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American Election Exceptionalism

I am not American, and I don't get to vote, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a say about this election cycle. Which I can, and which is this:

I have lived in the United States for a little over five years now. I am a Brazilian who, over the past few months, has watched the debates (including last night’s latest offering), kept up with television’s talking heads, read the long op-eds (including some by my colleagues) and the short tweets, and tried to stay abreast of the developments as best as possible. I can confidently say that this election cycle could only happen here in the U.S.

None of this is to say that we do things better in Brazil, or that Brazil is immune to political problems and peculiarities, including, in its way, some of the ones I’m about to list. Brazilians, too, have had to deal with our own version of a dysfunctional election process, ranging from the fact that our pool of candidates is often on the brink of ridiculousness to the fact that voting in Brazil is a legal obligation, which at times makes one wonder how democratic it is.

And Brazil faces many of the problems that the U.S. does, too, ranging from dark money in politics to systematic corruption (the Petrobras scandal is only the tip of the iceberg in a society that is struggling to completely move away from a clientelistic state). At the same time, however, we have a vibrant civil society and an ever-watchful press, both of which are trying to engage voters, promote civic engagements, and create increased awareness of the stakes of voting. The mass protests that began in 2013 are a sign of that.

But this piece is not about Brazil and our problems and promise, but about the American election cycle. And so, without further disclaimers or ado, here is what I have observed to be, to use American parlance, exceptional to the United States’ election cycle.

1. The candidates are conferred celebrity status. Once the election cycle begins, an enormous amount of attention is paid to aspects of candidates' lives that are irrelevant to their ability to be president of the United States. There is a frenzy around Hillary's outfits and Trump's hair. And then there is the attention paid to Trump’s comments about Carly Fiorina’s looks, and the attacks on Ben Carson’s wife’s appearance (and she’s not even running!). I feel as though I am watching the coverage of some fancy, Hollywood red carpet event. Why do we care so much about what the candidates look like, how they dress, and who their spouses are? And who are these voters who are basing their decisions on whether Hillary cares too much about her pantsuits or whether Trump’s hair is real? The level of scrutiny to which the candidates’ personal lives are subjected strips them of their humanity, and allows snarky observations from any and all parties—from the media, from voters, and from the candidates themselves. But more than that, it distracts voters from the candidates’ stances on real issues. (Am I saying that pantsuits aren’t a real issue? Yes. Yes, I am.) This is not to say that there wasn’t careful consideration about how Rousseff’s looks appealed to the electorate, during her 2014 campaign. But Brazilians concerns about a candidate’s appearance did not come even close to the crazed frenzy American candidates face.

2. The debates are more of a spectacle than an honest assessment of candidates. First of all, let me point out the fact that I think the audience for the debates has been remarkable so far. To a certain extent, I am sure that the high viewing numbers indicate voters’ interest in learning candidates’ stances on issues, as well as in learning how they deal with pressure and if they can keep their proverbial cool when question after question is fired at them. I am also sure, however, that a considerable part of the reason that people tune in to watch the debates is because they are a bit of a show. Candidates are either attacking each other in ways that in no way help the voters decide who would make a good president, or being presented with questions that lack nuance and are designed to produce “gotcha” moments. So far, I have had to really plow through clips of the debates in order to figure out what a candidate is actually saying. The debates feature almost everything one would want to see in a reality TV show (drama, scandal, and accusations), and almost nothing one would hope to hear in, say, a serious conversation about what is wrong with the country, what some of the solutions to the most pressing problems are, and how each candidate plans to execute his or her plan. Brazilian debates have been deemed too passionate. But in our case, the rage and “good manner” transgressions emanate from candidate’s frustrations with the current system, its systematic corruption, and overall failure.

3. Stances on issues are dichotomized, and the word compromise is a big no-no. This, of course, is not unique to the election cycle in the U.S., but to me, it seems to be particularly salient. Candidates’ stances on issues lack nuance. On one hand, this is a product of how the media chooses to report on how candidates answer questions, opting for descriptions that reduce a candidate’s opinion to a basic yes/no, pro/against; on the other, it is the candidates themselves who are, in turn, choosing to present their platforms that way. When we see the issues of race, guns, and reproductive rights, for example, it seems that a candidate can only be either for or against it. It is a zero sum game. Should we let everyone have guns, or should we have an across-the-board ban on them? Do black lives matter? Or do all lives matter? Should we outlaw abortion altogether? Not all Americans are single-issue voters, and many, I am sure, want to see candidates comfortable dealing with the complexities of many of these issues without fear of being called indecisive or accused of flip-flopping. Unfortunately, such Americans are not likely to see such individuals at these televised debates.

4. Money matters. A lot. It is not news to anybody that money will, once again, play a critical and determining role this election cycle, with direct campaign fundraising and dark money from political action committees. PACs and Super PACs will be a prominent feature in determining who gets elected and who doesn’t. The sheer amount of money that has been spent so far is staggering, and prohibitive: If potential candidates can’t pay, they can’t play. A candidate’s ability to raise money will determine her level of exposure, the ads she can buy and, to a certain extent, whether or not she will be featured on a primary debate. The amount of power that money begets in the US electoral process undermines American democracy. In Brazil, during the election cycle there is something called “electoral time” (horário eleitoral), where candidates get free airtime on Brazilian TV, ensuring that all candidates have at least some exposure to voters (the amount of time given to a candidate is determined by their political party’s power in Congress). While this mechanism has its own shortcomings, it increases the opportunity for citizens to be engaged in the political discourse.

5. The media has a staggering amount of influence. News anchors have the power to manipulate a candidate’s likeability and fuel or demolish a candidate’s campaign. Social media “favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered,” and can even run ghost campaigns for candidates . This influence, coupled with observations 1, 2, 3, and 4, aggravates the overall dysfunction of the process. After watching the debate on Wednesday, however, I was impressed by Ted Cruz’s attack on the moderators and the wider media, which pointed out that the questions that had been asked so far in the debate illustrated “why the American people don't trust the media.” Cruz went as far as to say “this is not a cage match," and received one of the biggest cheers of the night for doing so. Could this be the beginning of an honest assessment of the role that debate moderators and, more broadly, the media have to play in ensuring that voters get to watch a decent, nuanced coverage of the election cycle? I sure hope so.

6. The voters are disenchanted. The election cycle makes it an exciting time for someone like me to be in the U.S. People are watching the debates, following the polls, and reading the news. But this excitement, in my opinion, emerges from some of the election cycle’s shortcomings I listed above. People are excited either because they’ve mistaken the election of their president for a reality television show or because they’re angry. Either way, the majority of voters are disenchanted with the current Washington establishment, perceiving the election as their opportunity to choose the least awful candidate instead of the best one. Disenfranchisement is on the rise, and, excitement aside, voter turnout tends to be, with a few exceptions, lower than the majority of the other OECD countries. There are, of course, other factors that contribute to this disenfranchisement, such as the process of voter registration and the consequences of gerrymandering. Nonetheless, I believe that voters are distancing themselves from the more substantive conversation because they feel that they have lost ownership over the election cycle and everything else that comes with it.

In the U.S., efforts to think about a new and workable framework to renew American democracy, stop the rise of disenfranchisement, and make the election cycle more honest are abundant. Not all hope is lost. What is necessary, I believe, is to eliminate these idiosyncrasies of the American election cycle that do nothing other than undermine a process that has the potential to be a true model of democracy for the rest of the world.

Foreign concept, I know.

Author:

Chayenne Polimédio is a research associate in the Political Reform program at New America. She writes about American democracy and issues of representation, participation, and polarization, as well as about Brazilian politics and identity.