Analysis: Campaign debate level in US not worthy of a great democracy

President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Picture: Getty
President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Picture: Getty
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WITH its presidential election over, the US can finally take a breather from campaign politics, at least for a while. But an uncomfortable question lingers: How is it possible for the world’s most powerful country to exhibit a state of political discourse that is more reminiscent of a failed African state?

Without question, the worst offenders are America’s Republicans, whose leaders have somehow become enraptured by ideas that are beyond the pale in other advanced countries. Of the party’s dozen presidential candidates, only two (Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) declined to reject scientific evidence concerning global warming and its human causes.

The Darwinian theory of evolution has long been a dirty word among Republicans as well. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and an early frontrunner in the Republican primary, called it just a “theory out there”.

Likewise, if there is an archaic idea in economics, it is that the US should return to the Gold Standard. Yet, this idea, too, has strong support within the Republican Party– led by Ron Paul, another contender for the party’s presidential nomination. No one was surprised when the party’s platform gave a nod to the Gold Standard in its convention in August.

Most non-Americans would find it crazy that neither Mr Romney nor Barack Obama supported stricter gun-control laws in a country where it is sometimes easier to buy guns than it is to vote. Most Europeans cannot understand how, in a civilised country, both candidates can favour the death penalty. And I won’t even get into the abortion debate.

Candidate Romney was so cowed by his party’s obsession with low taxes that he never put forth a budget that added up. It was left to his spinners to explain, as The Economist put it, that this was “necessary rubbish, concocted to persuade the fanatics who vote in the Republican primaries”.

So rampant were the equivocations, untruths, and outright lies from both camps that many media outlets and non-partisan groups maintained running lists of factual distortions.

Some of the most egregious examples included Mr Obama’s claims that Mr Romney was planning to raise taxes by $2,000 on middle-income taxpayers and/or cut taxes by $5 trillion, and that Mr Romney backed a law that would outlaw “all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest”.

Mr Romney went even further, claiming that Mr Obama planned to raise taxes by $4,000 on middle-income taxpayers; that Obama planned “to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements”; and that Chrysler, bailed out by the Obama administration, was moving all of its Jeep production to China.

One can draw two possible conclusions from America’s election. One is that the US will ultimately be undone by the poor quality of its democratic discourse.

The other possibility is that what is said and done during an election makes little difference to a polity’s health.

But, if American elections are nothing other than entertainment, why is so much money spent on them, and why do so many people get so exercised over them? Can the answer be that the outcome would be even worse otherwise?

• Dani Rodrik is professor of international political economy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.