Lessons for Malaysia from US 2020 election

Joseph Biden has been elected the president of the United States, with Kamala Harris – the first African American/South Asian woman elected to the office of vice president.

Biden won the presidency with 74 million votes – the highest in US history and over four million more than his opponent – and secured the votes from the Electoral College in close counts in multiple states, notably Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona. Michigan and Wisconsin. In the latter state, it is noteworthy that Muslim voters were decisive in the blue outcome.

Biden will face formidable obstacles ahead governing a divided country, dealing with a serious pandemic in which a quarter-million Americans have died and economic depression with 25 million out of work. An embittered loser in Donald Trump has yet to give up his narcissistic delusion that he can hold on to power when the electorate has spoken, and this will evolve in the next few weeks.

While the United States will be inward-looking, the world needs greater cooperation and decency in the White House to guide it through the difficult times ahead – the Biden/Harris leadership team offers needed hope and healing. Fortunately for Malaysia at least Biden knows where the country is and appreciates Southeast Asia as a region in its own right.

The US election offers important lessons for the challenges facing Malaysia. The election was not just about the players and American society but represented one of many ongoing battles for the soul of a nation and a struggle to sustain democracy of our time. The Biden victory represented the largest mobilisation of voters in US history and was especially empowering for African Americans and women whose participation was decisive in the outcome.

Kamala Harris

Malaysia had similar positive signs in 2018. The large turnout and minority participation especially in Sabah and Sarawak helped bring about the country’s first change in governments. Female support was a critical part of the Pakatan Harapan victory.

Events since May 2018 – an underperforming Harapan government, increased political use of racialised fear and insecurity, a backdoor takeover, political instability in a fragmented coalition system, weak legitimacy and lacklustre governance have showcased many of the struggles Malaysia faces as it wrestles with its own democracy.

While Covid-19 realities should stop election momentum, there remains the view that new elections will “solve” the country’s political impasse and “resolve” issues. The US 2020 election provides important reminders and cautions for Malaysia. The problems go much deeper, and elections are a reflection of these issues rather than a solution.

Persistent political polarisation

Political polarisation does not go away easily. The US – like Malaysia – is a deeply divided country. It has been so for decades and the divisions have hardened. Confrontation, demonisation of opponents and “others” and righteousness combine into a cocktail of intolerance across America’s political parties.

The close results in key states, painstaking counts and emotions around the outcome are testimony to these divisions. Importantly, even in a pandemic and crisis when one would think that divisions would be put aside for common sense leadership, only a few states “turned” from red to blue.

Malaysia should not underestimate its own divisions, which also have persisted and hardened. Less than 10 percent share of voters “switched” sides in 2018. We saw similar division in Sabah’s polls in September – the vote count remained split, with GRS picking up victory largely through the new seats and the losses of one party, Upko.

Malaysia’s electorate has sharply different outlooks over race, religion and reform, which in turn shape voting preferences and views of governance. Behind cordial quotidian interactions lies cauldrons of intolerance, misunderstanding and trauma.

Trump may no longer be president after Jan 20 next year, but Trumpism remains alive and kicking – literally. The anger, frustration and hatred are being fueled by social conditions and political opportunistic leadership that use these emotions of fear, insecurity and displacement for political power. Trump has already declared himself as a candidate for 2024, and there are others in his shadow waiting to assume the same destructive polarising mantle of Trumpism.

The US election illustrates the importance of reforms to address the social conditions that allow divided politics to flourish. There is a pressing need for proactive politics to address economic fears of high unemployment, low wages and economic insecurity and provide the tools for people to advance with education systems that provide for social mobility and include curriculum that teaches critical thinking and problem-solving.

Social safety nets need to be strengthened. Correctives also involve addressing the vacuum in moral leadership in society and within religious institutions who stood aside to cheer on (and in some cases abet) wrongdoing, often ignoring the dehumanisation of the suffering of others. The “with us or against us” lens of political polarisation cannot shift without shifts in thinking about each other and the shared causes that are driving division – from each of us.

Racial and gender divisions

Among the most serious divides is along racial lines. Disproportionately white Americans were willing to put an incompetent and immoral person back into office due to perceptions that their rights and place would be protected. Trump tapped into sentiments of white displacement and used the black lives matter protests to stoke fear.

The more Obama campaigned with Biden, the more inclusive his campaign was with Kamala, the more white nationalists reared and reeked in their ugliness – not captured in polls but aptly found in clothing, body symbols and on social media.

As an educator, we grapple with how we can address these insidious sentiments, to balance pride and place in the community with respect for faith and cultural heritage while acknowledging the discriminatory and derogatory forces of systemic inequalities. It is especially hard when racial lens and stereotypes are so entrenched, aka normalised, in societies and views of citizenship and rights are tied to race and ethnicity.

In Malaysia, my research has taught me that ethnicity is only one part of political identity – class, gender, place and generation outlooks matter and increasingly so. Changing narratives in how we understand Malaysia and the challenges it is facing are an integral part of moving toward greater mutual understanding in a multi-ethnic complex society.

Building relationships takes more than new narratives, however; it involves fostering trust, encouraging trust networks and investing in people, not buildings. It involves new leadership with new ideas. Moving Malaysia out of the political impasse and away from polarisation involves thinking about new coalitions and changing mindsets, with the country as a whole first over personal and political ambitions.

Not to be left out in addressing division is the toxic masculinity that Trumpism harnessed. Engaging in attacks on women were normalised and even glorified. The Trump administration painted a “feminine” (white) image of women while disempowering women in its policies and attacks on women leaders.

Women fought back at the polls in large numbers. They assured that he was fired from office. With the election of Biden, there is a man who embraces empathy and sees his masculinity from respecting and empowering women.

Malaysia across the political divide has reduced the role of women in political life and leadership, especially in the last eight months. Women have disappeared from party leadership and increasingly are being used as tokens as their voices have been excluded. Sabah offered a paltry number of women candidates. Without meaningful female inclusion – in political and economic life – the fabric to strengthen democracy in Malaysia will fray further.

Interests and selfishness

Trump’s support should also be seen to be the product of economic interests. Money is at the core of the support for his presidency. Many who voted for Trump did so because they liked his policies – low taxes, strong stock market, confrontation with China, his “fight” for US business and liked how the policies fattened their bank accounts.

Many of these policies benefit certain individuals over the collective. For many, Trump offered greater economic security. States like Florida, for example, stayed red because of economic growth under the first three years of the Trump presidency. Interests are often a driver supporting the return of immoral leadership into office.

Biden’s economic plan did not evoke the same level of confidence, and some of his comments over oil, for example, provoked strong reactions. His biggest campaign weakness was that he was not able to convince many business owners that his administration would both protect and expand the economic base.

This will be his hardest hurdle to address, as economic expansion involves difficult economic reforms and restructuring. The US 2020 election should remind parties hoping to get into or stay in office that they need to build economic confidence they need a clear economic plan, with broad buy-in for that plan.

So far, none of the Malaysian parties have an economic plan for Malaysia’s future. Muddling through and using budgets as political tools for support rather than genuinely as a needed stimulus for growth and recovery only allow conditions of division and insecurity to persist.

Skewed electoral process and disinformation

The US 2020 election served to both take the US off the democracy pedestal and at the same time reactivate the levers of renewal and possibility that has defined democracy through the decades.

More than any other time, however, the problems of systemic unfairness in the electoral system – the malapportionment in the Electoral College system, gerrymandered districts, the problems of voter registration and suppression and role that money plays in favouring an uneven electoral field – came to the fore. The call for electoral reforms has rightly intensified.

In Malaysia, this call for electoral reform has been ongoing for some time and has yet to properly materialise. Postal voting, greater advance voting, fairer constituencies with more even number of voters, more transparency in voting results and greater autonomy in electoral administration are needed to assure that outcomes are respected.

In divided societies, sound electoral management is especially needed to reduce conflict. The Election Commission should report to Parliament and the people, not the prime minister, and many of the electoral reforms already on the table, including changes in the electoral system, merit serious consideration, including equal distribution of parliamentary allocations across parties.

More immediately, reforms in electoral administration in areas of advance voting are needed to reduce Covid-19 risk in Batu Sapi and Sarawak. Do not wait until there are protesters outside the count or on the street.

The electoral outcome in the US was also profoundly shaped by social media. Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. These vehicles served to allow information to be shared and conspiracies to thrive.

The disinformation campaign of 2020 was massive and was part of the last “red surge” on polling day. Myths about Biden being a “socialist” and claims of a collapse of stock market crashes were part and parcel of disinformation scare tactics.

Malaysia has a long history of social media campaigns using propaganda and tapping fear. They feed the polarisation. Funds to support disinformation have been part of this, and future funds to support political narratives rather than truth in a crisis will undercut the country further. Slush funds for cybertroopers and trolls in organisations such as Jasa should be reallocated to support cyberjobsearching and reducing tolls.

People’s empowerment

Political polarisation, racial differences, selfish interest voting and problems in the electoral process are sadly common problems of contemporary democracy.

The US 2020 election serves to remind how serious the consequences can be, and how if left to fester they worsen. These lessons are worth learning.

In this time of crisis, these issues are undercutting a holistic approach Malaysia needs to address the crisis it is facing with Covid-19 in health and the economy. Substantive reforms are needed.

The failure of politicians to govern inclusively – as Trump failed to do – is not going unmarked. In the US, millions voted and supported each other to bring about the result in an outcome for decency and common sense – including a Malaysian student heading to school who graciously ferried and dropped ballots in the mail.

The US 2020 election is a reminder that even when there are crisis and despair, there is a possibility for renewal and that each of us – together – can help make change happen.

Taken from malaysiakini.com