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Lessons from America: What Lebanon’s opposition can learn from the US election

Lessons from America: What Lebanon’s opposition can learn from the US election

US President-elect Joe Biden. (AFP)

At long last, the US election is over. Some 306 out of 538 members of the Electoral College will officially make Joe Biden the president-elect on Dec. 14. Speculation on the consequences of Biden’s victory for the Middle East region command a great deal of Lebanon’s political attention, even though the Lebanese have almost no ability to change the parameters of a geopolitical game in which they are mostly pawns.

Rather than pointless speculation about changes in the regional balance of power, however, Lebanese would be wise to consider important, practical political lessons offered by the 2020 US presidential election. MPs are elected, just as Biden was elected, and Lebanese can control the fate of the 128 individuals who sit in their own Parliament, through the legislative elections slated for May 2022.

For the Lebanese who entertain any hopes of political change and who have been demonstrating in the streets for a year now, the 2022 elections are crucial and the stakes are high, especially since popular anti-establishment forces are running out of steam.

So the pertinent question is: how do we break this vicious circle, ongoing since the end of the Civil War, in which the same political system is put back on its feet by each round of elections, despite its being denounced by almost everyone since long before the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising

This question is most notably directed at the political groups and movements hailing from civil society, or other groups who hold the same objectives, but who have failed to break the glass ceiling in previous elections.

These groups continue to struggle to emerge as a real political force capable of clinching an electoral victory. Their difficulties are mainly due to an array of structural obstacles, all of which have been well analyzed by others — the absence of a unified leadership within the movements, the shortcomings of the electoral law, lack of financial means, etc.

But other factors are also at play, and stem from a certain strategic naivety largely associated with the lack of experience among these anti-establishment groups. Learning how politics works in the world’s most powerful nation could offer some lessons to this effect and reveal a way to break this vicious circle.

Confirmation bias

The first lesson that voters, and those who hope to win them over, could use is to beware of a well-known trap that is sharply accentuated by social media: confirmation bias.

In the US, this tendency led many Democratic supporters to be stunned by Trump’s victory in 2016, and four years later, caused Republicans to fail to see the danger presented by a candidate like Biden, who was often described as “too old.”

This wishful-thinking form of political observation is a classic mistake of analysis in our time: we assume that things we see on social media from people who think and behave like we do represent the way the majority of society feels. In almost all cases, this belief is dangerously wrong or at least a dramatically oversimplified version of reality.

Consider this in a Lebanese context. Imagine you’re from Zahle and a work colleague from Tripoli tells you, “My family used to support Hariri but not anymore.” First of all, do you believe him? And if so, how big is his family? Does he speak for all of them? What does “support” actually mean?

Or, imagine your die-hard revolutionary friend mentions that the withdrawal of funding for the Bisri Dam project was a major victory for environmental activists and that the publicity against this project will hurt Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil politically. Again, how exactly will the media coverage hurt him? Was it sustained over a sufficiently long period of time that people have no choice but to remember it? Does it fundamentally alter his base of support or the number of votes his party expects to win?

This risk of analytical bias is all the more marked by the euphoria and adherence of a large part of the Lebanese public to the values and slogans of the revolution. This is why the supporters of change would be wise to reflect critically on the scope of certain developments before jumping head first to broader conclusions about what might happen when people go to vote.

It is also important to draw operational conclusions that make it possible to identify, or even attempt to reverse, an a priori unfavorable trend.

One of the best examples of this was the way that the Trump campaign approached Black Americans during the 2016 campaign. Normally, this community gives more than 90 percent of its votes to the Democratic candidate. But the Trump campaign did something smart. They identified Black voters who would never support Trump, but weren’t really enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton. They ran very negative, targeted ads attacking her on social media with the hope of depressing turnout among those voters. This strategy is called “deterrence.” It worked, and it’s one of the main reasons Trump won in states like Wisconsin and Michigan.

This kind of racial profiling lends itself to the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics quite well. For example, consider the constituency of Kesrouan and Jbeil, which has eight seats in Parliament: seven Maronite and one Shiite. If the competition between the Christian parties is very intense, Shiite voters could be the deciding factor in the election. Highly targeted negative campaigns that make these constituents less enthusiastic about voting for the lists that they traditionally support could change the overall outcome.

Identify weapons

Naturally, on the strict level of values, such strategies should be repugnant to all those who denounce the sectarian segmentation of the country, or more generally, methods considered immoral.

But if, to repeat Clausewitz’s famous axiom, politics is the continuation of war by other means, it is imperative to identify the weapons and resources which will make it possible to defeat the enemy, or at least those that the enemy might use, in order to take adequate countermeasures.

Back to the example of Michigan and Wisconsin: in 2020, the Democrats understood what had happened in 2016 and invested time and money to bring voter turnout back up to regular levels.

Finally, the most important lesson of all comes from watching the exciting and confusing tabulation of results. It took days to determine whether Trump or Biden won certain states, and sometimes it depended on a few thousand votes, out of millions, in a handful of cities or counties. The point being: there is no massive conspiracy that can account for all of these details. The only way to win an American presidential election is to work harder and smarter than your opponents: in messaging, in voter registration, in targeting of advertisements, etc.

Lebanon’s political game is less transparent for sure, and structural obstacles continue to exist, but citizens who are desperate for change and those who claim to represent them have probably not yet realized how much work they need to do. It’s easy to criticize the political establishment, but it takes more than a few weeks of street protests to beat the elites.

In short, if my years of experience in political strategy allow me to give some advice to all those who want to jump into battle in the upcoming elections, I would say the first step is to begin thinking critically about political trends.

Be realistic about how much of the existing vote can be changed. Discover where there are hidden votes and bring them out. And stop complaining. You will not win unless you earn it.


George Ajjan is an international political strategist based in Beirut who has advised parties and candidates in more than 20 countries around the world.


At long last, the US election is over. Some 306 out of 538 members of the Electoral College will officially make Joe Biden the president-elect on Dec. 14. Speculation on the consequences of Biden’s victory for the Middle East region command a great deal of Lebanon’s political attention, even though the Lebanese have almost no ability to change the parameters of a geopolitical game in which...