Electing the President

Electing the PresidentThere is something fascinating about the “contest” which elects the President of the United States. The 2016 election is no exception.

Candidates who weren’t imagined before the election year have come to the fore and with them the discourse and the “contest” has been thrown open. Issues of gender are right on the surface. And the fact that a women has never been elected as President is one of the issues. Gender issues are present in other ways. Women’s bodies and women’s rights have repeatedly surfaced as a political football.

Issues of race are prominent, who is allowed to belong – who needs to be locked out. Who can claim the right to represent “minorities”. What “racial” groups tend to support which candidates. Issues of extremes of wealth and poverty – something that had almost disappeared from public attention for decades is now a very live issue. The place of religion – and whether some minorities need to be “policed” is a controversial political strategy. Issues of civility or absence of it in the political debate. How to deal with problems of war and peace, how to respond to hatred and terrorism. All of these are being hotly debated.

In 2016, what the future of the American presidency will look like is an open question.  For people all over the world the answer to that question might have results that show up in their own neighbourhoods.  Perhaps that’s why so many outside America pay attention to what is going on. Everyone has a stake in who is elected and what they might decide to do.

It’s always good to get perspective on things by looking at past parallels. 1912 was also an election year in the United States. Some things were the same. The personal animosity seen between some of the candidates in 2016 was just as hot between some of the candidates in 1912. Gender was a very live issue with some of the candidates supporting women’s suffrage and equality and others not. (It was not until 1919 that women got the vote in the United States). Issues such as the minimum wage, child labor laws, worker’s compensation and government support of health care were also issues that were at stake. Some of those issues have been long resolved, others are still live in 2016 – the minimum wage and access to health care, for example. Other issues that have modern parallels include placing limits on campaign contributions by commercial interests and the potential for large corporate funding and influence to distort democracy towards sectional interests. Immigration was also on the agenda. Of course in 2016 it is a ferociously hot issue.

Race related issues and the influence of racism, in 1912 were even more intense and toxic in their impacts than their 2016 parallels. After 1912, U.S. Jim Crow laws (segregating and excluding African Americans) became national, with the Federal civil service and the US military being segregated on the basis of race. This when racist and eugenic theories were approaching their height.  And the 1912 changes came against a background where African American voters had been purged from the electoral rolls in southern states in the previous decades.  From the 1870s immigration laws systematically excluded immigrants of Asian race and introduced a tax to fund the establishment of an immigration service.  These anti-Asian immigration measures continued in the 1880’s and 90’s. In the early 1900’s immigration of the disabled was controlled. In 1917, a reading test was introduced for potential immigrants. Echoing the policies in Australia at the time, which used a written dictation test to exclude non-British from “White Australia”.  The potential migrant had to write out a passage in any European language chosen by the immigration official.

Although many things have changed since 1912, many of the issues are still unsolved bones of contention in 2016. Surprisingly similar fractures in society are thinly papered over.

Another window on the events of 1912 (and 2016) is provided by a very different kind of “campaign” run in 1912 by a visitor to the United States. Although this visitor was not running for any public office, like a Presidential campaign it involved a punishing schedule of public appearances across the country (as well as Canada). The visitor came from what was then the Ottoman Empire. A prisoner of the Ottomans for decades, when released by the Young Turk revolution, he travelled Europe and America to promote the ideas to which he was committed. Thousands came to hear him speak across the United States and in Canada.

Given the part of the world he came from, perhaps some were surprised by how “progressive” his ideas were. He was deeply concerned about the conditions of the world and America. Earlier than most, he saw the mounting threat of a World War, specifically warning Americans that it was approaching – and encouraging America to make greater efforts to contribute to peace. He called for the equality of women and men predicting women would enter all fields of human endeavour, including politics. He warned of the dangers of racial prejudice, and took practical steps to pursue racial equality. He spoke out about extremes of wealth and poverty. He called for an end to religious prejudice and superstition and promoted harmony of science and religion.

His name was Abdu’l Baha and he was then head of the Baha’i Faith, a new religion almost unknown at the time.  His visit to America is followed in detail at 239days.com, which tells the stories of his journey in the context of what America was like at the time.

Abdu’l Baha had an unorthodox view on how to go about electing the President. He wasn’t interested in what a candidate campaigned on – what they said they would do. The policy of the candidate was not the key criterion for selecting a candidate. He was interested in what sort of person the candidate was. Someone who “does not insistently seek the presidency”, a person “free from all thoughts of name and rank”. Someone who says “I am unworthy an incapable of this position and cannot bear this great burden”:

Such persons deserve the presidency. If the object is to promote the public good, then the president must be a well-wisher of all and not a self-seeking person. If the object, however, is to promote personal interests, then such a position will be injurious to humanity and not beneficial to the public.

This, gets to the heart of the matter. Yet this is not how either electors or candidates expect voters to behave. The reflection gets at the heart of some of the obvious challenges that have negative effects in our systems of governance. Their source is self-interested behaviours overcoming better instincts of disinterested public service. At the end of the day, the quality of our governance depends most critically on the character of elected officials.

For citizens concerned to do the best they can in a bewildering array of information and misinformation, it’s also a potentially empowering thought. As electors we don’t need to become experts in public policy – they’re not going to help us make a good decision. Nor do we have to buy in to promises of “what the candidate will do for me” – this is a subtle form of corruption – implicitly inviting us to put our own individual interests before that of the community. However something perhaps more difficult is required of the elector to implement Abdu’l Baha’s thought: to become good judges of character. How truly committed is this person to promoting the public good? How strongly are they influenced by their personal interests? Because this is the most important factor in whether the President (or any other elected official) turns out to be “good” or “bad”.  It does also imply that casual observation during an election campaign is probably not going to be enough. It implies an active kind of citizenship that takes an ongoing interest in what public officials are doing and ongoing reflection as to what this says about their character. Certainly such reflection needs to look beyond what political figures say about each other.

If public polls of dissatisfaction with elected officials are anything to go by, there is a need for change.

It also has deeper implications about the organisation of democratic elections as “contests” in which candidates campaign against each other. Michael Karlberg investigates this in his work “Beyond the Culture of Contest”. One problem with the “culture of contest” is that it inherently favours the powerful – and powerful interests – over the principled and the public interest. Further, in the political context – “contest” – quickly brings out the worst in people. Inherently it identifies an “evil” other which must be defeated – and often it leads to a race to the bottom in mutual vilification between candidates. No matter how “positive” a campaign claims to be it tends to divisiveness and partisanship. It tends to distort public information – so that the elector doesn’t know who or what to believe. In the following TED talk Michael Karlberg explores the implications of organising our political system, and indeed our law, economy and education around such contests.

Still, Abdu’l Baha was deeply interested in “issues” – they were in fact at the centre of what he had to say – and what he recommended for societal progress. He both spoke out and acted on issues of justice. Yet “the issues” aren’t necessarily the best metric for an elector faced with deciding who to vote for.

The issues he spoke about were burningly relevant to society then and they remain so today. Questions of war and peace were matters he referred to repeatedly. In 2016, America has experienced more than a decade of war and its results: public resources diverted to warfare – with consequent suffering at home – and thousands of lives sacrificed abroad. Of course this is just a tiny fraction of the human suffering involved in the countries where these wars have played out.

Abdu’l Baha was clear on the topic of extremes of wealth and poverty.

Certainly, some being enormously rich and others lamentably poor, an organization is necessary to control and improve this state of affairs. It is important to limit riches, as it is also of importance to limit poverty. Either extreme is not good. To be seated in the mean is most desirable. If it be right for a capitalist to possess a large fortune, it is equally just that his workman should have a sufficient means of existence.

A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity. When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny. Men must bestir themselves in this matter, and no longer delay in altering conditions which bring the misery of grinding poverty to a very large number of the people. The rich must give of their abundance, they must soften their hearts and cultivate a compassionate intelligence, taking thought for those sad ones who are suffering from lack of the very necessities of life.

Some of the other themes Abdu’l Baha spoke about are summarised in the book Paris Talks, which records his talks in Paris in 1911, before arriving in America.  His talks while in America are recorded in the Promulgation of Universal Peace.

Abdu’l Baha’s views on democratic process haven’t remained purely theoretical. Interestingly the Baha’i community has put them into practice. The earliest Baha’i elections (in the early 20th century) were held in North America, and at first they simply followed the custom of their own country – including nominations and electoral campaigns. Some features that appear to be drawn from the American system can still be discerned – voters electing local delegates – who elect national representatives for example. Other features have been gradually reformed. Election campaigning is banned. As is nominating for election.  There are no “nominees” and no “candidates”. The freedom of the elector to vote for whomever conscience suggests is regarded as sacred. Electors are encouraged to reflect over the course of a year as to who they believe would best serve the community – but no canvassing for any individual occurs. Each elector casts nine votes for all nine office holders normally elected, (as opposed to one candidate) and are encouraged to think about the best combination of individuals (including gender, race and age) who are representative of the entire community and whose character and experience best qualifies them to serve. In addition to the quality of devotion of the common good, electors are encouraged (without reference to specific individuals) to consider qualities of “mature experience”, “unquestioned loyalty” and “recognised ability” and a “well trained mind”.

Elections, avoiding reference to individuals, don’t promote “individual” leaders – rather it seeks to elect community “trustees” expected (together) to serve the best interests of the community and humanity. Once elected their mandate is to serve the welfare of all humankind. (This in itself a transformative concept). The process is inherently unifying – rather than divisive. It tends to weed out the self-interested – and throw up those individuals who place the public interest before their own.

When the dust of the 2016 election settles, we may have a good President, or we may not. It is certain that the more people think deeply about how to exercise their right to vote the better the result will be.

However the issues are really longer term in nature. Given the echoes of 2016 as far back as 1912, the problems and issues of democratic governance won’t be solved in one election. And at the end of the day, if we want better governance, it begins with changing our behaviour and attitudes as citizens. It’s hundreds of millions of those small changes that are at the foundation of a better future.


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