Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Angelique Haugerud.

“America is a shining example of how to hold a free and fair election, right?” asks Bassem Youssef, a comedian and former heart surgeon who is often referred to as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart.” Astute answers to that question about the condition of U.S. democracy often come from foreigners such as satirists, as well as my East African research interlocutors.

Like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah (The Daily Show), Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), and Jon Oliver (Last Week Tonight), Bassem Youssef uses irony and satire to hold a mirror up to society, and to unsettle conventional political and media narratives. State political pressure forced termination of the popular satirical news show Youssef created in Egypt during the Arab Spring. He then moved to the United States, became a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics in 2015, and in 2016 started a new show in the United States called “Democracy Handbook” on Fusion TV. As foreigners, Youssef, Jon Oliver (British), and Trevor Noah (South African) wittily play off stereotypes of their own home regions as they comment on events in the United States—such as Trevor Noah’s Daily Show segment comparing the 2016 Republican presidential nominee to African dictators.

When I was in Kenya during the July 2016 Republican National Convention, a farmer asked me about news reports that the Republican presidential nominee’s wife had plagiarized Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention. That story–widely reported in Kenyan and other international news media–was soon eclipsed by a cascade of new campaign controversies that sent puzzling signals to the rest of the world. In their Savage Minds post last week, Daniel Goldstein and Raúl Rodriguez Arancibia offered a Bolivian’s perspective on the U.S. presidential contest. I asked Kenyan scientist Dr. Nyaga Kinyua (a pseudonym) for his thoughts on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Dr. Kinyua lives in Nairobi and he recently spent a few years studying for an advanced degree in the United States. In mid-2016, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would assist Kenya with its 2017 national election preparations by providing over $25 million (22 million euros) this year “in order to support [Kenya’s]…electoral process into next year…we want to strengthen your election operations,” said Kerry. (Daniel Branch provides one of many fine accounts of Kenya’s political history.)

Dr. Kinyua’s response to Kerry’s announcement was skeptical: “The U.S. does not even have the best machines for elections!” His comment addresses a core weakness of the U.S. electoral system (and one that gets little attention from dominant U.S. news media): much voting technology is outdated and many electronic voting machines are vulnerable to tampering or hacking and lack paper verification systems. The problem is not new. The Daily Show spoofed U.S. voting machines in 2004 (when Jon Stewart was host) and again in 2015 (with Trevor Noah as host). More than a decade ago, Los Angeles musician Clifford J. Tasner wrote a satirical song called “Voting Machine”–with lyrics such as “We’re rigging the election with our new voting machine!”

In addition to voting machine problems, many states have eliminated a number of polling stations, shortened early voting and registration periods, passed new voter identification laws, and purged voter rolls (as the ACLU and other organizations have documented). Such measures especially disadvantage likely Democratic voters by depressing turnout by Latino, African-American, and Asian-American voters. The Brennan Center for Justice states that “in 2016, 14 states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election.” After the disputed Florida vote count in the 2000 presidential election, when the Supreme Court determined the outcome, African political scientists joked about sending election observers from Africa to the United States. The reverse scenario of course is well institutionalized.

Voter suppression and other flaws in the electoral process such as gerrymandering are obscured by daily news cycles focused on the political “horse race” (i.e., who said or tweeted what, or who is up or down in opinion polls today). Bassem Youssef, however, focuses on these under-reported electoral issues as he travels across the United States and interviews people for his Democracy Handbook show. With empathy and comedic deftness, he asks as well about topics such as neglected infrastructure, immigration, religion in politics, gun rights, and the Flint water crisis.

In a non-comedic register, Dr. Kinyua too is keenly attuned to ironies in the contemporary geopolitics of democracy talk. “It seems like there is something we are not told,” he said as he continued his comments on Secretary John Kerry’s mid-2016 announcement of U.S. election aid to Kenya. He wonders what conditions were attached to the aid, noting that not long after Kerry’s visit, new talks began on the conflict in South Sudan and Kenya altered its position in ways that are not yet fully known. He wonders if the government of that oil-rich country will be toppled with outside help, thereby destabilizing it for years. Taking a cue from Trump’s pronouncement that the United States should have taken control of Iraq’s oil, Dr. Kinyua remarks that when Trump says America is not winning anymore, he means the country is not grabbing whatever it should get out of foreign escapades such as overthrowing dictators. Africans “are being manipulated,” Dr. Kinyua says, and he contrasts a widespread sense of hidden agendas in foreign policy with Trump’s “bravado” and “reckless” talk that might actually reveal “underhanded deals” and hidden assumptions in foreign policy to which citizens of other countries would like to be alerted. His concern is not Trump, he adds, but rather standard foreign policy practices by rich countries such as the United States.

Since the United States and some European nations often criticize Africa for not being sufficiently democratic, and they routinely send delegations to monitor African elections, what might people on that continent think of a U.S. presidential candidate who tells his opponent during a televised debate that he will jail her if he becomes president? Shortly after the October 9 debate in St. Louis, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff (who frequently visits Africa) tweeted, “I’ve spent lots of time reporting in countries where winners do imprison losing candidates. Believe me, we don’t want to go there.” Political scientist Brendan Nyhan tweeted (the same night) that Trump’s comment about jailing Hillary Clinton is an “existential threat to democracy,” and he was not the only commentator to term that the debate’s “most important story.”

Dr. Kinyua remarks that Trump’s stated intention to jail Clinton “means that Trump has no faith in the investigation done earlier by the world’s most powerful investigation agency, the FBI. It also insinuates that an American president can influence the outcome of an investigation process, which is ironic for a country that has strong rule-of-law credentials and that is the moral bodyguard of the world.”

Egyptian news satirist and cardiologist Bassem Youssef said in July 2016: “well, my conclusion is that you still have a great democratic process here [in the United States]. My show…can serve as a warning to tell you that…there are certain practices that are happening here that are not far off of what I’ve seen in my part of the world…it’s scary. It’s kind of like I’m telling people, ‘Guys, we’re the prequel. Don’t do that.’”

Angelique Haugerud

Angelique Haugerud is on the anthropology faculty at Rutgers University and she was editor in chief of American Ethnologist from 2011 to 2015. Her research, which focuses on the cultural politics of wealth inequality in Kenya and the United States, includes excursions into political satire. Her most recent book is No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America (Stanford University Press, 2013).