Registering Discontent: The UN seeks to renovate a damaged democracy gateway, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Nov


The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.  John F. Kennedy

Today is Marathon Sunday in New York, a time for fireworks, physical achievements and extraordinary courage by those overcoming significant limitations to push themselves across the finish line.

This is also, of course, the Sunday before the US presidential elections, a marathon of another sort, as sordid a civic affair as I can ever recall.

The disappointment goes deeper than the compromised candidates, the numerous leaks of known and unknown origins, the obsession with fondling that slides past legitimate human rights concerns into reality TV titillation, the ascriptions of “deplorables” that obsess on the specs in the eyes of others but fail to see the logs blinding ourselves.

Seemingly hundreds of reasons exist to not vote for the “other” candidate, but few rationales seem to have been offered to vote “for” someone, for something, for a vision of the future that doesn’t lock us into perpetual mistrust of others, impeding pursuit of our lofty and urgent social projects, including projects on climate health and the prevention of mass atrocities undertaken with the United Nations and other multilateral settings.

Are our candidates to blame for this mess?  Is the media?   Is it our “culture” of violence?  Is it the fault of habituated, self-interested neglect emanating from too many of our political and economic elites?  Is it really just a matter, as the late US President Kennedy (along with many others) seemed to imply, that some people are smart enough to “get it” and others just can’t?

Can it possibly be that simple?   Is “ignorance” really that easy to identify?

And it’s not only here on this corner of our planet.   From El Salvador to the Philippines, people are grasping for ointment to sooth their own deep disappointments, the sense that their lives have not improved as promised, that the system is perpetually tilted away from themselves and their families, that life has been needlessly stressful, needlessly challenged, needlessly insecure, but also deficient in key elements that make life worth the bother – including dimensions of importance and meaning.

And this struggle to discern genuine pathways from disappointment is not getting easier. What is now held to be “true,” apparently, is little more than what you can convince others to be true.   We do it on Facebook.   We do it in politics.  There is too little now that we can place our trust in beyond branding, beyond self-promotion, beyond our “distractions” of preference, beyond the masks that conceal who we really are, what we are fearful of revealing to those close to us, let alone to Wikileaks.

We can do better than this.   We can fix what is broken.  But this clock is winding down.

On Friday, a small segment of the UN community took a short break from controversies over nuclear weapons, the International Criminal Court and the treatment of Syria refugees to ponder ways to “strengthen electoral integrity.”   This timely, frank and urgent discussion was sponsored by the government of Mongolia and involved representatives from International IDEA, the UN Development Programme, the UN Department of Political Affairs and Harvard’s Electoral Integrity Project.

Insights from the session were both numerous and relevant to current circumstances. One observation of note urged us to abandon a “free and fair elections” mantra that implies electoral “perfection” often beyond our capacity to reach. The panelists spoke rather of “credible elections” with robust protection of ballot integrity, the prevention of voter harassments and, perhaps most important, the willingness of the parties to peacefully (if bitterly) recognize and accept election results.

There was also acknowledgment that we make a mistake by at times assuming such a strong link between our “right to vote” and the maintenance of healthy democracies.  Harvard’s Pippa Norris made a strong pitch for oft-neglected “civics education” while also noting that elections (and the growing business of election monitoring) are merely the opening gambit in a process to ensure that all political factions and all stakeholders have a place at the policy table.   How we elect is one crucial matter.  How we work together (or not) in the post-election period is even more important, even more determining of our ability to resolve our conflicts and fix lingering matters such as voter access and security sector intimidation before the start of our next, also likely contentious, election cycle.

Indeed, as the very wealthy in the US are now legally permitted to both recognize and operationalize, voting itself is one of our more modest “influence footprints.”  Indeed, the health of our democratic system is only partially about casting a political preference; but also in part about how closely we listen to and care about each other, how much we are willing to overlook (or even forgive) each other’s flaws, how willing we are to resist substituting a “rooting interest” (at times even at the tip of a gun) for a sincere engagement with political processes from the local to the global, the needs and rights of others (not only the well-positioned) placed on par with our own.

Voting is to democracy what Christmas-only church attendance is to Christianity – helpful in its own way, but by no means an engagement sufficient to the challenges of political or religious life.  As one of the UN panelists on Friday noted rightly, “good elections” are not the same as “good governance.” Both matter greatly, but the latter will always matter more, will always demand more of us.

The claim of one of the US candidates notwithstanding, there appears to be little chance that our upcoming elections will be corrupted from forces beyond the ballot box. The “insider” erosion of our democratic processes, however, is quite another matter.  At the end of this electoral marathon, there will be few roses to hand out as we reach the finish line, little to celebrate beyond the families of the candidates and their closest political confidants.  For the rest of us, a bit of temporary relief perhaps, but also worry that the larger political marathon – the one about rescuing our democracies from ourselves – remains very much stuck in the starting blocks.


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