The final US presidential debate, which was the most civil of the three debates in the 2016 race, concluded with Hillary Clinton accusing Donald Trump of being “Putin’s puppet,” and with Trump calling her a “nasty woman.” Trump was, for much of the night, oddly calm and composed when confronting Clinton who repeatedly provoked and baited him, and the right-leaning Fox News reported that this was his “strongest debate performance” so far. Despite some awkward moments, the whole debate was generally well-managed with fewer interruptions than expected.
For the past two weeks, support for Trump had dwindled following the revelation of a slew of alleged sexual assaults against women. While he denied all the accusations and claimed that the election has been “rigged,” Clinton has the clear edge over him, especially judging from the final debate in which she was emotionally neutral, showed herself to be a sophisticated politician, and articulated facts. Trump on the other hand, descended to a rough demeanor during the second half of the debate, which unfortunately jeopardized his good performance — being disciplined and cool-headed — in the first half of the debate.
The 2016 US election is clearly a turning point for US democracy, as for the first time, a presidential candidate openly and publicly ducked the election result pledge. While the beauty of democracy lies in its effectiveness in facilitating a peaceful and undisputed transfer of power from one president to his successor with a graceful concession from the losing candidate, American has certainly been taken aback by Trump’s stunning remark “I will keep you in suspense” when asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he would accept the election result. Longtime Fox contributor Charles Krauthammer called Trump’s statement “political suicide.” The stance threatens to cast doubt on one of the fundamental principles of American politics, which is, as Christopher Anderson, author of the book Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacies notes, “the efficacy, stability and ultimate survival of democratic regimes can be seriously threatened if losers do not consent to their loss.”
This is also the first time we are witnessing a property tycoon with billions in wealth but zero experience in the political sphere, challenging a female candidate, who was the first American first lady to assume a public office seat, the 67th US secretary of state, and also the first woman in US history to become the presidential nominee of a major political party. They have contrasting views on gun and abortion rights as well as immigration and economic policies, underscoring their divergent opinions throughout the debate.
While pundits see Donald Trump as a joke, we cannot deny the fact that he consistently led during the primary season and has come all the way to Election Day. Interestingly, the competition today between Donald Trump as a capitalist and Hillary Clinton as a bureaucrat is exactly a turnaround of earlier mode of capitalist democracy in which politicians serve as the mouthpieces of capitalists who hold a large proportion of the country’s wealth. As Marx pointed out, the state is an agent of capital; it does not make any difference which party replaces which as the ruling party, because they all work for the capitalists. Yet, as popular democracy started to develop in the 1970s, populism started to take over and now dominates the election process. As Yongnian Zheng, the director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, has argued:
In the period when the West was dominated by elitist democracy, the elites were able to exercise some self-control; when it comes to the current period of populist democracy, the demagogues are breaking loose and have become unrelenting.
With radical populism becoming a common trend, there is no guarantee that Trumpism will not continue to prevail in the US political sphere.
At the same time, it is bizarre how the American democratic system is capable of producing presidential candidates whom the people can hardly accept. How did the democratic system become a drag on the United States with both presidential candidates — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — being the most disliked candidates in American history? While Trump is viewed as a demagogue, Clinton is seen as untrustworthy. Trump’s ascendency clearly shows how an “amateur in politics” can emerge to become a potential leader if the democratic system is loosely monitored. Clinton, on the other hand, despite being the first woman in US history to represent a major party, is a polarizing and infamous figure as many revile her for her lies, dishonesty and deceptions.
While this election received more attention than ever due to Trump’s participation, the quality of the presidential debates left many dumbfounded. Many observers commented that the quality was far worse than they had expected. Instead of providing remedies to address various social and economic issues that the country now faces, distractions, criticisms and chaos dominated the debates. Remarks and comments made by both candidates had little to do with policies but a lot to do with personal attack or disparagement.
Al Tompkins from the Poynter Institute in St Petersburg, Florida opined that such negativity has been part of US elections for a long time:
In American politics, such attacks have a long history. For over a hundred years, candidates have levelled personal allegations against each other. The purpose of such attacks is usually to raise questions in the voter’s mind, not necessarily to convey something important — and it’s very effective.
All of the above reflect the deficiencies of the US democratic system, which is dominated by two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, leaving the voters with only a “yay or nay” option. Even though various third party and independent candidates are also running in the 2016 presidential election — the more prominent of these are Jill Stein from the Green Party and Gary Johnson from the Libertarian Party, together they secure less than 10 percent of the total vote, according to the presidential poll.
In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, the former leader of Singapore, “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development.” While the United States claims it has the longest history of democracy, it is now facing the prospects of institutional failure under the system. To ensure a continuing success, the United States needs to once again become the role model of the liberal democratic values that it preaches.