Why are we all so interested in American Presidential elections?
The 2008 American Presidential election has captured the attention and enthusiasm of millions of Europeans. Perhaps my little patch of north London is an unusual area, but one sees the occasional ‘Obama 08’ poster displayed in house windows. I am not sure we will see any more posters, for anyone, in the European Parliament elections in June 2009. The British political classes were following the Presidential race avidly, and by all accounts there was a similar picture in other EU states. Why is this, given that we seem so unenthusiastic about our own politics, let alone what is going on in our partner states and at European level?
Two answers come immediately to mind. US Presidential campaigns are entertaining, and US Presidential politics matters. But before that, I shall consider another couple of aspects of American politics which are worthy of interest.
American politics is a testing environment for political techniques and technology. With a major set of elections every two years, and vast amounts of money, there is a very rapid cycle of development and strong techniques should quickly evolve while the weak die out (although the Democratic Party has had a touching faith in failed techniques and unsuccessful campaign consultants). The conservative movement from the 1970s until recently has been innovative with its use of direct mail, sophisticated demographic analysis, ability to organise people to talk about politics with other members of their communities, and understanding of the subtle links between lifestyle and politics (realising in 2004 for instance that most men who watch television channels about fishing vote Republican).
However, in the last five years, kick-started by Howard Dean’s campaign in 2003-04 and channelled through blogs, particularly www.dailykos.com, progressive Democrats have been fighting back. The Democratic ‘netroots’ is a powerful force – it probably gave the party control over the Senate in 2006 thanks to its support in close contests in Virginia and Montana. It has marshalled an enormous number of small donors in 2008, not only for Obama but for Congressional elections in key states and districts. There is a sense of freshness, optimism, fun and serious purpose to be found in the netroots, a combination that is largely absent from European politics of any stripe.
The army of donors co-ordinated by the blogs lacks any real counterpart either. To work out how to replicate the netroots in Europe would be a huge achievement – in terms of giving a political movement new energy and also redistributing power away from the party elites. One of the exciting things about US politics is that sometimes, within a political party, it just takes some determined individuals (including for instance Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, or long before him Richard Viguerie on the right) taking the initiative into their own hands, finding a movement that just snowballs around them, and compelling the political world to adapt.
The use of the net (and the transplantation of some of the irreverence and humour of the blogs) into campaigning is just one American innovation that anyone who is interested in campaigning should study. The Democrats, under Howard Dean as chair of the Democratic National Committee, have built up what they call a 50 state strategy. This does not mean spraying resources around wildly, but making sure that there is an organisation and a party presence across the country. Having this meant that the party could take advantage of favourable circumstances, as with its win in a Congressional special election even in Mississippi. The strategy replaced the previous excessive concentration on a small number of swing states. Many European parties, particularly the Labour Party in the UK, could do with learning that being a national party is about more than rhetoric or even ideology, it is a matter of organisation and electoral strategy as well.
The 2008 election was particularly entertaining. It could share a title with a fine British study of the 1968 contest: ‘An American Melodrama’. As a story arc, as a Hollywood version of an election, it was hard to beat. There was John McCain, the veteran military hero, going for one last campaign when those with less steel and ambition would be retiring and critics had written him off, a classic narrative from sports movies translated into politics. The Democratic side was a gripping contest between two candidates, either of whom represented a massive symbolic change in the form of the first woman or first black nominee of a major party for the Presidency. Obama’s victory was another classic story, the charismatic, clean outsider coming to change the way Washington works. However, even without this year’s particular flavour, the story of an American Presidential politics presents different facets at different times.
The primary season is when a thousand flowers bloom, most of which are rapidly cut down – it introduces us to some new characters and ideas, and gives the media and the public a chance to build up and knock down candidates. John McCain, like Bill Clinton in 1992, proved his staying power by surviving a gruelling primary season, while Rudy Giuliani’s one state strategy focused on Florida doomed his campaign. Then the narrative converges to the contest of the two nominees, joined at the conventions by their Vice Presidential choices, before heading to the debates and the hectic nationwide tours culminating in election day itself (and sometimes as in 2000 the conflict continues even after that date).
From a British point of view, European political contests that excite interest are relatively infrequent. French Presidential elections arouse some comment, and I discussed the relative merits of Sarko and Ségo with fellow British. There is continual, head-shaking despair at Berlusconi, not just because of his antics but because of Italy’s economic failure and the growing threat of racism. The British left pays less attention to Spanish politics than it should – a genuinely confident, radical government in an asymmetrically devolved and traditionally conservative polity and society should get more coverage than it does.
Perhaps a general principle can be ascertained. Good government makes bad entertainment. Countries with consistently high standards of living, stable democratic arrangements, social solidarity, growing economies and sex equality rarely find their internal politics attracting the interest of outsiders, with the partial exception of the European left’s interest in Sweden. The everyday business of politics in Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Norway is often sensible, consensual, conducted through rational means – and simply not very interesting. A re-balancing of the coalition parties and government programme in the Netherlands following an election is not box-office material, while American presidential elections present drama, conflict and ultimately resolution. The clear choice they appear to offer may often be illusory. Presidents ultimately have to work with Congress, and are constrained by circumstances the way every other politician is, and agendas converge. But, particularly since 2000, nobody can plausibly argue that Presidential elections do not have consequences.
Different sorts of political institution seem to excite different sorts of response from the public – not necessarily on turnout, although it can have an effect, but on the perception of the election. Direct election of a chief executive with strong powers, as in the US and France, focuses and personalises the election in a way in which legislative elections cannot. Elections for bodies whose predominant role is scrutiny and oversight, vital functions in government, seem to mystify the public. Examples of this are the Greater London Assembly and the European Parliament. The work clearly needs to be done, and people will grudgingly acknowledge this, but it seems boring. The European Union political system, in which executive power is nominated or intergovernmental, seems almost designed to be boring and disconnected. I have long thought that a directly elected President would at least make things a bit more interesting, and test for instance whether European-wide ideology or national identification has a greater effect on the role, and whether the need to get Europe-wide support would affect party strategies.
Some of the entertainment value of American elections comes through our fascination with the genre of American Bizarre. The election is a window through which one can study all sorts of strange phenomena, and perhaps feel vindicated in one’s, not always well hidden, feelings of contempt as well as fear and resentment for America. One can pat oneself complacently on the back for our rationalism, our lack of naïve credulity, corrupt televangelists, moose-shooting governors or bigoted talk-show personalities, and even perhaps the relative scarcity of virulent racism, rank ignorance and desperate inequality. However, this is to risk caricaturing ourselves as well as the Americans, ignoring Europe’s record at producing vicious irrationalist ideologies, and the strength that knowledge and progress have always drawn from the United States and its cultural and intellectual vitality.
But there is also a serious point. Most Europeans consider themselves on the rational, liberal side of a conflict which divides America down the middle. The immense power and influence of the United States may, or may, not, end up on the side of those who regard science and reason as superior to faith and ideology as a guide to how to use it. The American cultural civil war matters to the rest of the planet as well as to the American electorate. American Presidential politics matters.
Most of us do not treat American elections purely as entertainment. Most of us pick a side that is congruent with our general political views, and make an emotional and political investment in its success. The European left is more or less unanimous for the Democrats, and in the last election was more strongly than ever for Obama (although it was interesting during the primary season to try to work out the dividing lines that made Europeans lean either to Clinton or Obama). The right is a little more divided, reflecting the commitment to social conservatism, religion and plutocracy of the Republican Party, which is too strong a brew for many European moderate conservatives.
A key reason that the 2008 election was the object of such fascination is to be found in the extraordinary history of the Bush administration. It has governed, confrontationally and unilaterally, from the far right at home and abroad. It has encouraged every form of anti-Americanism while disheartening those, such as myself, who are progressive admirers of America. From the point at which it seized office through chicanery and the Supreme Court (in what we would call a coup in most countries), it has been a depressing experience. First came the attacks on science and the environment. Then Bush betrayed those of us who rallied around America after the appalling attacks of 11 September 2001 – in using that tragedy as an excuse for violating the noble principles of the US Constitution, wholesale lying, going into war on a frighteningly casual basis and even worse presiding over a disgusting regime of disappearances and torture. As a final show-stopping performance, Wall Street has collapsed and the next administration’s money mortgaged to pay for the damage.
The next administration inherits a disastrous legacy, and a need to prove to the world that the last eight years have been an aberration rather than business as usual. In fairness to McCain, he had in the past opposed Bush on the environment and torture. But as the campaign went on he sold his soul to his party, and to the attack machine that had smeared him and his family when he had challenged Bush in the 2000 primary season. But to see Obama elected has delighted pro-Americans throughout the world. While Bush embodies the arrogant, ignorant side of America, Obama is a powerful symbol of the hope and renewal that America offers too, and (like Clinton in 1992, only more so) would start with an immense fund of goodwill. The fact that America, by the clearly expressed will of its people, has produced a black leader, will change the relationship between America and the rest of the world. Perhaps Obama can build on that, and restore America’s status as that shining city on a hill, a place of opportunity and progress with a benevolent influence on the rest of us, projected by action and example.
Ultimately, America is in the consciousness of all of us – to some as a nightmare, but to most of us as an ambivalent object of attraction. So much of the world, and its culture, are permeated with America that in order to understand the times we live in, and attain a minimum of cultural literacy, we need to understand a bit about America. An election is a time for insight not only into what its next leader intends to do for the next four years and how that will affect us, but into why America makes the decisions it does about the choices on offer. Particularly in 2008, no politically minded European can afford not to be interested in American elections.