[Column] COVID, Biden and the end of American exceptionalism

Posted on : 2020-11-10 16:31 KST Modified on : 2020-11-10 16:31 KST
The US’ coronavirus outbreak and its chaotic election are indications that America is no longer a model for the world to follow
Supporters of Democratic candidate Joe Biden in a parade celebrating the media calling the election in Biden’s favor in New York on Nov. 8. (Reuters/Yonhap News)
Supporters of Democratic candidate Joe Biden in a parade celebrating the media calling the election in Biden’s favor in New York on Nov. 8. (Reuters/Yonhap News)

In his acceptance speech on Nov. 7, US President-Elect Joe Biden pledged “to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify” and “to make America respected around the world again.” While these are hopeful words for people inside and outside of the US who are exhausted by the extreme conflict and division of Donald Trump’s four years in office, I’m not convinced that Biden can actually keep that promise.

The reality is that America continues to face challenges that are unlikely to be overcome by Biden’s speech alone, despite its traditionalism and decency. The fact that the US has seen the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 (10 million) and the most fatalities (243,000) of any country in the world and the fact that it took nearly a week for the US media to call the country’s presidential election (which is still not officially settled) raise doubts about whether the US is really the world’s most powerful nation.

The US’ handling of COVID-19 and the chaos of its vote tabulation have something in common. Overconfidence in the American way, which the US has bragged about and promoted for more than half a century, has only made the situation worse.

While Europe is facing a similar situation, the US in particular has taken pride in having the most advanced and powerful disease control system in the world. As a result, the US has been slow to learn from other countries. The US took no interest in what lessons “small countries” such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore had learned from the SARS and MERS outbreaks and how they’d subsequently upgraded their disease control systems.

Jeremy Konyndyk, a former official at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), hit the nail on the head in a column published by Foreign Affairs. “The catastrophic US response to COVID-19 is not primarily the result of scientific or medical deficiencies. [. . .] American exceptionalism — the notion that the United States is unique among nations and that the American way is invariably the best — has blinded the country’s leaders (and many of its citizens),” Konyndyk wrote.

Mass democracy can’t survive without fair and accurate elections

A similar observation can be made about the voting and tabulation process. Elections are at the heart of the democratic system. Mass democracy can’t survive without confidence in fair and accurate elections. But it took five days to count enough ballots to determine the winner of the election in a digital era.

While I’ve read articles about election results taking a week to be finalized in developing countries, who could have imagined that such a delay would happen in the US, the model of democracy? In contemporary politics, delayed election results can have fatal consequences. Given the instantaneous spread of fake news, a slow vote count often leads to political chaos.

The electronic vote counting machines in Georgia, where the race was a nail-biter until the end, had been updated last year, reported Politico, an online magazine about American politics. Computer malfunctions had already wreaked havoc in the primaries in June, and there were also doubts about whether the election machine operators were properly trained. Eight of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had electronic voting machines that functioned differently from the others, reportedly making them more vulnerable to hacking and malfunctions.

In the past, tolerance, compromise, trust, and acceptance of the outcome combined to overcome flaws, whether institutional or mechanical, and such values were praised as the true strength of American democracy.

A lack of bipartisan unity in American politics throughout last two decades

When the US was thrown into chaos by an unprecedented vote recount in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, the situation was eventually resolved by the concession of Democratic candidate Al Gore.

If Gore had pushed ahead with the recount until the last vote was counted, he may well have become president. But under pressure from the Democratic Party and the media, Gore graciously accepted the Supreme Court’s decision to halt the recount.

Twenty years have already passed since then. In American politics in 2020, there seem to be few signs of making compromises, acknowledging defeat, or moving toward unity that transcends party allegiance.

It’s true that Trump’s personal character has fanned the flames of confusion and conflict. But even if not for Trump, political polarization and the chasm it causes are problems faced not only by the US but by nearly every country.

In the age of high-speed internet, tabulating votes by analog methods that vary from state to state and county to county is a recipe for serious trouble. It seems clear that Korea has the advantage over the US not only in its approach to controlling infectious disease (known as K-Quarantine) but also in its voting system, which has even been applied to elections for apartment block representatives.

US no longer has the world’s respect, needs to earn it back

If the US is to regain the world’s respect, I think it will have to start with these issues. The time has passed when the US president can win the hearts of people around the world merely by reciting fuzzy words such as “unity,” “freedom,” and “democracy.”

These two events this year seem to signify the slow decline of the world’s only superpower. The US won’t be able to haul itself out of the Trumpian swamp unless it realizes that the US is no longer the global standard and that the US is in dire need of heeding the advice of many countries, including Korea.

Park Chan-su
Park Chan-su

By Park Chan-su, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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