Lessons from US elections

Updated 09 Nov 2016


THE day before elections in the United States, Khizr Khan, the now famous Pakistani-American father, campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the state of New Hampshire. “Will Trump’s America have room for someone like my son?” he asked the crowd. In the months before the US election, American Muslims, likely galvanised by the fear-mongering rhetoric of Donald Trump, registered in record numbers. Thousands who had never before voted in an American election planned to vote on Tuesday.

In the battleground state of Michigan, Muslims in Dearborn, one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the US at about 500,000 voters, is likely to be crucial to whoever wins the White House. Its importance was only underscored when both Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama zeroed in on the state on the final day of campaigning.

Those of course are the details of the final hours and minutes of a campaign whose vitriol and venom has exhausted, divided and even terrified Americans and the rest of the world. Beyond the drama of results, however, this American election delivers important lessons for elections everywhere.

Among them is the lesson of how divisive rhetoric based on the demonisation of minority groups can mobilise vast numbers of supporters, how science-based polling can reveal the status of candidates in voters’ minds, and ultimately, how changed demographics can shift elections and even lead to the downfall of political parties.

The divisive nature of the US election campaign reveals how differences can corrode even strong and old democracies.

Several of these lessons are pertinent to Pakistan, where a fear of recognising demographic changes and their implications on political organisation has produced a disjunction between political representation and political reality.

Based on early voting results in the US elections, electoral predictions about the country’s increasing Latino vote seem to have been accurate.

Early results from the states of Nevada and Florida, both battleground states, have shown huge increases (in some cases over 100 per cent) in the number of Latino votes.

The implications of this are huge, not only where the results are concerned, but also because it substantiates the observation that the US has transformed from a majority-white to a majority-minority country.

If Hillary Clinton wins, it will be because the Democratic Party has been able to respond and appeal to this new demographic reality while the Republican Party has failed. Those who choose inclusion would have won over those who inspire fear.

In Pakistan, the failure of successive governments to conduct an accurate census in recent memory has created a situation where the changing demographics of the country are denied numeric reality. This means that voting districts continue to reflect population concentrations from several decades ago. Urbanisation, with the accompanying ethnic mixing it brings, is thus not reflected in how political parties construct their electoral campaigns.

Issues of class, jobs, government services and women’s rights may already exist, but the politics of Pakistan, constructed as they are on counts from a long time ago, do not reflect the reality. The consequence is not simply a weakened democracy but one in which citizens do not see their vote as having any real impact, or as having the power to truly respond to the problems and issues that make up their day-to-day life.

The accuracy and value of scientific polling has been front and centre in the US elections. As anyone who may have watched CNN’s election coverage has witnessed, the polling of a sample of the population as predictor of the outcome of an election remains central to electoral campaigning, dominating not only the news cycles but also where candidates campaign.

Beyond providing a play-by-play in the days leading up to the big contest and being a barometer of how negative news affects the chances of a particular candidate, these polls also add to the legitimacy of the ultimate outcome.

In simple terms, the polling data prepares the electorate for the possibilities of certain kinds of outcomes. Even as Donald Trump, who trailed Hillary Clinton the night before the election, may complain about a rigged system, the polls prepare both his supporters and the electorate in general.

This can, in itself, ease the transition of power that is to come, reducing rigging claims to rhetorical devices rather than a reflection of realities.

A robust democracy does not simply depend on a civilian government being able to act independently and without interference from a powerful military or a meddlesome judiciary.

It depends also on the health of the electoral system, the accuracy with which it reflects the changing ethnic and political realities of the country, and uses mathematical and scientific facts as the basis of predicting political support.

Pakistan is not the United States, the latter being one of the oldest constitutional democracies in the world. At the same time, the divisive nature of this campaign, the fact that race and religion have figured so prominently, reveals how differences can corrode even strong and old democracies.

The manner in which the United States accomplishes a transition of power, even after months of venomous attacks, reveals how democracies can equip themselves to weather the interventions of nationalist and racist rhetoric.

In this sense, the survival of democracy does not depend on the absence of attacks, a smug satisfaction that a system that has prevailed will always prevail, but in the use of mechanisms that bolster political rhetoric with scientific and numeric reality.

An accurate census of a population, the construction of electoral districts that reflect that census, the use of statistical models to take snapshots of where the voting population stands on issues and in their opinions of candidates, are all part of the recipe for a robust and truly representative system. These lessons gleaned from the American election are likely to hold regardless of who wins.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn November 9th, 2016