Making sense of the 2012 US presidential election

One of the things that drew attention last week was the US presidential election, which was watched over the world including here in Cambodia. Since before the election day, questions such as what would be the meaning of a re-election of the incumbent president or of a Republican president for Cambodia had been probed. The English-language newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, ran a series of articles, trying to weight in. Cambodians who were active on the social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, also took great interest.

But the surge in interest in the US presidential election here rarely traveled beyond foreign policy concerns. Some saw renewed US role in the Asia Pacific, with regard to the South China Sea matters in which Cambodia was indirectly embroiled because it had been perceived to be closer to China. Some harbored new hopes that the US would play more active role in promoting democracy and respect for human rights in Cambodia.

Nothing was wrong while putting on a foreign policy lens, but this year’s presidential election and the re-election of Barack Obama matter more for Cambodia–not in the person of Obama who would come to Cambodia this weekend to lay out the strategic contour of American foreign policy in Asia Pacific. To what extent American foreign policy posture toward Cambodia would be different between a Democratic White House and a Republican one? Toward Asia Pacific? And indeed, American foreign policy in general? From the third presidential debate just before the election day, none would doubt there would be any dramatic change in American foreign policy on the most pressing issues nowadays, including toward the Asia Pacific. Continuity in American foreign policy was even more evident in the pieces the two contenders wrote for CNN. Though no one would question the emphasis of American military prowess in foreign policy by a GOP administration, the remarks by President Obama in his victory speech following re-election last Tuesday left one wonder whether the US would hesitate to use its military supremacy to further its foreign policy objectives.

But it is in the outcome of this election, and in this sense the choice the American people made, that countries including Cambodia could consider on its pathway toward building a modern nation-state. Never before in the post-war years was American politics more deeply divided except during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the war on terrorism waged by George W. Bush in the early 2000s. But even during these episodes, the disagreements were mainly over foreign policy.The 2012 presidential election, by contrast, was fought bitterly over the very conception of the American society and the values that underpin it.

How could it be that the American people, who had fought their way for independence from Britain 236 years ago and built for themselves the strongest and most prosperous society on earth, had tremendous difficulty in choosing between a Barack Obama and a Mitt Romney? For every American that voted for Obama, there was another one that preferred Romney. And although Obama spoke of America as a nation that moves forward in his re-election victory speech, he knew more than anyone else that the other half of the American populace did not support him.

The foundation of American society is freedom. Becoming free was what the thirteen colonies bestowed on themselves as their very first act of forming the Federation in 1776. Freedom that is so indispensable to the American society has unleashed innovation and creativity, spurred ethnological advance, and propelled prosperity on a scale that the world has never seen before. Along the way, this freedom that the American society so cherished became the victim of its own success. The wealth that this free society created was so unequally distributed as to undermine its very own existence. America since the end of the New Deal became the most unequal society among the richest nations. This land of opportunity, as the US had long been known, was no longer able to live up to its promise of equality. Individual life chances, contended the Nobel prize economist Joseph Stiglitz in his The Price of Inequality, are now more dependent on the income and education of his parents. Those who unfortunately chose parents who were poor or less educated will be more likely not to be able to live up to his potential. And this has him worried because widenning disparity between” the richest and the rest” on such a great magnitude is the defining characteristic of a “sick” country. America, after all, is a country of the super rich, the poor and a fragile and struggling middle class, argued Paul Krugman, another Nobel prize winner in his most widely read book The Conscience of a Liberal. There what he documented just before the global financial crisis of 2008 ringed true with Stiglitz’s “the richest and the rest”: that the wealthiest 0.01 percent of Americans were 7 times richer than they were three decades ago while incomes of most American households barely changed, and CEOs who typically earned 30 times more than their average employees in the 1970s now took home 300 times as much.

That was 2008, and when Barack Obama was elected. He bailed out the auto industry, signed into law the Affordable Healthcare Act, introduced stricter regulations on Wall Street, legalized same-sex marriage, and as a consequence, sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into minority leader and could barely retain the Senate’s Democratic majority. His bid for a second term could have been swept away also by Superstorm Sandy.

Viewed against this backdrop, the rage against Mr. Obama was a puzzle. In 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected, some said he was unwilling or unable to challenge the core maxims of his time. 20 years later, it seems it was the American people themselves who were unable or unwilling to challenge their core maxims.

As the outcome of the presidential election suggested, this question of fixing a broken society is far from being settled. The American people treasured their freedom and were averse to the economic forces that so unfairly shaped their social outcomes, but they resisted the idea that solution lies in politics and perhaps “big” government. Despite all his rhetorics about hope, President Obama was clearly aware of the uphill battle that he would have to fight during the next four years. One advantage of younger nations is that they have the luxury of seeing their older brethens choose between contested pathways toward a more equitable society.

We were always interested in a US as the world’s superpower, but this time it would be wise to consider the lesson this sole superpower had to teach on building a modern and just nation-state.

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