Books: A Point of View: Changing the Government |
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Changing the Government : on the American Presidential election

(S04E02, broadcast 7th and 9th November 2008)

"One vote for all?"

Hands up if you can remember the year in which Hu Jintao was elected. Don’t worry, there are more than a billion Chinese whose hands aren’t up either, because Hu Jintao wasn’t elected, or anyway he wasn’t elected by them. He just emerged, by a mysterious process taking place somewhere within the only Chinese political party that counts. Nevertheless the fiction of elections is maintained, even when the reality doesn’t exist. It’s a kind of lip service, a tribute that unlimited power pays to justice, just as hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

As we begin the long process of absorbing the news that Barack Obama has just been elected to the presidency of the United States, we might reflect on the importance of the word ‘election’ itself, and what it signifies. In China it signifies little so far. In the United States the word ‘election’ signifies so much that President George W. Bush had to serve out the whole of his first term under the shadow of the accusation that he might have won office only because the Supreme Court put a stop to a recount in Florida. A great deal of what President Bush did, or didn’t do, in office will eventually be forgotten. The world might even forget what he did, or didn’t do, in Iraq, if, as now seems likely, that country turns into one that has regular elections of its own. But few Americans will ever forget the hanging chads of Florida. They sound like weird flowers in the Everglades but they were in fact tiny bits of cardboard that might or might not have deprived Al Gore of the presidency and handed it to George W. Bush. No American will ever forget the hanging chads. In America, an election is as important as that.

Much of the twentieth century was turned into a nightmare by countries where elections didn’t exist, or were rigged if they did. In the old Soviet Union there were elections of a kind, but every member of the Politburo was always elected unanimously, after which those very same members unanimously elected Stalin, or any of his successors until the regime fell apart. Hitler was democratically elected, but he made it his first business to ensure that the electorate could never choose again. If only all that was all over. But now take a country like Zimbabwe, where Mr Mugabe called an election only after attempting to terrorize everyone who might vote for someone else. A lot of brave people voted for someone else anyway, so he ignored the result and proposed another election. By maintaining the fiction, he was saying the fact was important.

Any election that can actually depose a government fulfils the minimum requirement of democracy, by which no oligarchy can count on maintaining itself in power, because the electorate might decide otherwise. Being replaceable won’t automatically guarantee that a government will behave well. It might try to restrict freedom. But if it isn’t replaceable it will always try to restrict freedom. A government should be certain that it has been elected, but never certain that it will be elected again. All kinds of benefits flow from that uncertainty. The next government might review the behaviour of its predecessor. With a free press on the case, it is harder to act in secret. This relative openness might not seem much of an advantage until you remember what its absence is like. Since the clamorous defeat of its militarist regime in World War II, Japan has been a democracy, at least to the extent that its Prime Minister is no longer appointed by the armed forces. The armed forces, in fact, must now answer to the government.

Last week we saw an example of that, when the air force chief of staff got the sack after going public with his private opinion that Japan was tricked into World War II by the United States. The same opinion is held by the great American essayist Gore Vidal, to whom I defer for his prose style and general brilliance; but I have always thought that in this matter he was out to lunch. More important here, the Japanese government also thinks that such an opinion is a dangerous denial of Japan’s imperial history. There have been several Japanese Prime Ministers, including the current one, who have been personally slow to condemn Japan’s military adventure in Asia. But not even a Prime Minister is free to say what the air force chief of staff said. There is an official policy which can’t be unilaterally contravened by anyone. This official policy came about through democratic discussion, which sets a limit to how far people in office can impose their private opinions on everybody else.

The same is true in Israel, the only democracy in its region if you don’t count Iraq. In 1995 a young right-wing zealot called Yigal Amir murdered the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Many liberals both inside and outside Israel thought that Rabin was the most important Israeli alive, because he might have brought a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue. Unfortunately that was exactly what Yigal Amir was afraid of. In a non-democratic country he would have been quickly dealt with, but in democratic Israel he is still alive. Last week some enthusiasts from a couple of the Israeli television companies tried to fix it so that Yigal Amir could broadcast from his cell. The mere attempt drew a predictably mixed reaction from the Israeli public. Whatever you think of his right to be heard, you have to concede that there is something to be said for a system in which such a controversy can take place. Only a democracy would put up with the embarrassment.

In the long eye of history, the outgoing American administration will have to answer for what it did to hide the embarrassments that might have been better examined in the open. I speak as one who would like to see if Dick Cheney, who said that waterboarding might occasionally have something to be said for it as a form of persuasion, could have stood the treatment any longer than my friend Christopher Hitchens, who at least volunteered for it. But that’s a personal dislike on my part. On a public scale, among Americans, there is wide preference for plain dealing, where all that matters can be seen happening. Only democracy can even begin to provide this. Let’s take, finally, the story of the Three Men of Colour, a title I just made up. But I didn’t make up the characters. In my own country, Australia, an Aborigine leader called Noel Pearson has emerged as one of our most acute political commentators, whose opinions on how justice can best be delivered for Aborigine people are required reading in Canberra. It could only have happened in a democracy. Born and raised in Britain, Lewis Hamilton last weekend became the Formula One motor-racing champion of the world, an achievement which will bring such financial rewards that he will probably decide to go on living in Switzerland. But his rise to supremacy against all odds could only have happened in a democracy.

And in the United States, Barack Obama, long before his election, said that his story could have happened only in America. You might say that something like it could have happened in any free country where so gifted a man grew up with the chance to exercise his brains and charm, but he was right to remind us that black people in America had a long way to come since the days of slavery. Without democracy, it never would have happened. President Truman routinely used the ‘n’ word in private, but he struck the biggest blow for black emancipation since Lincoln. Truman was told about the black soldiers who had come back from World War II only to face violence from white thugs, and Truman felt compelled to say that it could not go on. And so the long process towards justice took a further step.

Precisely how justice can be achieved in a democracy is a big issue. But we can be certain that there is never much justice without democracy. It gives the people a chance to tell the government what to do as well as vice versa. After Truman, the much mocked drawling cracker Lyndon Johnson did a good deal more than JFK for black voter registration in the South. But what really counted was what the black heroes did. And in the week of Barack Obama’s triumph we should remember, as he has always remembered, not only Martin Luther King but the black women who moved out of the back seats on the bus, the seats that were reserved for second-class citizens, and took their seats in the front of the bus, the seats that had been traditionally reserved for the white folks. It was only a few short yards from the back of the bus to the front, but there were white people who wanted to kill those women for travelling the distance. Their courage was boundless, but now the new reality they created seems so normal that their names are not much remembered.

Yet their spirit was there in Barack Obama’s speech of acceptance. And what was almost equally inspiring, it was also there in John McCain’s speech of concession. McCain is a man with a sense of history. He would have been a worthy successor to a man who spoke as if he didn’t know that history had ever happened. But perhaps President Bush could think what he couldn’t say. McCain, however, knew how to say it. He quit the stage not just with personal dignity, but in a style that gave dignity back again to the democratic process, which is the true wealth of America, and much more important than the economic wealth that will undoubtedly return. When the speeches of the winner and the loser equal each other in their magnificent generosity, you can only bless the moment. The euphoria won’t last. If it could, it wouldn’t be euphoria. But democracy will always be democracy, as long as the leader who takes power knows that one day it must be given back.


In the communist world, lip service to elections first became conspicuous after World War II, when the Party apparatus in the satellite countries of Eastern Europe had developed the means to ensure the same 100 per cent results that prevailed in the Soviet Union. In the early days of each satellite country, it was customary for the Communist Party to make a show of tolerating other parties, claiming for itself only the Ministry of the Interior. But the Ministry of the Interior controlled the police, and in the brief course of time the police controlled public opinion. My fleeting mention of Iraq’s new status as a democracy still passed for provocative boldness at the time. Although the likelihood of civil war had begun to retreat early in 2007, almost two years later much of the supposedly progressive media in the West would still have preferred it if Iraq had torn itself apart. Until at least a year too late in the day, the Independent had the headline IRAQ SLIDES INTO CIVIL WAR set up and ready for use. Whatever you had thought of the legitimacy or otherwise of going to war with Saddam’s regime, it seemed a daunting aberration for Western intellectuals to be either claiming that Iraq had not become more free or else, if they conceded that it had, wishing that it had not.

Later on, in 2009, the admirable Noel Pearson published a little book called Radical Hope, a treatise written in his characteristically transparent, rhythmic and evocative prose which goes to the heart of the argument about the position of Aborigines in the country that once was all theirs. For reasons that defy logical analysis, but can only be ascribed to a collective obtuseness on the part of the editorial board, all writings by Pearson were left out of the gargantuan anthology The Literature of Australia (2009), whereas every uninspired polemic by any other Aborigine at all was put in. Political advance can take a long time to work its way through a culture. The advance of liberal opinion on civil rights from Truman through Kennedy and Johnson to the measure of equality that America knows today was a slow process, but at least it happened. Had there been no democracy, there would have been no advance. It should be obvious. Unfortunately it isn’t. An American resident in the UK wrote in to remind me, correctly, that Johnson was no cracker: he was a good ol’ boy. I have left the mistake in the text to remind myself that one should always be careful of American idioms, just as American writers should always check to be reminded that the Albert Hall is the place, whereas Albert Hall is just a chap.