well, and their jobs are in the end in service of Singaporeans.  In fact, my ultimate charge against those who would claim that there are systems of government “better” than the Singapore model is that I have yet to hear any clearly articulated vision of what the shortcomings are (as opposed to things people do not “like”) and why any other system of government would be “better” by any reasonable evaluation criteria.  Most commonly I hear vague preferences supported by assertions of difference that simply fall apart upon closer examination.  Did the US not have Jim Crow laws and segregation, Japanese-American internment camps, McCarthyism, or Guantanamo?  Yes, Singapore has the Internal Security Act, a history of bankrupted opposition politicians and attempts at media censorship, but I will not accept simple assertions that Americans are in any way more “free” from anything, including fear from the KKK, police brutality, crime and gang violence, and the CIA/Homeland Security/Patriot Act.  (Not to mention crooked governors and insurance commissioners, broken emergency response systems and the clear challenges of trying to raise drug/rape/violence-free children in America, never mind education.)  It is not enough to unsystematically evaluate systems of government based on a few random data points and a warm and fuzzy feeling arising from lack of knowledge.


This brings us to the sad truth about American politics, that it is all about feel-good politics.  Almost by definition, American feel-good politics preclude any kind of defensible logic or demonstrable longer-term benefit.  All style and talk but ultimately very little to show for it other than billions spent on election campaigns.  Consider this quote from a Singaporean celebrating Obama’s election:


For this is the value of democracy: it can banish apathy, it can advance in maturity, it can heal ancient enmities and transcend petty politicking. It can put the country’s interest before any ethnic group’s, it is robust and adaptable, it can peacefully remove a government even after massive failure and abuses of power. It can even systematically ask the world for forgiveness, or at least provide a chance every electoral cycle to ask for forgiveness: and I believed on November 4th 2008 the world was, no matter how momentarily, willing to forgive America. It is the people coming together, with all their pained and beautiful differences, and peacefully making a choice. And yes, it can change the world.”


Where to even begin parsing this?  Obviously Obama’s feel-good quotient is through the roof, and I’ll be the first to say that I feel good about Obama’s election too.  However, is there really any substance behind these vague positive feelings that for me are attributable to Obama’s skin colour and handsome looks combined with Michelle Obama’s stylish wardrobe and Harvard connection? 


Let’s start with the idea that American democracy should be emulated because it can “advance in maturity”.  Obviously there has been no chronological relationship established by Obama’s election unless one would suggest that Bush Sr was inferior to Clinton was inferior to Bush Jr (or back to Nixon or Kennedy).  And remember that Obama has so far done squat as president so this cannot possibly be any sort of celebration of his actual merits as president.  And if we are referring exclusively to the selection of the Obama-Biden ticket over the McCain-Palin ticket, was that choice more “mature” based on anything other than race?  It’s hard to imagine otherwise.  If so, we are left with saying that America cast a cumulatively meritocratic vote (and do not forget the millions who voted for McCain-Palin).  Why was this more “mature”?  America has never had to choose between an all-white vs quarter-black Presidential ticket before.  And similarly they have never had to choose between an all-male and half-female ticket either.  From this perspective, in both the Democratic primaries and the presidential election Americans picked the all-male teams.  Why not call that a failure of meritocratic ideals?  Just remember that the response to any sort of argument about Obama’s election being a bellwether of the times or any indication that American politics can “do the right thing” is that tens of millions of Americans voted for the painfully unqualified Sarah Palin.  And America’s voting record is spotty – similar tens of millions of Americans voted to re-elect a demonstrably underperforming (and dishonest) Bush in 2004.


Notice also that most of the praise about Obama’s election is ultimately a discussion about meritocratic principles, which are often unrelated to democratic ones.  America supposedly did the “right” thing because they elected Obama despite his race, his family background, and his lack of big business or old money connections.  In other words, Obama’s election was pleasingly meritocratic.  But meritocratic principles are not tightly linked to democratic ones.  The Tang dynasty was unrivalled for its meritocratic approach to government in its age, and in its own way, so was the Chinese communist party in its early days (certainly their perspectives on gender and class was very advanced).  Next, in a similar type of argument, the idea that a country can “peacefully remove” abject failures (that they re-elected, like Bush) is also unrelated to democracy.  This is possible under any style of elected government.  Being able to peacefully remove underperforming leaders has no relevance to any argument for more democracy or more American-style democracy.


To return to the “banish apathy” assertion which came first, there is no relationship between style of government and apathy towards politics or the democratic process or government in general.  Americans have been the most apathetic voters imaginable for many decades.  Villagers in 1970s communist China and Apartheid-era South Africa were deeply passionate and involved in politics.  There is simply no logical way to assert that American-style democracy has any useful claim to be able to “banish apathy”.  And again, as laid out earlier, this is completely unrelated to properly evaluating any form of government.  (If not Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Cultural Revolution China and WWII Japan would all score very high as apathy would not have been possible in those regimes.) 


Another red herring is the “robust and adaptable” claim for America’s form of democracy.  Robust and adaptable in what sense?  Is this only about race, yet again?  For America has certainly elected other literate, talented men (and how many presidential candidates promise change and non-partisanship?  I know McCain did, too.)  I would say Britain’s and Thailand’s constitutional monarchies have been pretty robust and adaptable, as has been the Communist Party in the PRC.  And most importantly, how can anyone claim Singapore’s PAP has not been robust and adaptable (albeit over less than half a century)?  All that needs to be done is to recall Singapore’s history, myriad and evolving challenges and steady moves towards social liberalization.


The final line indicates that America’s democracy is inspiring in that way people come together in the process of “peacefully making a choice”.  Leave aside for now the already repetitive argument that this is no way unique to America’s form of government, nor is “peacefulness” necessarily a useful metric to measure a government (Cuba’s been pretty peaceful for decades, India’s elections are usually bloody, Taiwan’s parliament has broken up in inconceivable fisticuffs several times, and Israel has been often at war).  I would say that democracy in general is more often about the illusion of choice.  Americans had two candidates to pick from, and at least one of them was shockingly unelectable (Palin, for whom there is talk of a future Presidential bid).  Now that Obama has been installed, he will have access to exactly the same range of powers that Bush had before him, and he will probably have to make choices that are increasingly unaligned with his campaign promises (especially if he wants to effectively deal with the economic crisis or the inevitable foreign policy crises ahead).  Just like the presidents before him.  In the end, Americans will have next to no choice whatsoever when it comes to the decisions President Obama makes in deciding to sign the next iteration of Kyoto or to alter the course of troop deployments in the Middle East.  Just like before.  The choice that Americans exercised was really a fairly illusory and shallow one, as they are in most democracies other than direct one.  And this illusion of choice is shared across all democracies, not just America’s.


Ultimately, there are two things that can be said about Obama’s presidency – the first is that President Obama may do a wonderful job and go down in history as the President who turned around the economy, drew the world closer together and successfully tackled the awful budget/social security messes he inherited.  That would be an unqualified success, but would be unrelated to the form that democracy takes in America.  The second thing to say is that Obama, the young, former one-term senator from Illinois, currently inspires the hope that he will be exactly such an outstanding president, and that hope is exactly the feel good factor that defines American politics.


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41 Responses to “On American democracy and Obama”

  1. Myles Arrott Says:

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    I profess I have not read everything, only key words relating to why the govt of singapore doesn’t work.

    the bottom line is this:

    all your friends are relatives are civil servants and there is a distinction between civil service and the PAP. the civil service was inherited from the british and existed long before PAP came into being. so we cannot attribute all the good work of the civil service to the PAP.

    when we talk of govt, we refer mostly to the PAP. so do we attribute the good work of the civil service to the PAP? probably not.

    then what is the PAP good for? nothing much really. in other words, if there had been another party that is simply not corrupted and allows the civil service to do what it does best, there is no reason why the alternative party wouldn’t do as well.

    in other words, our system of govt, which is simply the PAP, is not indispensible, is not necessary, is not the reason why we are where we are today.

    we must not be confused. when we say our govt has been good, are we saying that the work of the civil service is good instead? if so, then what exactly is the PAP govt good for?

    to answer that, let’s say all the ministers died today. what will happen to the country? invariably in the short term, we will continue to function properly. singapore has no lack of good people who will stand out and take over the PAP.

    therefore, if you ask who is to say that our govt is bad, the answer is, singaporeans are not bad. because our PAP govt is simply singaporeans and we have no lack of good singaporeans. because LKY has been hounding the opposition unfairly, very few good singaporean would serve the opposition cause.

    it’s as simple as that. singapore works because of singaporeans. it’s like china works economically even though it is communist politically. same as us, we don’t have much of a political system. it’s dictatorial you might even say. but most of us are chinese and we’re simply good at making money. we’re simply good at making the country work. that’s why we’re not alone in our success. we have taiwan, korea and hong kong, all east asians. even japan is east asian. you look at indonesia, the chinese are running the economy. you look at malaysia, same thing.

    bottom line is: it’s our people making this place work, not the PAP govt. they are not why we worked. throw them out, get someone else in, we will still work as long as it is someone who simply leaves us to do what we do best – make money.

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