Sanctimony-induced glee washed over Planet Earth this week — at least that portion of it not qualified to participate in the election of the president of the United States. Some of it’s quite amusing: Fidel Castro’s offer to send “election monitors” to Florida, for instance, or the notoriously fraud-prone Italians offering up advice. But the erosion of U.S. integrity abroad could be more serious.
THE BEST foreign commentary on the post-electoral limbo here in America has stressed that that there is absolutely no chance of the unsightly bickering turning into civil conflict. Gov. George W. Bush may be commander of the Texas National Guard, but there is no fear anywhere that its 18,000 soldiers would lift a finger for politics. In lands all too familiar with the dangerous spiral that sometimes follows closely fought elections — Nigeria, Algeria, Mexico and Turkey, to name a few — the relegation of this dispute to the courts rather than the streets has to be seen as a small redemption.
SAUCE FOR THE GANDER
But sober assessments of what’s going on right now in America are the exception, rather than the rule. The complexities and contradictions of the American electoral system — especially the Electoral College — defeat even the most knowledgeable foreign correspondent trying to interpret this mess for a home audience. The incompetence and petty partisanship on display in Florida are irresistible targets.
Yet the great unifying factor in the world’s reaction appears to be resentment. There is nothing so delicious to watch as a know-it-all who is suddenly made speechless. Who in the free world didn’t squeal with joy when statues of Lenin and Marx began toppling across Eastern Europe? Who didn’t smile when Leona Helmsley went to jail? Or when Dan Quayle spelled “potato” incorrectly?
For the rest of the world, America’s trouble with democracy is an Elmer Gantry moment, with Uncle Sam cast in the role of Sinclair Lewis’ famous hypocrite. Decision 2000 has become Derision 2000.
In nations that once held their own flawed systems up as a model to humankind — France, Great Britain, Russia, Japan — a tone of bitter irony prevails. In cautious Japan, whose constitution was written by aides to Gen. Douglas McArthur after World War II, Yoichi Funabachi, a veteran foreign affairs correspondent for Asahi Shinbum, blamed the lack of real options the U.S. system offered this time around. “The unusually close race seems to symbolize the narrow choice the election offered to voters,” he wrote.
A more biting commentary came from Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn Waugh and a man I know from my days contributing to his Literary Review in London. Writing in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, Waugh front-loads his essay by noting Britain’s debt to America for “having saved us from the evils of Nazism and socialism.” That out of the way, he slices into America for leaving the fate of Western civilization in the hands of (gasp!) Floridians.
“Florida is a strange and dangerous place to be. It has killer toads and killer alligators. An article in the Washington Post points out that it is also the state where one is most likely to be killed by lightning. Most recently, a man in south central Florida was convicted of animal abuse for killing his dog because he thought it was gay. The state carried out a long love affair with the electric chair which it stopped only recently, and somewhat reluctantly, in the face of bad publicity when people’s heads started bursting into flames.”
Tabloids the world over simply had fun with our electoral dilemma. London’s “Daily Mirror” ran a front-page photo of Al Gore and George W. Bush over the headline “Forrest Chumps.” On the Internet, an e-mail announcing the reestablishment of the British monarchy in America made the rounds.
Across the Irish Sea in Belfast — the target of six years of lectures on democracy from the Clinton administration — more giddiness prevailed. Never mind that these people spent the past 30 years bludgeoning each other to death over the brand of Christianity they preferred. This was too good to pass up.
“The nation which likes to style itself as the greatest democracy in the world is having to come to terms with the fact that its electoral system is a shambles,” wrote the Belfast Telegraph in its lead editorial on Nov. 10. “America is squirming, and if we are to be honest, the rest of the world is loving every minute of it.”
IF YOUR FRIENDS SAY THAT ...
Does it matter what anyone else thinks? For many Americans, the answer would seem to be a resounding “no.” Of course, these would be the same Americans who are unaware that virtually everything the United States does abroad is marketed by our State Department as part of its campaign to spread our version of democracy across the globe.
To that effect, the jibes of Castro or Saddam, well-timed as they may be, certainly are irrelevant. What else can you do living under such regimes but laugh?
But in the many dozens of nations still bobbing around in the rough waters left by the democratic wave of 1989, the current U.S. mess is deeply damaging. You don’t like the result of the election, General? Why not demand a recount? Urge protests in front of the courthouse. Question the legitimacy of your rival. It’s only annoying here, but in sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia, that’s the road to civil war.
In many of these places, the United States has held itself up as the arbiter of what is and what isn’t legitimately democratic. The State Department’s yearly report on Human Rights passes judgment on these fledgling political systems as if they should all aspire to someday match the clarity and fairness of, say, West Palm Beach County.
India, itself no stranger to sanctimony, is having particular fun with this. Its own elections can involve the deaths of thousands, yet from its prime minister on down, no one seems able to resist the temptation of claiming that it is over New Delhi, and not Washington, that the true star of democracy shines.
Ching Cheong is a commentator for the Straits Times of Singapore, one of Asia’s leading newspapers in a quasi-democracy rigged to ensure re-election of the elite. With great disappointment, he wrote that the American election “shows up vividly that the system Americans are eager to sell abroad has a potential pitfall: the possibility of handing the presidency to a candidate who wins fewer votes than his opponents. .. The underlying spirit of the electoral college system — rule by the elite — is even more deplorable as it runs counter to the oft-quoted American belief that all men are created equal.”
In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has come in for enormous criticism from the State Department in recent years for refusing to allow international monitors to watch his elections and for ignoring the rulings of his own courts. Opposition parties naturally have viewed this pressure as welcomed. But even the opposition press wonders about the impact of the Gore-Bush wrangling and the shortcomings this election has exposed on Mt. Olympus.
“African observers will have shuddered at the discovery that a U.S. president is not elected by popular vote, but by Electoral College vote,” said the Zimbabwe Mirror. “The American system is, in this regard, a major departure from the very tenets of democracy upon with the USA itself is purportedly founded, and on the basis of which it has preached democracy to other nations the world over.”
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
Clearly, the dismay being expressed about the electoral college is a fairly simple reading of the situation, which fails to recognize the difference between a pure democracy and a republic. But can anyone blame the world for being confused? How many times have American presidents of both parties raised the banner of “democracy” when the United States wants its way abroad? Woodrow Wilson didn’t talk about making “the world safe for republican federalism.” Reagan didn’t call for “freedom and proportionally-weighted pluralism” in Gorbachev’s dying Soviet Union. It’s democracy, stupid! At least, that’s what we’ve been saying all these years.
Michael Moran is senior producer, special reports at MSNBC.