By Arab News
By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed*
A larger majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton — one million more votes went to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton than to her Republican rival Donald Trump — yet, Trump won the electoral college and was elected president.
The same scenario happened during the US presidential election in the year 2000, which prompted many to call for a reform of the American electoral system. Congress finally appears to be ready to review it. Despite plenty of self-criticism and its multiple faults, the American system is considered one of the best models of western democracy, even when compared to the parliamentary systems of France and the United Kingdom.
Criticism arises after every election season, with many complaining about the intervention of large companies and super lobbyists who support candidates through donations — a matter that was criticized by Trump who promised to correct it, although this is doubtful. The American government has more transparency, more checks and balances among authorities and the mechanism for internal accountability, than other western regimes. The president has considerable power, but not absolute. The legislatures undergo auditing and are accountable. It is the legislature that appoints secretaries of state, not the party, but Congress has the power to approve them after hearings.
The US Cabinet, despite the magnitude of the country, has no more than 15 members, while a small country like Lebanon, for example, has 24 ministers. The president, or commander-in-chief, does not chair or even attend Cabinet meetings, unlike the councils of ministers in most countries.
Some see it as a disadvantage of the American system that the president appoints Supreme Court justices only when there is a vacancy, and that the position of a judge is for life or until incapable to discharge one’s duty.
Unlike European systems, government ministers cannot be members of Congress, and must resign if chosen. This is unlike France and the United Kingdom, where all ministers are members of parliament.
Furthermore, the US president cannot interfere in the affairs of Congress, nor head it more than once per year. The powers are separated, and neither can impose its decisions on the others. The president and his government, or the executive power, are separated from the Congress, the legislative power, and the judiciary.
The system requires the government to provide information to citizens upon demand, except for issues considered classified, and anyone can request from his/her representative in Congress to discuss it. Issues classified as top secret are left to specialized committees to review. The system is reasonable but not perfect. Active groups can influence the movement of the state, and the system does not protect everything. Therefore, there are groups and associations for the protection of the environment, minority rights, professionals, and so on.
Inactive groups include Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, who have lost a lot due to their lack of involvement as associations in political work and to their dependence on the constitution to protect their rights. The constitution is the highest authority in the country. While there are countries without one, like Britain, in the United States the constitution is almost sacred, and it cannot be undone irrespective of the strength of the president or judges. Amendments to it are historically rare.
The constitution protects the rights of all, and is a main source of protection for minorities under all circumstances. Most of the discrimination cases raised by Muslim Americans after Sept. 11, 2001, were won by them based on constitutional principles. This does not, however, eliminate the need for political action, as the political system is available for all and flexible, and gives minorities a voice, no matter how small.
This is what distinguishes the United States, where most of its inhabitants are descendants of immigrants from different countries, from European countries where ethnicities and religions are pure and the interests of the majority override those of the minority.
Finally, despite the protection of freedoms and the availability of political action for all, the political system is dominated by two parties: Democratic and Republican.
The ideological differences between them are limited, unlike in Europe. The last election was strange and different because Trump actually does not belong to the Republican Party and does not believe in all its principles. Similarly, Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s main rival in the Democratic Party, is more leftist than any other candidate in the history of the party.
We have yet to see whether these were signs of a change within the American political system or simply two rare cases.
*Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran journalist and internationally acclaimed columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel and ex-editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat