As candidate Trump was being nominated as the Republican presidential nominee, cheered on by his many supporters, in a few casual conversations with my friends, I stated to them that I believed candidate Trump would win the United States Presidency.
My friends, moderates in their views, disagreed with me and said that candidate Trump was just a passing fad. They attributed my conclusion to my inexperience and lack of exposure to American politics.
They were right in the fact that my time analyzing or following American politics was relatively short.
What I didn’t lack though was exposure to the type of political strategy that the Republican party and the Trump campaign was engaging in.
Having lived through a civil war, dictatorial leadership, nationalistic movements, dirty politics and systemic corruption in Sri Lanka, the little island nation I am from, this was familiar territory to me.
To fully understand my conclusion, I would have to explain to some extent Sri Lanka’s history and its political culture. My hope is that you will be able to draw your own parallels to the current political climate in America or where it might be heading.
Sri Lanka is a democratic nation with a blend of the British parliamentary system and an executive presidency. Similar in some ways to the French system of government. My earliest exposure to Sri Lankan politics was during a hopeful time in Sri Lanka’s political history. After the assassination of the then president who in many ways had dictatorial tendencies, the first female executive president in Sri Lanka’s history took office in 1994 (I was 10 years old).
For a country deeply rooted in its history and culture, a female presidency was neither progressive or revolutionary. Sri Lanka was the first nation in the world to have the first female premier, which incidentally was the mother of the president-elect.
J. R. Jayewardene the first executive president amended the constitution in 1972 to make the presidency an executive post. Taking up more of a nationalistic stance in an ethnically diverse nation his policies and gain in power contributed in some part to the 25-year civil war. His successor also adopted a more authoritarian method of governance until his assassination in 1993.
Political leadership since independence from the British in 1948 was limited to a certain British educated class of Sri Lanka’s that were left in power by the British. The second executive president who was very much a commoner broke this trend. Sri Lanka’s 4th executive president was in some ways a return to the political dynasties of Sri Lanka.
It was quite a spectacle watching political rallies or spending time in Sri Lanka during an election. People are bussed to political rallies that are held on stages constructed where ever possible, from the middle of the town square to the side of the main roads. The rallies consist of celebratory atmospheres with music dance and entertainment.
The contents at these rallies are delivered with vigor and great enthusiasm. They are rarely policy discussions or informative. They mostly consist of showmanship, with robust attacks on the opposition parties, or candidates, praise on their own leaders, praise on the work they have done in government, or in their role as the opposition, ending with a passionate plea to vote their party or its candidate into power.
The primary two parties have colors and insignia. A relic from the times when literacy wasn’t as high as it is now, a useful tool in tying political party to identity. In these rallies, the staunch supporters wear clothes in the colors of the party they support, proud to belong to the parties and their identity deeply rooted in the party.
In presidential races, there are no debates directly between candidates. Rarely are discussions based on policy differences. Parliamentary members have debates and discussions on televised shows broadcasted live in which at times the argument are known to have become personal, and physical altercations are known to have taken place.
The media is divided along party lines. The government itself has its own broadcasting corporation which will blatantly support the party that is in power. Its director is appointed by the government or president. The private media companies are also blatantly supportive of the parties or candidates that support their interests. The accountability brought on by the 4th estate, the media, is non existent.
In local government and in their rise into the national stage, it is rarely educated social leaders, volunteers or public servants that run for public office. It is mostly businessmen with financial strength and influence, strongmen with questionable backgrounds and connections to criminal entities, or individuals with ties to the political dynasties that rise up into the national political stage.
Loyalty to these candidates and their parties are based on individual gains and influence. If the candidate that you support, that you take the time to campaign for, work for, gets elected, you will stand the chance of getting a job or some post in his administration or government service. It again is rarely based on policies, personal ethics, viewpoints etc that gets a politician elected to office.
This kind of political structure feeds into the survival instincts of the people. The mass majority, who are unaware of the intricacies involved in governance, the economy, rarely care about policy. They are all too concerned about their basic needs and survival. The more desperate you are, the more selfish and single-minded you become. Your immediate needs trump that of what is noble or what is right, and politicians will play to these basic needs in the short term than the long run national policies required for sustained growth.
It also serves to breed a system of corruption in government. No financial checks and balances are required or investigated, corruption from the lowest level to the highest is accepted. These politicians are never held accountable at the polling booths. Any criticism is easily dismissed as fake.
The standards for candidacy for public office in Sri Lanka are low. What society and communities ask of its political leaders, the values and morals they require, the litmus test for character and accountability are very little. They continue to make excuses, show blind faith and loyalty in their political leaders, never questioning themselves or the faith they place in those leaders.
It is also worth noting that Sri Lanka is still a relatively young democracy. Only having gained independence in 1948 from British rule. It’s documented history spans 3,000 years, with evidence of prehistoric human settlements dating back to at least 125,000 years. With a culture as rich and diverse as it is, it has had its challenges dealing with changing demography diversity and its own identity.
I observed a country that rooted its identity in religion. Predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lanka struggled with a changing world, diverse faiths, ethnicities, and languages. Opportunist, using the fears of losing a certain ideal or identity, for their own gains or to incite violence. While others, used the frustrations of the minorities and their mistreatment for their own gains and to incite further violence.
I’ve witnessed how ignoring the legitimate concerns of the minorities sow division. How not addressing the fears of the majority leads to tension and mistrust. How a nation loses its values and higher mortality in the face of perceived fears and threats. How a nation divides itself based on religion, race, and political allegiances. How opportunistic leaders take advantage of the fears, division, and naiveté of the masses for personal gain. How an uninformed, misinformed electorate can be manipulated and coerced.
I witnessed a country in which its leaders did not lead but deceived and divided its people.
It’s not to say that I am in any way predicting the political direction or drawing a direct comparison. I have not seen or observed Sri Lankan politics closely in some time. But to me, the indicators of the erosion of American values, the division being nurtured along party lines, and the rise of the mob, its loyalty to a person over policy or character are very evident.
It’s undeniable that American politics, its morality, and values have significantly changed. America is no longer leading the world. America survived Nixon, 9/11, and two Wars. Will it be able to unite, and find its character and identity again, or is this a start of a new era in America’s history. Only time will tell.