International Man: Every four years, the US engages in an increasingly contentious process of electing its politicians. Republicans and Democrats both engage in mudslinging—each side taking cheap shots at the other.
Is this the nature of all politics and elections now?
Jeff Thomas: Well, that aspect of election campaigns is nothing new. In the US, perhaps the nastiest election was the 1800 election, between President John Adams and contender Thomas Jefferson, who ultimately won. The Democratic Republicans under Jefferson attacked the Federalists under Adams for creating a central government that usurped states’ rights, for imposing excessive taxes, and for passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, repressing the expression of anti-government opinion.
So, the issues themselves are very similar to those in play today, but back then, the mudslinging was a fair bit worse than today. And, like today, the media were just as involved as the political parties.
But it’s important to remember that the US is not the only country out there. It’s only one of about 200 countries, and elections in those countries not only vary widely but are forever evolving. Some countries, like the US, are headed downward politically, whilst others are on an upward trend.
International Man: Are there better examples?
Jeff Thomas: Examples of countries where the system isn’t becoming more tribal?
Yes, there are quite a few. I remember watching the 2009 presidential debates in Uruguay, where I live part of each year. Luis Lacalle of the National Party would answer a question as to how he would handle a specific issue and, when his opponent, José Mujica of the Broad Front Party, would respond, he would do so respectfully, stating that he agreed with Lacalle and that his own approach would differ only in minor details. A very gentlemanly election by comparison.
But then, this might be misunderstood by people in the US. It doesn’t mean that the candidates are necessarily more civilised than their American counterparts. What it means is that the Uruguayan people expect gentlemanly behaviour.
In every country, politicians seek to mirror the national mood. Since they’re trying to capture the vote, they don’t behave naturally but as a reflection of the national mood. In Cuba, in 1959, the people were thoroughly fed up with the Batista regime, so Fidel Castro shaking his fist and pontificating for hours in the Plaza de la Revolución was a welcomed sight. On the other hand, the US in 1952 was fed up with warfare, and the quiet confidence of Dwight Eisenhower was what people wanted to see, so that’s what was delivered. Political hopefuls try to project the mood that the public is seeking.
What we’re witnessing in the US today is a country that’s entered the first stage of what will be a prolonged crisis – one that will result in the upheaval of the economy, political structure, social behaviour, and even the morals of America. From here on in, we can expect ever-expanding degradation in each of those four areas, and politicians will reflect that. These are actors, after all.
International Man: The polarization between the Left and Right has continued to get worse—and this divide has entered into almost every aspect of life.
Is this as a result of the sheer size of the US and the differences between the States?
Jeff Thomas: The size of the US is definitely a factor, but the existence of the divide is media-created. In good times, states and political parties will try to get along, but in a crisis, they will not. When you see them at each other’s throats, you know that the crisis is underway. And the media can be counted on to capitalise on it and add gasoline to the fire. It won’t end well.
International Man: How does localism in smaller countries impact the political process?
Jeff Thomas: It’s much harder to pull off this sort of divide in a small country. And the smaller, the better. The more the political leaders are a part of the community, the more difficult it is for them to fool the public, even if the public is both unimaginative and ill-informed. If you know the candidate personally, you’re far less likely to be taken in. And, since he probably frequents the same bar as you do, he’s not likely to try to develop into a parasitical overlord whilst in office. He’s going to remain more grounded, because he has no choice.
International Man: You mentioned the situation in Uruguay, but you also live much of the year in the Cayman Islands, where the population is small – about 60,000. How do elections compare to the US?
Jeff Thomas: It’s very different. Coincidentally, we’ve just completed our elections, which occur every four years. We have only a three-month election season, which is sometimes passionate, but not at all violent. At the polling station, all the staff is both helpful and friendly. By law, there are two policemen at every station, but they too are friendly. The process is efficient – about five minutes – and voters socialise peacefully outside afterward, regardless of whether they’ve chosen opposing candidates.
This time around, like the US, we had a change in government, but unlike the US, the electorate was confident in the legitimacy of the process and accepted the outcome, even if their candidates were unsuccessful.
But again, our overall election mood is buoyant because the country is stable – more like the US in 1952 than Cuba in 1959.
International Man: Do the media impact the election?
Jeff Thomas: Not a great deal. They mostly report events rather than try to indoctrinate people. The people of Cayman are not very tolerant of an aggressive media any more than they’re tolerant of aggressive politicians. For information, we rely more on what’s called the “marl road” – person-to-person communication – for voter-consciousness. Also, we know our political hopefuls on a first-name basis. We know their families and personal history, so we can ignore the campaign rhetoric and focus on who they really are. We generally end up with a mix of very good, capable people and some ambitious types, plus a few essentially useless people who are essentially deadwood whilst in office.
International Man: Big donors, special interest groups, and lobbyists have a lot of say in the election of American politicians. How does that impact the overall political structure?
Jeff Thomas: In a small jurisdiction, you still get “big donors.” But the dollar numbers are smaller, and the public tends to learn more readily that the donations have occurred, so it’s difficult to get carried away with buying politicians. The electorate finds out soon enough.
International Man: Is there another way?
Jeff Thomas: Well, you can pass laws that prohibit various means of contributions to campaigns, but those who seek to buy influence will simply find a work-around. Even in a small system, there will be those who buy politicians, but as it tends to get found out, they can be voted out again.
International Man: Do you experience the victimization of one party by another?
Jeff Thomas: No, historically, our candidates were mostly independents, with occasional teams that would last for two or three terms then dissolve. For the last twenty years, we’ve had actual parties, but the electorate found that the parliamentarians that they elected would then hide behind the obligation to vote along party lines. People could no longer go to a candidate and expect him to “represent” his constituency.
In this recent election, the last of the parties was defeated, and we’ve returned to the independent concept, in which a parliamentarian has to respond to his constituency, or out he goes.
In a large country, a government made up of independents might not work, but in a small country, in which you can have direct input to your candidates, it makes for actual democracy rather than the pretense of democracy.
Governments should be controlled by the people, not the other way round. The greater your power to ride herd on your government, the greater your ability to retain your liberty.
Reprinted with permission from International Man.