Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The American Public in Perspective

On November 8th, for those unaware, the people of the United States elected Donald J. Trump to the Office of the President. A position often cited as the most powerful in the world. Setting aside the fact that President Elect Trump apparently lost the popular vote many of his detractors viewed his victory as a symptom of the American public’s depravity. Across the aisle many Americans, both among the political elites and the general electorate, find much to be desired in their new President Elect’s background. It would seem, then, that the American public has made a terrible mistake. Starting from the presumption that this is indeed the case we can proceed to placing the election of Mr. Trump into a broader context.

In a vacuum, Trump’s election victory seems bizarre, but when considered in a global context it is perfectly typical of modern democracies with free and fair elections. From 1950 onward many odd and unlikely candidates have found themselves on the political stage. In many cases these mavericks and atypical politicians found themselves carried to victory against all popular wisdom and remained popular in office despite incomprehensible deficiencies and, sometimes, outright madness.

Three interesting examples of how electorates select seemingly unqualified, rude and often criminal leaders, and maintain them in office election after election, are as follows;

Hugo Chavez | 2002-2013
President Hugo Chavez was an officer in the Venezuelan Army who, after deciding he didn’t like the way politics in his (mostly) democratic country were shaping up, attempted a coup. Chavez was not successful but was pardoned when a new administration took office. The people of Venezuela, rightly dissatisfied with the government, saw Chavez as a good candidate and he, a man who had tried to overthrow a freely elected government, was elected to the presidency by popular vote in 2002.

As President, Chavez enacted populist, quasi-socialist economic and political reforms. At first these reforms benefited a great many people but, due to gross mismanagement, Venezuela’s economy is now in a state of crisis. President Chavez attempted to alter the constitution to allow his perpetual presidency but died soon after. Chavez' worst crime may yet to be fully understood- he left his Vice president, Nicolas Maduro, in charge. It’s hard to imagine a world where a President Trump could run a country so thoroughly into the ground like Chavez did, even for an ardent Trump detractor.

Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki | 1999-2008

Mr. Mbeki served as president of South Africa for two terms from 1999 to 2008 and was elected in free and fair elections. Mr. Mbeki was an interesting man. President Mbeki’s greatest failing was his adamant belief that HIV and AIDs were not connected in the sense conventionally understood by modern science. Mbeki’s stance slowed delayed deployment of antivirals in state hospitals and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of countrymen. Mbeki was eventually overruled by his cabinet. President Mbeki is also a defender of President Mugabe, a self-explanatory criticism. Mbeki’s administration repeatedly denied the growth of crime in South Africa and ignored electrical shortages until forced to implement energy rationing in 2008.

President Mbeki, despite his shortcomings, did seem genuinely interested in trying to help. Nevertheless, his stance on HIV/AIDs was criminally incompetent. President Mbeki was far from perfect, much like Trump, but he is also only the second most offensive example on this list.

Rodrigo Duterte | 2016-"current year"

President Duterte of the Philippines, elected only this year, has already earned himself a spot on the “worse than Trump” list by orchestrating the murder of thousands of persons supposedly involved in drug abuse and distribution. Duterte’s bizarre public speeches and seemingly incoherent foreign policy only help to further cement his position in stark contrast to a comparatively meek and mild Trump. If you happen to think Trump is bad, then remember- people regularly elect far worse candidates. Unlike President Mbeki of South Africa, President Duterte is actually actively trying to kill his countrymen extralegally.

These are not the worst examples of popularly elected leaders. Rather, this list encompasses a range of middling-bad leaders and, in the case of President Duterte, leaders whose legacies are not yet set but seem to be going downhill. So, while the knowledge that people make horrible decisions everywhere and in many contexts probably won’t make an American nervous about a Trump presidency feel any better, it should help put things into perspective. According to many, 2016 was a very bad year. To those people, I can only say- 2017 is a whole new year! That is not meant to be comforting either.

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