I want to confess to an addiction. It’s been going on for months now, and sometimes I stay up way into the night getting my fix. It sets me apart from my friends and family, who struggle to understand why I am so compelled. I know that my habit is certain to get worse over the next two months, and I don’t think that there are any support groups I can turn to. All that I can do is to go online and visit the specialist websites where my compulsion is understood and shared.
You see, it’s like this: I simply cannot get enough of the US Presidential election.
My habit causes me pain. It reinforces a depressing sense of helplessness in the face of human irrationality and overwhelming power. I can, and do, subscribe to Barack Obama’s e-mailing list
to get the latest updates directly from the candidate I hope to see win; but US electoral law prevents an un-American like me from responding to his frequent appeals for money. I don’t have the funds to commute across the Atlantic to help with canvassing, and I’m sure that even if I could go knocking on doors in a crucial swing state like Ohio or Florida, some voters would tell me that America’s choice of leader was none of my goddamn business as soon as they heard my English accent. But I’m still fascinated by the electoral events – partly, of course, because the choice that American voters make will be so important for the whole planet.
From an environmental point of view, there’s a world of difference between Obama’s enthusiasm for alternative energy sources and John McCain’s loyalty to the oil-centric energy policies that have characterised the Bush administration.
International relations will be strikingly different if American voters reject the neo-conservative demand for US domination of global affairs contained in Republican foreign policy, and instead give Obama the opportunity to repair old alliances and restore his country’s good name in the world.
McCain voted for the invasion of Iraq and has declared that the USA’s military presence there should last for a century if it furthers America’s aims. Obama opposed the invasion and wishes to withdraw the troops as soon as practically possible, while striving to end the dependence on oil that focuses so much American attention on the Middle East.
These practical policy considerations are reason enough to take an intense interest in the choice of leader for the planet’s dominant nation; but what really fuels my fascination is the drastically different views of human life that are represented by the American right and the American left. It is a clash between faith and reason; between an embrace of diversity and a craving for a simpler time when life had clear rules and authority always prevailed, between an acceptance of progress and equality, and a longing for a mythic past when men and women knew their God-given places and everything was so much more certain. It’s the 21st Century versus The Waltons and John Wayne; and of course religion makes this clash of philosophies so much more passionate. Perhaps the biggest choice before the American electorate is the one between plurality and theocracy: between those who truly accept that there can be more than one valid view of an important issue, and those who see the election as a ‘culture war’ between their God and sinful, un-American depravity. It is this latter group that brings into American elections issues that thankfully do not usually greatly intrude into British party politics.
Abortion may be a minor issue at the next UK General Election; Conservative leader David Cameron supports a reduction in the time limit for late abortions. But we certainly won’t see any mainstream British politician echoing Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s call for a total ban on all terminations, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Likewise, the legal rights of British gays and lesbians should stay much the same regardless of who the Prime Minister might be following our next General Election; but the issue of same-sex marriage is more important than the economy for many voters on the American religious right. It was courageous of Obama to demand during his speech to the Democratic Convention that ‘…our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters…’ should not face discrimination; he must have been well aware that for many American voters, supporting anti-gay discrimination is quite literally an article of faith.
Then, of course, there is the American citizen’s ‘right to bear arms’, enshrined in the Constitution and so dear to much of the electorate that even a would-be reformer like Obama dare not threaten it, however strong a case for doing so might be made by US violent crime statistics; even the most tentative moves towards tighter gun regulation must be couched in terms that reassure rural voters that their hunting rifles will not be taken away.
Finally, there is the American addiction to ostentatious, sentimental patriotism that has made a genuine election issue out of the occasions on which Obama has or has not worn a ‘flag pin’ stars and stripes badge on his lapel.
Would I want these things in British politics? Most definitely not. And yet, at the same time, American politics awakes in me a kind of nostalgia for the days when our elections generated such visceral passions. Part of me misses the days of Thatcher versus Old Labour, when our political parties stood for dramatically different outlooks on the world rather than representing subtly different approaches to free-market capitalism, as they do today. It is strangely refreshing to view an election with real partisan zeal, fervently rooting for one side and feeling revulsion towards the appalling attitudes of the other.
Having said that, I’m very well aware that Obama is not actually the Messiah, even if that is the sneering nickname that some Republicans have given him, For all his charisma and charm, he can be a ruthless political operator when necessary; and after the barrage of attacks he faced at a relentlessly negative and fear-fuelled Republican Convention, that’s just as well. Obama’s election as President would only begin a process of change in America and across the planet over which the USA holds so much sway. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about Obama’s style is the way that he stresses empowerment: his slogan is ‘Yes, we can’, not ‘Yes, I can’. Popular opinion at home would render him unable to change some of the things that appal outsiders about America; the gun culture would remain, as would the death penalty. Even so, the choice before the US electorate is stark.
The Democrats offer a plan to withdraw from Iraq and repair America’s relationships with the outside world, a programme of taxing the richest to help the poorest, policies aimed at making health care affordable for all Americans, broad-minded social attitudes, an appreciation of eloquent intelligence and plans for huge investment in alternative energy.
The Republicans stand for war and conquest, religious intolerance, entrenched privilege, narrow national self-interest, support for the free market at its most merciless, disdain for welfare, a mistrust of intellect and an attitude to environmental protection summed up by the chants of ‘DRILL! DRILL!!’ at their Convention, demanding that nothing must get in the way of the search for American oil. For a liberal European like me, it looks like the closest thing I’m ever likely to see to an election between good and evil.
The US Presidential Election 2008 is a story with most of the elements that make for great dramatic entertainment. There’s a dashing hero to cheer on, loathsome villains to despise, the future of the planet at stake, a plot with plenty of startling twists, and now the certainty of history being made one way or another: either the first African-American President, or the first female Vice-President.
If a screenwriter had come up with the story of Sarah Palin,
the obscure woman from the backwoods suddenly transformed into a serious contender for the most powerful position on earth, then surely the script would have been rejected as absurdly far-fetched. Come to that, rarely in even the most lurid of soaps can so many skeletons have come clattering out of a single character’s closet in so short a space of time; yet it seems that a lot of Americans love Palin no matter what powers she’s abused or how many lies she’s told. It’s a bit like what happened when Jade Goody first stomped into the British Big Brother house; some viewers were appalled by her behaviour, but she became a star because many others were thrilled to see someone a bit like them become famous and important.
So I’ll keep missing sleep waiting for the latest developments, anxiously scanning the opinion polls and scouring American political blogs for the background detail. Some good friends of mine follow their favourite soaps or TV talent contests with comparable intensity, yet cannot understand how I can find politics so compelling. All I can say to them is that this US election is anything but boring. Bizarre, yes; frightening, frequently – tedious, never. Our own domestic politics may have become pretty dull; but for better or for worse, they do things differently over there.