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“Seiron” column: What’s the “value” of U.S. presidential elections?

  • May 20, 2019
  • , Sankei , p. 7
  • JMH Translation

By former Ambassador to the U.S. Ryozo Kato

 

Vulgar mudslinging

 

Eisaku Sato, who served as prime minister for seven years and seven months, was said to be a “politician who prefers to wait.” Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa was known as a leader who once said, “If a little cuckoo does not sing, I will wait until it does.” U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield occasionally said while in office: “Human beings seek power. But in an emergency, power seeks appropriate human beings.”

 

But some have said the opposite. It is said that “the god of opportunity only has hair in the front of his head, but is bald in the back.” (If you try to seize opportunity from the back instead of the front, it will slip away.) And Machiavelli offered the following words of wisdom, although they would probably be criticized in modern days: “Like a woman, fortune is always the friend of young men.” (It’s better to be bold than cautious, because the god of fortune is female.)

 

The U.S. will hold a presidential election next year. Two past presidential races in particular stick in my mind: The one in 1988 that George H. W. Bush won and the one in 1992 in which he was defeated by Bill Clinton. The 1988 election gave momentum to the practice of “negative campaigning,” which continues to this day. The 1992 race made me realize that the choice to “wait one out” carries a great risk for politicians.

 

As for negative campaigning, the contrast between Bush’s personality and his campaign’s “dirtiness” was striking to me.

 

According to former Republican National Committee chair Frank Fahrenkopf, the subsidies provided to both parties by the U.S. administration and the subsidies provided to candidates within parties accounted for the bulk of campaign funds up until the presidential election won by Ronald Reagan. Therefore, the party whips and other leaders who were in charge of allocating the subsidies had enormous power. But these public funds became a “mere pittance” as the age of TV took hold and candidates capable of collecting massive amounts of money for TV ads started to gain power. As a result, the party leaders naturally lost control over candidates.

 

I think the situation in which there are so many Democratic candidates these days is a phenomenon that might have been hard to imagine back then.

 

Furthermore, such terms as “one-liner,” “sound bite,” and “character assassination” were prevalent during the 1988 election and vulgar mudslinging ran rampant.

 

“Trump-style” politics is here to stay

 

The widespread mudslinging may have been driven by a decline in the human attention span due to technological progress.

 

The “quit talking so much and tell it like it is” trend continues today and will never subside. People should realize that the post-Trump American political world will continue to be characterized by an undercurrent of “Trump-style” politics. The idea that the U.S. will go back to how it used to be is just an illusion.

 

The world of snappy “one-liners” places priority on “expediency.”  Metaphorically speaking, it is a steroid-like world that produces immediate results. Such a world is significantly effective in relieving certain types of pain, but it also has strong side effects. It probably runs counter to the world of “dignity and learning” that makes human beings biologically superior to other living things.

 

As a layman, I became aware of the political risk of “waiting one out” when Clinton defeated Bush in the 1992 election.

 

During the 24 years immediately before the election, Republicans held the reins of the administration for 20 years while Democrats were only in power for 4 years under President Jimmy Carter. The Democratic Party was permeated by a mood of “something’s got to give.”

 

But President Bush enjoyed an extremely high approval rating immediately after the Gulf War. Because of this, many Democrats who had become skillful politicians by then thought they would have “no chance of winning” in the 1992 election and chose to wait until the 1996 election. Under the circumstances, I believe Clinton, who was relatively unknown at the time, took his turn.

 

Much better than a world without elections

 

Basically, the Bush camp’s carelessness and the economic situation as well as the emergence of Ross Perot (Republican-affiliated) as a “wild card” allowed Clinton to win. Clinton clinched 43% of the vote while Bush secured 37% and Perot got 19%. So it has been said that Bush might have won the race if Perot had not thrown his hat into the ring. The subsequent developments illustrate what the proverb, “It’s no use crying over spilt milk,” really means.

 

Elections are the foundation of “political legitimacy” and they are one of the advantages of democracy, but they are actually quite vulgar. Elections under democracy are hugely entertaining events.

 

U.S. presidential elections are grandiose festivals. The people who gather at the party conventions from around the country apologize for losing contact and enjoy being reunited with one another. The excitement of the elections and the settings and colors displayed at the venues are very much like those of World Series baseball games and Super Bowl football games.

 

Maybe this can be attributed to the simple world of “black or white” that is the essence of what appeals to human nature.

 

But I think a world that offers the opportunity of elections, in which people truly feel excitement and a sense of participation and are able to fully express their emotions, is much better than the one without them.

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