The Eyes Of The World Are On New Hampshire
In the run-up to the start of the primary season, my fellow Brit blogger Andrew Sullivan somehow managed to endorse both John McCain and Ron Paul as the least worst alternatives in an uninspiring GOP field (eventually plumping for Paul). … Read More
In the run-up to the start of the primary season, my fellow Brit blogger Andrew Sullivan somehow managed to endorse both John McCain and Ron Paul as the least worst alternatives in an uninspiring GOP field (eventually plumping for Paul). But despite nominally being a conservative, there’s no doubt where Sullivan’s main hopes for the presidency rest; a series of gushing articles in recent weeks (most notably in December’s Atlantic magazine) confirm him as a fully signed-up Obamaniac. On his own blog, Sullivan even describes “what can only be called euphoria from America's allies and friends around the world at the prospect of an Obama presidency”. That strikes me as something of an exaggeration, to put it mildly, but there is no doubt that the eyes of the world are glued to this US election like no other that I can remember.
Of course, it’s not simply, or even mostly, down to Obama (whom my spellchecker obstinately insists on trying to rename ‘Osama’ – expect Fox to use that excuse some time soon). In fact, there are a number of reasons for the heightened interest. First and most obvious, the race is incredibly hard to call. A week or two ago the Dem nomination was Hillary’s to lose; at time of writing this she may be only hours from (effectively) being out. The Republicans, meanwhile, have eschewed the boy-girl matchup in favour of an all-male threeway; a sweaty tangle of shiny teeth, macho postures and barking mad attack ads that most outsiders find at once utterly baffling and totally compelling (Chuck Norris? I mean, what?).
Second, and probably equally obvious now I think about it, a lot of people over here would get excited about a sheep’s bladder on a stick if it was running to replace the current incumbent. Now, I have no time whatsoever for the kneejerk Bush-hatred of the European Left, which blames this administration, directly or indirectly, for everything from Benazir Bhutto’s assassination to David Beckham’s knackered knee; but you don’t have to be a alfalfa-munching Kos reader to see that most of the world will breathe a hearty sigh of relief in 54 weeks’ time. Of course, as most of the runners and riders are relatively unknown beyond your shores, observers of all political stripes can pin their own hopes and hobby-horses onto Bush’s departure; the new guy is going to disappoint a lot of people very quickly. But for the time being, people are – if not exactly “euphoric”, in Sullivan’s phrase – certainly optimistic.
However, I think there’s something else at work here, too. The typical supercilious European view of the US political system (shared by many in Britain) is that it’s irredeemably broken; a messy combination of special interests, religious nutjobs and insane amounts of money weighing down a drawn-out process that seems to take about three years, and which usually conspires to pick the wrong guy anyway (and it is always a guy – and a Protestant white guy, at that), and then holds him hostage to the lobby groups who got him elected (big oil, the labour unions, the NRA and – of course – the Israel lobby).
Like all caricatures, it only works because there’s more than a hint of truth informing the broad brush strokes. But there’s a growing realisation that behind our sneering view of American-style democracy, something else is at work. There is, at least on the face of it, a healthy optimism about the political process in the US – yes, yes, it may only be skin-deep, and challenged daily by candidates whose interest lies in trading on fear rather than hope, but it still makes a refreshing change from the world-weary scepticism with which we greet every utterance from our own politicians in this country. Part of that is down to the possibility that a year from now we will see the first black President, or first woman. We beat you to the latter, of course, but our politics is still every bit as dominated by average white guys as it once was.
And worse is the stifling uniformity that has descended on the British political system in the post-ideological age. Tony Blair apes Conservative themes and policies, Gordon Brown poses with the hated [by him] Thatcher in Downing Street and steals Tory policies for short-term gain, and for their own part our Conservatives go out of their way to try and appropriate the rhetoric and language of the “progressive” left. To witness the slightly archaic system of caucuses and primaries that seem to be propelling Barack Obama past the slick Clinton machine, or seeing Huckabee giving Mitt Romney a richly deserved kicking in Iowa despite spending a fraction of his rival’s budget, is inevitably to look at our own stagnant political systems – in which we are lectured by increasingly similar-looking social democrats, who look like they should be selling homes but whom we would not dream of inviting into our own – and wonder if we’ve got things so great here.
I’m not starry-eyed. The influence of money in American politics is real, pernicious, and growing. Turnouts are rotten (barely over 50%). Mainstream candidates continue to make statements and espouse positions that I find extraordinary. I don't care if Chuck Norris supports him; Huckabee's still a twat. The culture war rages on, and the country is as polarised as at any time since the 70’s. Beneath the superficial religious, racial and gender diversity of the headline acts, the undercard is mostly the same old mixture of hacks, lawyers, blowhards, bored millionaires, fuckwits and careerists with sharp haircuts and dull minds. “Change” is a slogan, a punchline; not a reality. Would someone like Obama be that change, as a growing number of people seem to think? I doubt it. But then I’m a cynic. Not for the first time in history, though, there are millions of people all over the world watching America; watching, and waiting, and wondering.