The Long, Hot Electoral Summer
We’re in a political season. You’d noticed, of course. But which
elections have gotten your attention? Which have worn you out? The spectrum is
far greater than Obama vs. Romney.
Libyans recently went to the polls to elect their National
Congress Libyans. Muammar Gaddafi’s manic rule of more than 40 years ended with his violent
death just last October. And now a fresh breath of democracy is blowing across
the Libyan sands and oil fields.
The Arab Spring, now two springs and a couple of hot summers
long, has yielded mixed results from North Africa to the Persian
Gulf. Hopes have been raised and dashed and, in some cases,
raised again. We’ll get to Egypt in a moment.
Gaddafi resisted democratization and lost. Syria’s Bashar
al-Assad is in a furious fight to retain control. The shadows
of Cold War antagonists — Russia
and the United States — are cast over the Syrian struggle.
Assad, like Gaddafi, shows no sign of yielding. Meanwhile,
Syrians are dying.
It would be foolish to throw a blanket or lay a matrix over
the countries of the Middle East or the broad Arab arc. Not
even the common threads — Islam
and Arabic — are all that common. Islam is a religion
with multiple and often jealous sects and no central authority.
Arabic is rife with distinct dialects. There are kingdoms,
emirates, military states, secular states and, now, fledgling
I spent two weeks of May in Cairo lecturing in journalism
at MISR International University. During those days leading
up to the first round of Egypt’s
presidential elections, everyone — students,
faculty, guides, drivers — wanted
to talk about it. After all, none of Egypt’s pharaohs,
kings or strongmen had been democratically elected. No, not
After the first round, many Egyptian voters were less than
thrilled with the runoff candidates — an Islamist
representing the Muslim Brotherhood and a retired general closely
tied to the Mubarak regime deposed in the 2011 uprising. A
hoped for moderate candidate did not survive the first round.
Egyptians I met feared that either the Brotherhood would create
a conservative Islamist state, constraining secular traditions
and comforts, or the still ruling generals would refuse to
hand over authority to a lawfully elected Islamist president.
As it became clear that the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi
had won, the courts stepped in and overturned the earlier election
of Egypt’s legislative body.
It would seem that Egypt’s three-legged stool — executive,
legislative and judicial — is as wobbly as ours.
At this writing, President Morsi has prodded the Egyptian
legislature to defy the courts and reconvene, and so they have.
In the US, the Supreme Court’s
action in sustaining President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has prodded
Republicans in Congress to renew efforts to overturn Obamacare legislatively.
The soap operas are playing out on adjacent screens in Cairo and Washington.
From time to time, I teach a course called Media & Politics. We hashtagged
it #MP12 during the spring semester which coincided with the frenzy of the Republican
presidential primary season, including South Carolina’s “first in
the South” position on the compressed calendar. Many of my USC students
would be voting in a presidential election for the first time, not unlike my
Egyptian students. Both groups were exposed to the inundation of contemporary
campaigns, the noise, the claims and counterclaims.
“I’m so confused,” one Egyptian student said, explaining why
she was having difficulty with a writing assignment about the election. Confusion
was really the heart of her story.
My USC students became exasperated with the drumbeat of political
ads, especially the harsh attack ads generated by super PAC
advocates external to individual campaigns. These are ads in
unlimited and almost ungoverned measure now permitted, thanks
to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in a case called Citizens
United v. Federal Election Commission. As Justice Antonin Scalia suggests, “The
more, the merrier.”
One class exercise was to reconvene the Constitutional Convention--#ConCon12 — to
seek to rewrite Article 2, Section 1, provisions for the election
of the president. Two notable changes emerged. My students
felt the exclusion of naturalized citizens from eligibility
is anachronistic in a 21st century melting pot nation. They’d
also terminate the Electoral College in favor of the popular
vote, ensuring that every vote does count. They punted on how
to finance presidential campaigns. Another semester, perhaps.
In September, we’ll be sending about 20 senior journalism
students to Charlotte to join major national news organizations — the
Associated Press, CNN, National Journal, Charlotte Observer
and others — in reporting on the Democratic National
Convention. It should be an experience doubly valuable for
them as journalists and citizens.
There was a time when I wanted to be a sports reporter. Then,
as I frequently tell students, I discovered that politics is
a four-season sport. It’s
intensely competitive and often not pretty. The press tends to get caught up
in the horse race. But the consequences are tremendous. The outcome of American
elections also has repercussions from here to Benghazi and Cairo.