Ideals v Results

One political debate that has slithered largely unnoticed into the American consciousness during the 2016 presidential election is the debate over political ideals versus performance. Do democratic ideals trump political results?

It’s not a conscious debate, of course. You won’t hear the talking heads of this election having this debate. Nor the candidates. They’re all too busy hurling schoolyard insults at each other for such lofty discourse.

In attempting to understand how the greatest democracy on earth could offer such two equally unappealing candidates for the world’s highest office, however, I inevitably run smack dab into this question.

During The American Century, of course, it was a non-debate. America was both the global paragon of democracy and enjoyed unparalleled success on virtually every front – economic growth, quality of life, growth of the middle class, health care, education, etc.

Now, however, it is not difficult to argue that the wheels have come off. Since the late 1990s the US has experienced a period of sluggish economic growth, stagnant or declining real income, a pronounced polarization in wealth, deteriorating infrastructure, weakened primary education, and a growing sense among Americans that they are not better off than they were a decade ago.

This past week a report issued by the Harvard Business School U.S. Competitiveness Project was blunt in its assessment. Authors Michael E. Porter, Jan W. Rivkin, and Mihir A Desani concluded that the US is “failing the test of competitiveness.”

Their primary culprit? The dysfunctional US political system, which has led to government gridlock and paralysis at all levels.

This failure, of course, has also given rise to the 2016 presidential election, in which two unappealing candidates fight, bare knuckle style, for the most powerful office in the world

And what do the Chinese think of this spectacle?

More than anything else, I believe they are simply incredulous; as, I suspect, is most of the world. When it comes to business and politics, the Chinese are pragmatists. They want results, not bluster. Ideals are reserved for matters of the family and personal obligation.

Chen Weihua, deputy editor of China Daily USA, recently voiced the Chinese confusion when he noted the disconnect between the ideal of the US being the greatest democracy in the world and the specter of President Obama – and his wife – blasting the Republican candidate at the most personal level. (This on top of their candidate of choice having referred to a quarter of Americans as deplorable.)

This is time that Obama, Chen noted, could have devoted to solving some of the country’s most vexing problems. And, more importantly, it flies in the face of Obama’s own proclamation that he is the president of all the people – Democrats and Republicans alike. And, of course, it is all Americans, not just the Democrats, who pay Obama’s salary. (I believe the party is charged something for his travel expenses but I seriously doubt it covers the full cost of moving a sitting president around publicly.)

As a typical Chinese pragmatist, of course, Chen knows that his views will be dismissed by the US political elite, and, in fact, I haven’t seen his opinion picked up anywhere in the US media. This, of course, from a media that touts its commitment to inclusiveness. In reality it is only inclusive if you fall into the right basket.

As always, however, people have a way of finding their own way to the truth. Forty-two percent of the American electorate now identify as independents. And, according to a recent World Values Survey report, fully 31% of those born in the 1980’s no longer consider it ‘essential’ to have American-style democracy for there to be social progress.

In China, only 6% of the population is a member of the Communist Party of China. Yet, President Xi Jinping, the Chairman of the Communist Party of China, enjoys a higher approval rating than virtually any other leader of a major country. The last I saw it was hovering around 95%.

And while the Chinese and the Russians share little in common culturally, the Chinese people generally give Vladimir Putin very high marks. While he doesn’t share America’s political ideals, he gets results. (And he’s not afraid to tweak the nose of the US; which an alarmingly high portion of the world’s population silently cheers.)

What this presidential election has shown, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that we no longer ascribe to those ideals either. Perhaps we’ve just eaten too much cake. Perhaps we’re simply becoming more pragmatic. Or perhaps we’ve brought this on ourselves by allowing money and power to appropriate our ideals and exploit them for their own self-interests.

One thing is clear. We are losing the legitimacy to tell the rest of the world how to conduct its affairs, China included.

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