As the United States celebrates its 240th Independence Day today, people around the world are curious about what is happening within American politics during this unusually volatile election year. This is especially true here in Bermuda because of the many close ties that exist between this nation and the US. I have been amazed at how closely Bermudians follow the daily minutiae of the American campaign process.
Analysts of this year’s presidential campaign have suggested many explanations for its turbulence. Some observers say candidates have tapped into a genuine mistrust of government among many American voters. Others blame the 24-hour news cycle and the rapid pace of social media, which creates a sort of feeding frenzy around every offhand remark made by political figures.
And critics contend that the political parties’ system for choosing nominees, while it involves millions of voters, does not always reflect a purely democratic approach.
Despite such criticisms, the democratic process in the US is a tumultuous one that, while often exposing some of our collective weaknesses, also underscores our strengths as a country over the past 240 years.
Last year, I read Ron Chernow’s autobiography of Alexander Hamilton, a key founding father of the US.Hamilton, the wildly popular hip-hop musical playing on Broadway, was based on this work; the musical, in turn, was probably single-handedly responsible for the Government’s recent decision to maintain the visage of the first Secretary of the Treasury on the American $10 bill.
In retracing Hamilton’s story and the circumstances that led to the rise of the two-party political system in the early days of the US, it was a wonder to me that our nation survived its own beginning. The infighting, personal attacks and incivility of the political discourse seemingly has not changed that much in 240 years.
Thankfully, we seem to have left duelling for the sake of one’s honour behind us. (Spoiler alert for those not familiar with early American history: Hamilton was killed in a duel with Thomas Jefferson’s Vice-President, Aaron Burr.) Time and time again in American history, our nation has confronted enormous political challenges that have been manifested through ugly campaign rhetoric, populist candidates who appeal to lesser ideals, back room deals, civil unrest, even political assassinations and the settling of political scores on the duelling field.
In my own lifetime, I remember the violent demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, as well as Florida’s “hanging chads” and disputed election results in 2000. We have survived it all as a nation — and continue to thrive, despite our warts and sometimes annoyingly inconsistent behaviour. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s words: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
On a regular basis — every four or eight years since Franklin Roosevelt’s lengthy presidency — the US has a peaceful transition of power as those elected by the American people take the reins of government for their shot at handling our bucking bronco of a country.
As I reflect on Independence Day this year, I take issue with various pronouncements that we need to “turn the United States around” or must “restore America’s greatness”. While everyone can agree that there is plenty of room for improvement, there is no question that the United States, despite its messy political process, retains its strength and vitality.
A recent column by political commentator Fareed Zakaria outlined the strength of the US against potential global competitors and concluded that our country “has in recent years reinforced its position as the world’s leading economic, technological, military and political power”.
He pointed out that the US dominates virtually all leading industries — from social networks to mobile telephony to biotechnology — and has become the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas, while also leading in “green” technologies. That is an optimistic assessment from a commentator who, like Alexander Hamilton, started life in another country but chose to become an American citizen and rose to prominence through his work and merits.
On this Fourth of July, I approach our nation’s independence day with my home-grown American optimism and firm belief that the US will survive its messy political processes and at times imperfect political candidates. Despite assertions to the contrary, we will not only survive, but will continue to thrive as we pursue what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “great American experiment”.
Mary Ellen Koenig is the US Consul General of Bermuda