Barack Obama applauding on the night of his re-election. The electoral spectacle was beautiful, but it was only a show.

News outlets in the West and the Gulf have lauded the U.S. elections as further proof of the vitality of "the most powerful democracy in the world". By contrast, as the year began, these same outlets described the referendum and the legislative elections in Syria as "farces" and called for the overthrow of the "dictatorship". Which is which exactly? Let’s examine the two regimes using similar criteria, even though one is so much more powerful than the other that it can habitually insulate itself from criticism.

The U.S. Constitution proclaims itself in the name of the people but grants full sovereignty to the states and not to the citizenry at large. Consequently, the United States is not a democracy in the sense expressed by Lincoln as "government of the people, by the people, for the people" but rather a pact between the people and an oligarchy. Recently, the Occupy Movement with its slogan "We are the 99%" was a reminder that in the USA, wealth and power are monopolized by less than 1% of the population. By comparison, the new Syrian Constitution recognizes the sovereignty of the people to chose their leaders but in order to deal with a situation of permanent regional war, it also installs opaque forms of governance that deprive the people of the means needed for the regular functioning of democracy.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the President is not elected by the people but by an electoral college of 538 electors from the federal states. As time passed, the idea developed that the governors should consult the citizens of their states before naming the representatives of that state to the electoral college. In some states, this is required; in others there is no such referendum and the governor can do as he pleases. Be that as it may, the November 6 contest lacked constitutional value. We only have to recall that in 2000, the Supreme Court ignored Florida voters to proclaim that Bush won over Gore.

The principle function of the election we just witnessed was not to elect the president but to renew the national political pact. By participating, U.S. citizens ratify their adherence to American institutions. Vote totals have nevertheless continued to decline, outside of the 2008 election. Of 230 million adults, only 120 million cast their ballots. This figure represents a much lower degree of participation that could be observed during the Syrian referendum and the legislative elections, despite the fact that the polls did not open in four districts at war.

Obama received 50.38% votes while Romney got 48.05%. The remaining 1.67% went to eighteen other candidates you’ve never heard of because they had no access to the media to introduce themselves to the citizenry. Contrary to widespread preconceptions, the Democratic and Republican Parties are organs within the central government. Yet the primaries organized by these parties occur at the state-level and at the states’ expense.

Whatever the outcome of the electoral cycles, the two parties oversee and run a whole host of administrative organizations, for example, the National Endowment for Democracy (the CIA’s political outreach to the world). Decidedly, the two-party system in the U.S. is in effect not so different from the old one-party system in Syria. By contrast, Syria today is allowing a stream of political parties who are beginning to access to the mass media.

By definition the "American dream" really is just a "dream", an illusion. Those who believe it to be a model to follow had better wake up.

This brief comparative overview should not disappoint Syrian readers unsatisfied by the course of previous reforms. It should, rather, encourage them by indicating that the country’s institutions are evolving in a good direction, despite there still being a long road ahead.

Going back for a moment to the U.S. election and the lessons to be drawn from it. "Democrat" and "Republican" are two brands of the same product. You can choose either Pepsi or Coca Cola, each brand being associated in your imagination with different mythologies. You can have a clear preference of one over the other. But if you do a blind-tasting, you’d be incapable of distinguishing one from the other because its the same exact product. From this perspective, the embassies of the U.S. have functioned as polling organizations conducting market research. They’ve organized fictitious elections in multiple countries. This allows them to better understand the tastes of foreign consumers. You too can vote for either Obama or Romney (but forget about the eighteen other candidates)! Your vote won’t matter because you’re not a U.S. citizen? Well, it doesn’t count for U.S. citizens either. But even you can play the game !

This pseudo-pluralism is illustrated in Barack Obama’s victory speech. It could just as well have been read by Romney. He celebrated the pact between the people and the oligarchy: everyone can succeed in life; our army is the most powerful in history; our ethnic communities form a united people: "I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together: reducing our deficit; reforming our tax code; fixing our immigration system; freeing ourselves from foreign oil." Two of the stated objectives of Obama’s second term will have an impact on the Middle East. The reduction of the deficit means continuing cuts in the budget of the Pentagon and therefore further withdrawals of GI’s from the region. The end of dependence on foreign oil implies that it will become even more necessary for Washington to protect the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the jihadist system it created.

Michele Stoddard