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Can this happen in America?

- Bob Wekesa

Why 'messy' elections could be considered a source of soft power for the US.

Since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 and throughout his four-year tenure, many observers have concluded that the US has generally lost favourability across the world. Based on such “image” assessments, some make a direct link between his appointment to office and the declining power of the US in the global arena. This decline of power narrative is often juxtaposed with the ‘China as a rising power’ narrative by geopolitical observers, especially at this moment in time.

These deductions are also echoed on popular African opinion channels and social media platforms. Throughout the electioneering process, incredulous comments have been made from various African commentators on the apparent fallibility, dysfunction and limitations of the US election processes generally and its political system specifically. It is as if some Africans are asking themselves the rhetorical question: “You mean this can happen in America?”.

As the vote counting quickly developed into nail-biting suspense this week, memes and comments comparing US elections to African elections promptly spread on social media and via WhatsApp. In essence, the comments were aimed at bringing down the mighty USA to the level of “lowly” African countries. This can be interpreted as a substantial loss of soft power capital.

In one among many other cheeky posts on the current state of the US elections, @PaZimbabweNews tweeted a link to one of its articles headlined: “United States Risks Sanctions from Zimbabwe If Elections Are Not Free and Fair”, above a picture of a pensive President Donald Trump. It is easy for such sarcasm to be read as a denigration of the US and nothing more. However, the massive spotlight on the US elections is also an act of public diplomacy and soft power.

How, exactly, does such negative assessment of the US still count as soft power?

The explanation lies in the sheer amount of interest in the US elections from the African continent. On election day on November 3, and a day after on November 4, I did a quick scan of several African broadcasting channels on YouTube, where most broadcasters focused on the US elections as the headline news item. As of November 6, when focus shifted to the US electoral swing states, major print, and online media outlets in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda, to name but three, followed suit and retained the elections at the top of their news line-up. Additionally, social media banter showed no signs of waning: and the elections and voting results trended in several African countries.

As the election campaign period ended and voting commenced, African journalists, scholars and media delved into topics such as the electoral college system and the impact of swing states. There was quite a buzz about absentee voting as well allegations of electoral fraud. Subsequently, interest moved on to results from battleground states with eyes glued on American news outlets, especially CNN. It was clear that Africans were as captivated by the US elections as Americans themselves. As one Kenyan WhatsApp post following President Uhuru Kenyatta’s address to the nation over COVID-19 measures put it: “Uhuru should know he is addressing an empty nation. All of us are now in America.”

What the huge amount of African interest in this political event tells us is that the US elections are a source of soft power for the US in Africa and elsewhere in the world. Africans are not only entertained by US politics, they also have expectations of the superpower. Several factors bear this out. For instance, many of the social media posts, memes and videos circulating on social media were humorous, merely poking fun at the developments, rather than being outrightly critical. Granted, some Africans were inclined to excoriate the US for exporting its democracy and human rights values to Africa while flouting these very values, as evident in the elections. Indeed, the narrative of African political elites pointing to the dysfunction and limitation of US politics as a means of entrenching themselves in power and committing human rights violations has emerged.

But at the same time, Africans are laughing at themselves even as they laugh at the US. They know, for instance, that the atrocities committed on African people in the name of elections in their countries are nowhere close to what is happening in the US. The underlying message is that an American president cannot dare take power by force, as happens in Africa. Indeed, social media posts mocking or criticising Trump are a commentary on the fact that an incumbent is behaving like an authoritarian African leader in a US presidential election.

It is also in the extensive media coverage and social media commentary that American soft power is evident. In the information age we live in today, the levels of knowledge about the US elections and, by extension, US society are likely to have shot up considerably. One can bet that many more Africans now know of places like Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Ask any African about the regions of a country such as Russia and they are likely to mention only Moscow and then return a blank stare. It is therefore not far-fetched to hypothesise that no other election season on earth attracts as much interest as the US’. This is in fact a strength rather than a weakness. If one thinks the open contest is a negative, just consider circumstances where nations conceal public affairs, thereby fuelling speculation, rumour and distrust.

While electioneering has a heavy soft power element, American strategists will have to go back to the drawing point to analyse the global reputational damage to the US from this election season. It is acceptable for Africans (and others) to poke fun at the US' messy state of domestic affairs but if this continues unabated, the superpower will become a laughing stock. Thus, Americans will have to work to “repair” the “broken” aspects of their democracy not just for their own good, but also for their reputation in Africa (and the rest of the world).

The US has weathered many similar storms in the past and it will likely bounce back by addressing the daunting challenges it faces. Quite interestingly, there are some reversals here. The US has served as role model for African countries for decades. It has indeed been a key promotor of human rights and democracy. One pathway to rebuilding credibility while maintaining its soft power status is to look to African success stories that it may have contributed to in the past. In these respects, South Africa and Ghana seem like good places to start.

Dr Bob Wekesa is partnerships, research and communications coordinator at The African Centre for the Study of the United States, Wits University.

This article is part of the African Digital Diplomacy series, published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University and featured on Africa Portal - a research repository and an expert analysis hub on African affairs.