American politics has largely been a matter of curiosity for people beyond its frontiers. Take this matter of the way in which Americans elect their Presidents. There is the popular vote, which makes it clear which of the individuals seeking the office wins the election. But there is then the Electoral College, which is something of a second phase that finally gives out information about the actual winner. That of course leads to quite a bit of confusion, especially if you recall that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by as many as three million votes in 2016 and yet ended up losing in terms of Electoral College mathematics. The system is a conundrum.
But there is too the transparency which is part of the American system of governance, something that is manifested through the meticulous ways in which cabinet appointees are grilled by the Senate before they can be confirmed, or rejected, for office. The Senate hearings are part of a process that allows Americans to have an insight into an appointee's character, background and fitness for office. And that is where the beauty of democracy shines through.
Add to that the annual State of the Union address by the President --- it happens in January --- before a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate. It is, in broad outline, an assessment by the President of developments of the year gone by and what those developments hint about the year ahead. There is the interesting spectacle of all those Senators and Congressmen often rising to their feet to applaud the President over certain points he makes in his address, with even the Vice President and the Speaker, seated behind him, joining in the applause.
One of the more positive aspects of the US political system is the manner in which the two major parties, Democrats and Republicans, choose the candidates who will face each other at the presidential election every four years in November. There are the primaries, basically an elimination exercise in which rivals for the party nomination fall by the wayside as they lose out in various states, until the strongest one remains. It is then up to him to choose his vice presidential running mate. And then one has the presidential debates through which voters are expected to have a better understanding of what policies the two candidates have on offer for the four years ahead. The debates are a measure of how and whether the candidates are intellectually and morally qualified to be President.
Election Day is, naturally, a day of decision. Candidates often win by large margins and sometimes by a whisker. There are the rare instances of trouble, as with the contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, when the Supreme Court stepped in to stop vote-counting in Florida and declared Bush the winner. To this day, feelings have persisted that Gore won the election and that the court's intervention put the wrong man in the White House. Barring that episode, an encouraging aspect of American politics is that the losing candidate for the presidency acknowledges defeat and congratulates the winner, who in turn graciously pays tribute to his defeated rival even as he thanks the American people for making their choice. On inauguration day, which is January 20, the President-elect takes the oath of office and in the audience are his defeated rival and a whole crowd of dignitaries.
Bipartisan politics, until the arrival of Donald Trump, has been a staple of American politics. Now that much debate has already been generated over the succession to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died recently, an intriguing and pretty disturbing aspect of the American system bubbles up to the surface in a way which non-Americans find hard to comprehend. With people's concept of rule of law, of a justice system that promises that the law will be applied to citizens and state institutions in all manner of objectivity and equality, it is rather hard to understand why those who occupy the White House should go head over heels, once a seat in the Supreme Court falls vacant, to appoint a new justice in line with their political beliefs. It is thus that Republican Presidents have traditionally appointed justices who will uphold conservatism in the Supreme Court and Democratic Presidents have opted for liberals to sit on the bench. The idea of justices being defined by their conservative or liberal philosophies in all the years they are part of the Supreme Court --- and those years usually straddle generations --- is quite mystifying. Politics defines the composition of the court.
The American political system has thrown up remarkable leaders, some of whom were to fall on their own swords. Richard Nixon remains an example. Good men like Jimmy Carter were done in by foreigners, in this case the ayatollahs in Iran. Men of idealism like Eugene McCarthy have never had a chance. And, yes, there is the bright side as well. Presidents and presidential candidates have drawn their rivals into their tents once the fire and fury of the campaign have drawn to a close. John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson as his vice presidential running mate and Adlai Stevenson as ambassador to the United Nations. Ronald Reagan had George H.W. Bush, who called his economic policies as voodoo economics during the primaries, on the ticket. Richard Nixon appointed George Romney to the cabinet. Barack Obama did a similar thing with Hillary Clinton, who lost the race for the Democratic nomination to him in 2008. Some presidential nominees have had the wisdom to select decent, mature politicians as their vice presidential partners on the ticket. Carter had Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton had Al Gore and Obama had Joe Biden.
As November 2020 approaches, the way the system further shapes out in America will determine the country's political course for the next four years. The dead Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be part of the narrative between now and Election Day.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.