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Takeaways and Parallel Lines: 2020 US Presidential Election and Sri Lanka

Photo Courtesy of ABC News

A deeply polarised nation, a capitalist theme park, an embedded infrastructure of racism and segregation, and one of the poorest social welfare systems in one of the richest countries in the world — the United States offers an engrossing lens into the loopholes of modern democracy. Reflecting on the tumultuous 2020 US election, we are offered valuable insight into the state of Sri Lankan politics. Here are three takeaways from the US presidential election.

False logic behind the pandemic

As much of the world watched the United States’ ignorant fumbling of a global pandemic, and the slap in the face of science and humanity that was President 45’s declaration of the “hoax, Chinese virus,” it became easy to miss some of the bizarre logic behind pandemic control in Sri Lanka.

First, there was the blunder of Sajith Premadasa, jumping the gun of world scientists in a careless proclamation that the drug hydroxychloroquine would cure COVID-19. Then, the Rajapaksa administration moved to politicise COVID-19 and militarised a war on the pandemic, treating COVID-19 not as a public health crisis but as a security threat. Drawing from wartime strategies of mobilising the armed forces, it appears that the legacy of the war is far from over as we enter a new era of militarisation that defaults civilian tasks to the military. The result is an unprecedented dependency on military strategy, as opposed to civilian-oriented policy making and strengthening of public institutions in response to public crises.

For all the glorification of the current government’s handling of COVID-19, a rude awakening quickly followed in the second wave. As cases rose and community spread accelerated, a decisive delay in any COVID-19 directives deteriorated into a complete 180 of the government’s impressive, quick response to the first wave. No doubt, the fact that we are no longer amidst an election season, and that the 20th Amendment is now successfully passed, have contributed to the government’s slapdash response to the second wave. COVID-19, first approached with fervor and diligence as a political strategy to garner popular support, has now been reduced to an unfortunate, unpreventable rat race of every individual for themselves.

Cult of billionaire politician 

If there is one thing we can take away from the United States, it is that we are in drastic need of abolishing the billionaire-to-politician pipeline. There is little that is inspiring about glorifying billionaires, defending them in a cult-like rationalisation and justifying that owning a business is a ticket to entrance into politics.

The fallacy that businessmen make for good politicians is possibly the most exhausting effect of the billionaire-to-politician pipeline. Exemplified by Donald Trump, reality-tv star and real estate billionaire turned politician, we have learned that business does not translate to sound politics, and we should stop justifying that it does. Refusing a lockdown, ignoring health suggestions of experts and using COVID as a scapegoat for economic sanctions on the Chinese all pointed towards a policy line that prioritised business over health.

With an ever-increasing infiltration of businessmen into the realm of local politics, the billionaire-to-politician pipeline holds currency in Sri Lanka as well. The belief that trickle-down effects will ensue when businessmen enter politics, premised on the assumption that their ability to accumulate wealth at the top one percent  will somehow trickle down to benefit the entire population, continuously proves false. Vast levels of corruption and growing wealth disparities are a testament to this. If a businessman’s primary objective is to pursue an individualist path to maximising profit, it makes little sense as to why policy-making decisions regarding health, education, social security and even the economy should be treated as a business scheme. Citizens aren’t commodities, countries are not vessels for profiteering, and capital accumulation should not be pursued at the expense of peoples’ lives.

The progressive agenda might be saving us but with no reward 

In the game of electoral politics, payoffs tend to outweigh real progressive gains in policy. As the Democratic establishment positioned itself for a campaign against Trump, rather than for decisive policies that would unravel the years in the making of a populist, nativist white supremacist and his constituency, the direction of the Democratic Party was called into question. Would the party adopt a centrist, moderate stance in an ever-polarising political climate? Would the Democrats turn to leftist frontrunners like Bernie Sanders? Will the faces of a new progressivism, one that centers the often marginalized voices of women of color, be championed by politicians like Alexandria Ortasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Presley and Rashida Tlaib?

Eventually, rational choice incentives dictated much of the Democrat strategy. Progressive candidate Bernie Sanders was pushed to the sidelines, once again marginalized by the establishment. Instead emerged Joe Biden, a somewhat unremarkable yet familiar face to appease the majoritarian vote. Many further left democrats became disillusioned by Biden’s selection, feeling that they were now voting for a candidate that was simply the lesser of two evils rather than a candidate they could trust. Co-opting the middle and southern swing vote became a priority and capturing centrist on-the-fence voters the game plan.

But in an attempt to rationalise politics, who really won the vote for Biden? As the Democratic establishment powered through a campaign that stipulated BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) progressive points as too much to ask for, it was the votes of this very community that pushed the Democrats to an electoral advantage. It was the work of Stacey Abrams and Black women organizers in flipping Georgia blue, registering over 800,000 voters. Grassroots organisers, community leaders and student volunteers, rallying what has been a record high voter turnout for the United States. Cities like Detroit, Flint, Montgomery, Atlanta, Tucson and Phoenix, all mobilising in a blue wave. Immigrant cities. Black cities. Cities that rocked the vote.

Stating that a constituency or policy is impossible to pursue because it simply requires too much work, too much normative innovation, too much grassroots campaigning and too much of a threat to the status quo is ultimately deteriorating the quality of our politics and representation. As our political representation in Sri Lanka becomes increasingly elitist and dynastic, political gatekeeping is now institutionalised. What results is the same candidates, from the same backgrounds pursuing the same agendas every election. It is a cyclical, stagnant political climate in which even if change is possible, it is systematically shut down. Forty six percent of Sri Lankan youth aged 18-26 said that they would not vote in the 2020 parliamentary elections held in August this year for two main reasons: first, because of a loss of faith in politicians and politics as a whole and secondly because of disinterest in a contest with the “same old faces” again. It is hardly a democracy if the population feels they have no viable choice in representation.

It is true that a lot of work has to be done in order to undo status quo politics; but clearly, it can become reality and the United States polls prove it. Sri Lanka might be a long way from any normative, tangible change but the same can be said of the United States, which earlier this year seemed fixed on another four years of Trump. The work wasn’t done overnight and the momentum of the movement – at least for marginalized communities and their allies – is far from over. Nonetheless, a robust civil society and faith in democracy can spur action. Perhaps this is the best lesson we can take away from the United States 2020 elections.

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