A giant leap for democracy

A giant leap for democracy
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First Published: Wed, Nov 05 2008. 11 40 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Nov 05 2008. 11 40 PM IST
We witnessed history on 4 November. At 11pm Eastern time US, Barack Obama was formally announced as president-elect of America. It was a much-expected victory, but despite all the hype and media-overload, there was no anticlimax when the moment finally came and Americans took the unprecedented step of electing a black man as their next president.
Of all the accolades that Obama deserves, two stand out. First, for the extraordinary discipline he displayed in running his campaign, right from the day he announced his candidacy 21 months ago, to his victory over the Clinton machine, and finally, his steady message through the market meltdown in October. Second, for running the first political campaign of the 21st century, harnessing all the fuzzy words that only Silicon Valley had used so far: the power of the Net for grass-roots organizing and fund-raising, the wisdom of crowds, the relevance of the youth. This is politics, Wikipedia style. One has to be awestruck by Obama’s flawless campaign.
The result is momentous not only for America, but also for the rest of the world. For the US, there is finally closure on its troubled history with race. This has moral consequences, but also pragmatic ones: Obama won the election despite losing the white vote—he compensated with overwhelming majorities among the youth and Latinos. These are irreversible demographic trends, and will force the Republican Party to be less ideological and more accommodating for it to return to power.
For Obama though, there is the danger of the hangover syndrome. Running a political campaign as a movement is one thing, coming good on the promises is another. The challenge is the inevitable let-down, as people discover that the oceans aren’t going to part, that Obama will have to cut deals and wage wars and do all the messy stuff that political leaders have to do. In 1992, Bill Clinton was a year younger than Obama is today, won by a bigger margin on a similar mantra of change, carried the youth vote, and talked of bringing America together. He soon discovered how tough it was to deliver, with his own party leadership in the legislature thwarting his plans and dismantling his agenda. The script looks uncannily similar today, with the additional challenge of a much tougher global environment.
But this is all tactical stuff compared with the magnitude of what has happened. With one collective rush, America has raised itself in the eyes of the world from the depths of condemnation it had descended to over the past decade. This is the best of America, inspiring millions of people around the world, doing good not only for its image, but also for the nebulous idea called democracy.
This last point is important—the inspiration can have real consequences, given the slow decline in democratic trends across the world. A 2007 The Economist piece titled, “A pause in democracy’s march”, stated: “More than half of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only some 13% reside in full democracies. Despite the advances in democracy in recent decades, almost 40% of the world’s population still lives under authoritarian rule. (Unfortunately), the most recent trends...are tantamount to a retreat from democracy.”
The remarkable US election can fundamentally reverse this trend and unleash enormous energy for democracy around the world. In his acceptance speech last night, Obama said, “If there is anyone who still questions the power of our democracy, the answer is there tonight. Americans put their hands on the arc of history and bent it once more in the hope of a better day”. Citizens around the world have to be inspired by these words and by the sight of millions of people engaging in the practice of politics, participating in the electoral process and volunteering for the ideas they believed in. Of all the quotes from voters jamming the websites, one struck me for the practicality of its implications: “The best 4 hours I ever spent in my life, waiting in line to vote.”
Besides average people, there must also be at least a few among the powerful—those who aspire to statesmanship—who are rethinking their systems of government. It’s not inconceivable to imagine two pairs of Saudis, one of royalty in gilded palaces and the other sitting by their camels, both having similar conversations: “This democracy idea is actually quite remarkable. Maybe we ought to give it a serious try.”
Of all the reasons to celebrate Obama’s victory last night, it is this— how his extraordinary, audacious rise from anonymity to the highest office in the world can be an inspiration to billions of people, to believe that change is indeed possible. Hope is the ultimate elixir.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at mobiusstrip@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Nov 05 2008. 11 40 PM IST