By Tess Peacock (SAWIP alumnus 2011)
For obvious reasons (superpower and/or superpower-clinging related) the American presidential race attracts a global audience. That being said, I do feel that I have been following the race more avidly than most South Africans (let’s just say my friends at dinner time do not get as excitable as I do around the subject) for two reasons:
First, my internship experience with SAWIP in Washington, DC opened my eyes to the workings of federalism, the nature of lobbying (I was there during the debt ceiling crisis), the pros and cons of a constituency system, as well as to the approachability and availability of the politicians on Capitol Hill.
Second, a book I read whilst in DC called The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin tantalised my pure intellectual fascination with various jurisprudential questions of the law. The Nine meticulously breaks down any notion of the incontestability of law. The book tracks the various elected Presidents, the United States Supreme Court judges that are then appointed by those elected Presidents, the decisions that then come out of the Supreme Court (made by those judges), and the new law that is consequently created. Law is politics made blatantly obvious in the American presidential playing field.
The next presidential period sees the likely appointment of two Supreme Court judges making this election about basic rights. It is likely that novel issues in the near future relating to LGBT rights and specifically the right to gay marriage will come before the nine Supreme Court judges. In addition, it is always possible that the Supreme Court will have to rehash old rulings such as affirmative action for minorities as well as the legality of abortion. This makes who sits on the Supreme Court bench very relevant. These are topics where, I believe, South Africa falls “on the right side of history” (to borrow a phrase from President Obama). South Africans can get married (or have a civil union) no matter what ones’ sexual orientation; South Africans have the right to choose whether to bring a child into this world or not; and the South African Constitution requires substantive equality rather than just formal equality making affirmative action a necessity in a state riddled with systemic inequality.
Mitt Romney and his potential deputy, Paul Ryan, have openly stated their position on the legality of abortion, that a woman should not have the right to choose to have an abortion except in exceptional circumstances (e.g. rape and where her life is endangered); they would thus have Roe v Wade overturned. Further, this Republican team, as far as gay rights are concerned, would only go as far as allowing a gay couple to visit one’s significant other in hospital. They would certainly not allow, support and/or campaign for other people to be given a choice, regardless of their sexual orientation, to make a marriage commitment that reaps various benefits and protections from the law.
Obama and Biden on the other hand want to see the precedent of a woman’s right to choose in Roe v Wade protected. Further, Obama is the first sitting President to openly come out in support of gay marriage. This is a huge milestone for LGBT rights and many gains won can continue if Obama and Biden win a second term.
Therefore the fact that this next electoral period will see the election of two new Supreme Court judges, in basic terms, means that this is an election about basic rights for woman, for marginalised groups, and for LGBT rights.
Despite so many relevant issues on the table, a lot of the commentary on these electoral candidates merely focuses on who is “cooler.” In South Africa we vote for a political party who then elects their leader internally; we do not vote for an individual for President. Thus, this whole intimate, public contest is quite foreign to me. I am sure there are many benefits to directly electing one’s leader but it appears that much of the presidential race is actually just a popularity contest. I often have to search for substantive commentary! The question for many Americans is simply about who is cooler, funnier and who has got more swag. The election is however, so much more than a popularity contest.
In South Africa we have a Constitution that protects people in remarkable ways, both by imposing negative and positive obligations on government. Our Constitution protects people’s right to choose. Our Constitution, unlike the US Constitution, is not one written over a century ago; it is brand new and was fought hard for. What the American elections show most obviously to me is that one can never afford to be complacent and that nothing can be taken for granted. Hard won rights can simply be taken away.
Aluta Continua – the struggle continues.