It’s 8.54pm in Accra and London and, over on CNN, Christiane Amanpour is reporting on world leaders’ reaction to the historic election of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr as the 46th president of the United States of America.
As I struggle to keep my gaze fixed, my photophobic eyes squinting as they collide with the colourful rays from the screen showing post-election discussions of the projected results, my attention is drawn to a Wikipedia tab opened in my browser. Curiously, I check to see if Joe’s credentials have been edited to reflect his new role – and a gleeful grin spreads over my face.
“That was fast,” I whisper to myself, as if I had not already checked a dozen times to see when it would happen.
For the past few days, CNN and Fox have been my home. I have been kept excited by what some Twitter users have described as “the politics of another man’s country”, hailed as the beacon of hope, as a citadel of democracy and economic prosperity, although we have come to realise that some of these credentials can be assailed.
Power of incumbency
In 1845 Congress passed legislation so that, every four years, Americans have gone to the polls to elect their leaders on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in the month of November. Typically of modern democracies, many of these Tuesdays have offered an opportunity for a sitting president to renew his four-year tenure.
Generally, the patrons of democracy are benumbed by the prospect of an incumbent president losing power in an election. Sheer disquietude about the future of the democratic experiment, the possibility of the incumbent clinging to power and what this portends for a country’s political stability are among the factors which determine this bias. Indeed, in many African democracies, this is almost always what happens. So it was a bewilderingly obvious chance for Africans to have a bit of fun as President Donald Trump started putting up a set of all-too-familiar attitudes, crying foul and making baseless allegations of fraud about the 3 November election. Heck, Trump even instructed that counting should stop.
For many who are all too aware of America’s sanctimonious posturing on global issues, it was a week redolent of all kinds of irony. Alas, here is a president of the United States probably so obsessed by the goodies of power that he would rather stay in office – even if that is against the will of his people.
Well, the quiet pleasure did not last long. Live on CNN, scenes began to emerge of cities erupting in street parties to celebrate Biden’s election and Trump’s exit. It has stayed that way even if it seems the fight is not yet over: the “cavalry” of a “Million MAGA March” will be swarming its way from the Midwest and the South to Washington, DC this weekend.
These past few months, Vice-President Biden has not been spared the sour tongue of a man who is probably the world’s most politically incorrect leader – if, that is, anybody has been spared. Biden has come under relentless attack for actions such as complying with a basic public health imperative: wearing a mask during the raging pandemic that coincided wih the election campaign. He has been described by Trump as feeble and sleepy and many other words far less easy to repeat.
My immediate impression is that many see Biden’s election as a salvation of the soul of the United States from an enigmatic, golf-playing demagogue whose temperament has stained the dignity of high office by exposing it to the criticisms of a million burning, judgemental tongues. When Trump was elected four years ago many non-Americans were shocked because he was so palpably a racist and a white supremacist, as he still is. Not many expected that the former television star and self-styled tycoon would garner so many votes, so strategically, and crush a highly respected former first lady and secretary of state.
Even as I watch Americans celebrate and speak earnestly of how they yearn for what can be described loosely as a gentleman’s redemption of their leadership disaster, I still don’t know what to believe. I am deep confused about what America is, or exactly what its citizens want for themselves.
As one might expect, not every American is happy. There are Yanks who would still like to do nothing better than rub their foreheads on any floor Trump has walked across and who, at the drop of a hat will, offer up panegyrics to him as a superhero who restored America’s dignity, Making America Great Again. And indeed, Trump did play his part in the MAGA movement. But America is unlike many other developed countries: 3.8 million square miles of territory, lit by a flickering flame of egalitarian idealism cast by shrinking beacons of cultural and racial miscellany.
Although the United States of America will be first to remind you of its cosmopolitan vibrancy and economic-military power, it has many problems – both problems specific to the 21st century and tensions that are deeply seated in the nation’s history. There are as many interests as there are syntheses of ideas whose proponents would fight the whole of the rest of the country, going as far as to topple the government in order to preserve what they believe.
Beyond all this, the Democratic Party, which traces its roots to the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, would not miss an opportunity to show its pride. Twelve years after it gave the country its first African-American president, it put for consideration before the American people a ticket far kinder than Trump’s charade and vastly superior to it. The icing on the cake is that today, by accepting the Democrats’ offer, Americans have elected their first female vice-president, who also happens to be a woman of colour, helping flip crucial states to secure record turnout figures.
As I write, the incumbent president is licking his wounds and still seems unsure whether to set aside his ego and respect the American democratic tradition, bowing to the resounding will of the people by thinking of his country’s future interests and making a gracious concession speech. After all, he, too, won a record number of votes.
Whom the cap fits
I am filled with delight at the sheer sophistication of the American media’s machinery for covering elections – the admirable intelligence and displays of wit and competence by the political analysts, reporters and presenters on television. I can only wish for a quarter of that as Ghana’s own elections beckon 26 days from now.
I also reflect deeply on the many perspectives I have encountered, this past week, regarding whether the electoral college system, established through the constitution by the country’s founding fathers, complements the realities of modern American democracy. What is clear to me is that Americans largely believe in their own system of governance, they understand how it works, and it appears that they may not be giving it up for a long while to come.
I am also confident that, even in such a polarised country, democratic institutions will continue to work. As congratulations continue to pour in from other world leaders for President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris, President Trump’s options will narrow and his tantrums will no longer be cause for anxiety, even if his party decides to pose a legislative block to some of the Biden administration’s plans. He is simply incapable of hijacking a system that has been designed to cast a beam in the world’s eyes – that a government of the people, by the people and for the people should never perish from the surface of the Earth.
Nii Tettey Ashong
West Legon, Accra
Follow Nii Tettey Ashong on Twitter at @Ashong_Tettey