Democracy in the Land of the Free Part 3

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on November 26 2020

Tamil Influencers

Like any sensible person, I was overjoyed that the Biden/Harris ticket won the 2020 election convincingly enough for anyone apart from Republicans. I am conscious however that the consequences might not be entirely good for Sri Lanka. Trump, in one of his many hissy fits, pulled the US out of the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council). It is likely that Biden, who has taken a long-term interest in human rights, will bring the US back into the Council. The so-called “national unity government” that was elected  in Sri Lanka in 2015, sold itself out to the UNHRC and shot itself in the foot with Resolution 30/1, which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan  government and unanimously adopted by HRC members in October 2015.

Biden’s vice-president and possible successor as president is of Tamil origin. David Jeyaraj has exploded the rumour going around that Kamala Harris’s mother was from a Sri Lankan family. However, Harris’s chief of staff, Rohini Kosoglu, is of Sri Lankan Tamil origin and the Biden White House may be willing to listen to the grievances of the Tamil diaspora.

American Exceptionalism

There is an American website called Persuasion which aims to give a rational explanation of what is happening in world politics. The site carried a piece on how populist leaders were taking advantage of the Covid 19 pandemic. This is what they said about Sri Lanka:The more politically savvy leaders have used the pandemic to further entrench themselves in power. For example, the Sri Lankan president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, called early parliamentary elections, then postponed them due to the health crisis, enabling him to rule without a legislature for five months. When the voting was eventually held, the government’s tight control over campaign activity and the media helped ensure victory for the political party of the president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, allowing the two to establish a firm grip on both the executive and legislative branches.” This is not the situation as I see it from the viewpoint of someone actually living in Sri Lanka.

In 2008, John McCain made a dignified concession speech which was for me somewhat marred by the fact that he was promoting the virtues of Sarah Palin and driveled on about American democracy being the envy of the world. Obama has been spouting similar nonsense. Biden has been coming out with the same old guff. Joe Biden said: “Democracy is sometimes messy; it sometimes requires a little patience as well but that patience has been rewarded now for more than 240 years with a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.” Let us look more closely at what Americans delude themselves is enviable.

A Beacon in a Dark World?

The United States is a nation founded on land-grabbing, ethnic cleansing, genocide and slavery. George Washington was a slaughterer of indigenous people as well as a slaveowner.

Those Mount Rushmore icons, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both Virginia slaveholders. At the time of George Washington’s death, the Mount Vernon estate’s enslaved population consisted of 317 people.  

In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote: “all men are created equal”. Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life. 400 people were enslaved at Monticello; the other 200 people were held in bondage on Jefferson’s other properties. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.” What Jefferson set out clearly was that he was making a four percent profit every year on the birth of black children. He used child labour in his nail factory and allowed slaves to be beaten.

Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. When Martha died, Jefferson took Sally as his concubine and she bore him six children. When the “relationship” began Sally Hemings was 14 and Jefferson was a 44-year-old widower. This was what we call today  statutory rape.  There was no possibility of consent. The man Americans revere for writing the Declaration of Independence raped a minor. For a female slave to refuse a master’s sexual advances was illegal. Hemings remained enslaved in Jefferson’s house until his death. He lied about it. He once tried to bribe a hostile reporter.

American politicians continue to live under a hypocritical delusion. Gary Younge in the New Statesman expresses the hypocrisy of American exceptionalism better than I can.  “America was a slave state for more than 200 hundred years; an apartheid state for a century and has only been a non-racial democracy for less than six decades. Most of the country couldn’t vote during the Civil War. Black people were not legally protected to vote during Pearl Harbor or the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Post Trump America

An editorial in Le Monde said that “Trumpism” was a “lasting heritage of American politics,” not an accident or brief “interlude.”

Here in Sri Lanka, we are accustomed to candidates saying the executive presidency is the root of all our problems and must be abolished. Once elected they forget all about it. There are calls in the US to abolish the Electoral College but once the current presidential election is over that will be  forgotten.

Democrats are vaguely aware of how Republicans are shafting them by disenfranchising Black people and gerrymandering boundaries. In his 2012 acceptance speech, Obama thanked the voters who waited for hours in long queues to vote for him. In a throwaway line he said, “By the way, we have to fix that.” He didn’t. In October 2020, eight years on, Obama tweeted. “Nobody should have to wait 11 hours to vote, but we’re all grateful that you—and all those in line with you—stuck it out.” Outrage dissipates to   amnesia, and the chance for reform is lost but American politicians continue to preach to the rest of the world.

Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Niskanen Center, writes:In 2020, it became evident that sizeable numbers of working-class voters of all races found something appealing in Trump’s indictment of a status quo that is heavily tilted in favor of politically connected insiders. But while the growing economy during Trump’s term benefited the working class, he had no interest in advancing policies that would make his populism anything more than rhetoric and invective… the Republican Party has it within its power to either destroy the country or come up with solutions to the problems that threaten us all. Ultimately the long-term health of the American political system depends on having two reality-based parties.

Will we see any real change?