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What can we learn from the US and its presidential election?

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There are similarities in the divisiveness and the political role the media play in constructing us as Malaysians, Sonia Randhawa writes.

What a ride! The tense waiting, which in many ways still isn’t over, while we wait for President Donald Trump to concede defeat, the nail-biting finales in Philadelphia, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada. The commentators, the ballot boxes, the uncertainty. And the ongoing drama over whether Trump will go peacefully.

It sounds a lot more like a circus than a serious review of policies, the plot twists of a cinematic thriller. I am not the first person to talk about horse races and personality politics, barely a coherent policy in view.

That’s not to say there aren’t major differences between a Joe Biden White House and one inhabited by Trump – the tone of the president can save lives or destroy them, as we saw from the rise in race-based attacks, particularly against Muslims, in the wake of Trump’s ascendance to office.

There are, undoubtedly, lessons here for Malaysians, in terms of what we want and don’t want in politics.

In Malaysia, we have commonly eschewed ideology. The Barisan Nasional made a virtue of being non-ideological, having whitewashed the strident anti-communist platform it championed for the first 30-odd years of its time in power (Collin Abraham’s The Finest Hour gives an excellent exposition of the Malaysia’s peace process with the Malayan Communist Party).

In theory, rather than being wedded to socialism, or neoliberalism, or any other -ism, BN was able to choose policies that worked – though in practice, since the 1980s, we witnessed a drive to privatisation and emulation of policies that worked globally to shift wealth and concentrate it in the hands of the already powerful.

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Instead of ideology, we have made race the division of choice. Both the media and the political parties have articulated an ideology of race – ideology in an Althusserian sense of a set of beliefs so pervasive we hardly notice them, race as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, the food we eat.

So what are the lessons the US holds for us?

One of the first lessons we can learn is how the media constructs divisions in society. The divisions in the US seem insurmountable – to hear Trump supporters talk of America is to hear a fundamentally different vision of the same country from the country lived in by those who voted for Biden. It isn’t a vision of a different future – the present itself is bifurcated.

We have been on a similar path for decades. In Malaysia, our media is quadra-furcated, to coin an extremely ungainly word. Our media are not the US media: we don’t have the diversity, we don’t have the same freedoms the American media have.

But the divisiveness, the political role the media play in constructing us as Malaysians – there are similarities. We should try to be sure that, as we strive for greater freedoms, we don’t fall into the trap of shifting power from government to corporate interests.

Some of the protections we can invest in now is a genuinely public service broadcaster, a media council with both teeth and significant public representation, and a diversity of types of media ownership, including non-profit, non-commercial media.

Independent public funding for both media and the arts, perhaps through a tax on advertising, could also play a role, especially if the allocating body had a remit to ensure diversity and public debate on important issues.

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The second lesson is how the party political system perpetuates those divisions. We can and should move to a system that encourages us to think about ‘yes and’ politics rather than ‘no but’ politics, which is what electoral politics encourages. Moving to a more participatory, deliberative model, such as by replacing elected chambers with citizens’ assemblies, could help us on this journey.

We are facing significant crises in the coming decade. We need to act now, and have the systems we need to tackle these crises in place. Our handling of the coronavirus crisis is not boding well for future crises, which are likely to be bigger, more protracted and less tractable.

Let’s work today to build the systems we need for a safe tomorrow.

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