There aren’t so many things to learn from the U.S., at least for a postcolonial and cultural theory student like me. But the epic presidential election and its aftermath offers insights worth studying.
It was a grand victory, yet President-elect Barack Obama remained humble, using gracious words in his acceptance speech which was full of humility—and visionary, too.
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” he told 240,000 supporters in Chicago’s Grand Park. “I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he has fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor [Sarah] Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation’s promise in the months ahead.”
When McCain called to congratulate Obama, he was humbled, saying, “I need your help.”
This is victory with humility. It is a lesson Nelson Mandela likes to teach: that we must defeat others with humility and lose with dignity.
It is a lesson Mandela learned in his boyhood when an animal he rode took him into thorns and left him ashamed. Since then, he made up his mind to win with humility and lose with dignity. This is African wisdom which our friends in the West have upheld over the years and we are abandoning carelessly.
McCain’s concession speech from the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Ariz., said the U.S. media, was everything it had to be—a generous, gracious reminder that when the campaign comes to a close what really matters is a shared enterprise as Americans.
“Sen. Obama and I argued our differences, and he has prevailed,” McCain said. “No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country. I pledge tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us with the many challenges we face. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans... and believe me when I say: no association has ever meant more to me than that....”
This is patriotism—love of a country. McCain has fought so many battles, the most popular being the Vietnam War. He has won and lost. But it seems the battle of this election was his last and he lost—but with dignity.
Obama, on his part, accepted the victory in a new way, yet like any other U.S. president. He spoke like a world ruler, not a president confined to the U.S.
It was this acceptance of victory and defeat that Malawi may wish to learn from the U.S. The winner must do so with humility while the loser maintains his dignity.
But this U.S. election was not the first one to offer lessons for all of us. The 2000 election that ushered George W Bush into the White House, only to mess up US’s foreign policy, was also full of lessons.
The loser of that election, Al Gore, won the popular vote and he believes the election was somehow stolen from him. (It is a complicated story of the electoral system of the US.)
As a result, the former vice president fell “out of love with politics,” because he became the fourth man in U.S. history to win the popular vote but lose a presidential election. But in the face of such disappointment, he showed admirable discipline—waking up every day knowing he came so close to victory, believing the Supreme Court was wrong to shut down the Florida recount but never, never, never talking about it publicly because he didn’t want Americans to lose faith in their system.
Lose faith in their system? Yes. Gore knew the Supreme Court robbed him victory. He had a right to complain all his life the way John Tembo or Gwanda Chakuamba do. But Gore knows such complaints take people’s confidence away from their systems.
How many Malawians have faith in the Malawi Electoral Commission? How many of us believe elections can ever be free and fair? How many of us will accept next year’s election results? The challenge we face is that since the reintroduction of multiparty democracy in 1993, the 1994 presidential and parliamentary poll is the only one accepted as free and fair by the presidential candidates.
It was hugely because founding President Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, accepted results while votes were being counted and he left no room for anyone to complain.
In 1999, Gwanda Chakuamba cried foul. So, too, he did in 2004. Already some people are saying next year’s elections have been rigged. Yet we are five months away from elections. This is so because people love power a lot more than they love their country.
We need to help our people have faith in our systems, especially elections. We can achieve that if our politicians learn to accept polls.
Even when they know they have been robbed of victory as was the case with Al Gore, our politicians must learn the hard patriotism: to accept results and let life go on. In fact, the way to go is to work towards developing an effective electoral process, one that gives power to people. That is one lesson from the U.S.