To the outsider, the American elections present an absurd spectacle. How can a billionaire businessman who calls Mexicans rapists, routinely insults women, stereotypes black Americans, admires the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, threatens to bar Muslims from entering the country and to kill the families of terrorists, become a major party presidential candidate?
Surely decent, responsible, fair-minded people would not give such a national and international menace a chance at becoming the leader of the free world?
The rise of Donald Trump is, of course, a more complex affair than these questions allow. The outstanding book by J D Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, gives insight from his own life in a poor, rural family how resentful, white working-class communities, long ignored by establishment politics, became cannon fodder for crude, popular politicians who named the villains (blacks, Latinos, Muslims, foreigners) and promised the victims instant salvation if they voted for them – jobs, security, Christian faith and a return to the “great again” days of America.
Yet, despite the craziness of the political spectacle called the US elections, there is something really valuable that comes from watching debates between the Republic and Democratic candidates for president.
Monday’s debate of “the class president versus the class clown” (Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump), as one television host called it, attracted a record 84 million viewers; and the audience at Hofstra University in New York was instructed to remain quiet for the duration of the event so that the candidates could be heard.
America’s potential leaders at these events get asked tough and direct questions about policy – about what they would actually do as the next president of the United States.
They have to answer questions about national security, education, immigration, health, race relations, the national debt and student loans.
And there are millions of people who would make their decision on which leader to choose based on their policy positions on concerns of importance to them.
How I wish we had this practice in South African politics – where leaders are not chosen by their parties but by the people directly.
Just imagine, citizens could ask presidential candidates from the ANC, DA and the EFF what their policies would be on student funding in higher education.
Instead of glib answers – take the money from X and give it to Y – ask the pretenders to the presidency where exactly the money would come from.
Would it not be useful to press a candidate on why it is that more than 80% of children are in feefree schools and yet the quality of learning outcomes remains disastrous? Or why we still have schools with libraries and laboratories within a short drive of schools with pit latrines and absentee teachers? What would the candidate actually do with the jobs-for-cash report on teacher appointments?
And then imagine you had an electorate who made its decisions based on ideas and reason, on how candidates answered these questions, and not simply on emotions, history or racial alliance.
Both the US and South Africa are a long way from that pure ideal, but very few of us balance our choices in politics through a careful calculation of policy positions of candidates. Maybe the past is still too close, too painful, for simple rational decisions to be made of the kind that policy X is better than policy Y and therefore I choose politician Z (OK, that’s not exactly what I meant).
But the last time I watched debates among parties contesting the municipal elections, it was a disaster, and I wondered why on earth the television stations even bothered to stage these events.
When an ANC candidate spoke, the opposition audiences simply booed and shouted them down. This happened in turn to the other parties. You struggled in vain to hear the positions of the candidates and, as they tried to be heard above the din, the politicians started to scream at the audience and each other. There must be a better way of doing politics, such that we can actually evaluate our candidates for public office based on who they are and what they believe about us, the country and our collective futures.
If we had this practice, we could ask, how are you, presidential candidate, going to resolve this dangerous standoff with militant students incinerating our public universities?
The small number of militants want free education, which is not possible on a sustainable basis in this kind of political economy; and since they are not hearing “free education, period”, they are prepared to burn down our universities.
How are you going to resolve this?
The candidate who can answer that question will get my vote.