Ten things I’ve learned about U.S. politics from following the election
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain in ‘Innocents Abroad’. Not always. Travel can also confirm and cement previously held beliefs – as I have discovered during the last three months in America. Before I came here via Britain (where I was born) and Belgium (where I live) I thought Americans were the kindest, loudest, warmest people on the planet. How right I was. I also thought they would be as open about their politics as their personal lives and as polite in their political discourse as they invariably are in public. How wrong I was.
Having closely followed the presidential campaign from its stormy first act in Tampa to its tragic finale on the Northeast seaboard, here are 10 lessons this election has taught one non-resident alien about politics in the United States:
1. We beat Kansas
Americans care about politics, but not that much. Just over half of eligible voters are expected to cast their ballot on Tuesday – significantly less than in most wealthy democracies. Walking around the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, where I am teaching this fall, there is absolutely no evidence that an election campaign is taking place. No posters, no T-shirts, no buttons, nothing. There are, however, plenty of students sporting sweatshirts bragging about beating Kansas in football last season.
2. No politics please – we’re American
One of the reasons there is no sign of an election happening is that Americans are petrified about taking politics in public. They will ask where you are from, what church you go to and how many children you have – and will tell you their life story in return – but they won’t say which party they support. They watch presidential debates in huge numbers, but won’t debate politics with each other – unless with like-minded believers.
3. Divided we fall
The reason families and friends won’t talk politics is because the issues they are likely to disagree on – abortion, religion, gun control and the role of government – are so black and white there is no room for compromise. I have met families torn apart by politics and colleagues shunned by the parents of their children’s friends because of opposing political views. The result is politics at a safe distance: slogans on bumper stickers or placards at the bottom of the yard.
4. The god squad
Religion plays almost no role in European politics because most Europeans no longer practice it. So the idea of a European politician ending a speech with ‘God bless the EU’ would be viewed as downright bizarre. In America, politicians sometimes sound like they are auditioning for a teaching post in a seminary school. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for the Senate in Missouri, writes in one campaign brochure: “I worked at IBM and then in management at Laclede Steel Co; but when I accepted Christ, he called me to a different path.” Mitt Romney believes the second coming of Christ will occur in Jerusalem and…wait for it…Missouri. He also thinks rights don’t come from government, but from god – a view I had only previously heard expressed by radical Salafists in London.
5. Coal is cool
Americans are obsessed by the weather but refuse to talk about the climate. Even when events at both party conventions were affected by storms, Hurricane Sandy has dominated the news in the last week of campaigning and reputable scientists, insurance companies and international organisations – not to mention Bloomberg Business Week – have made a direct link between global warming and extreme weather, the two candidates cannot bring themselves to utter the words ‘climate change’. Instead, both spent a large chunk of the second debate arguing about who was the biggest lover of coal.
6. Toxic terms
Climate change isn’t the only taboo topic. Poverty – whether at home or abroad – is the great unmentionable. The Euro crisis – not uttered in any of the debates – apparently has no effect on the United States, despite the ailing EU being its biggest trading partner. And neither candidate has offered a solution to two of America’s most pressing problems – how to reduce gun deaths and incarceration rates. Whether women should be allowed to have abortions after being raped – or even whether women can get pregnant after getting raped – are, however, hot topics for male politicians to give female voters advice about in the second decade of the 21st century.
7. All Greek to me
Some political terms have become so twisted and distorted that they have ceased to have any meaning. ‘Liberal’ is short-hand for ‘socialist’, which is shorthand for ‘Europe’, which is shorthand for ‘Greece’. ‘Science’ has become a swearword in some circles – especially among climate change deniers. Even terms I thought I understood – like ‘facts’ – have become loaded as legions of rival fact-checkers pick apart candidates’ claims to judge their veracity.
8. Unfair and Unbalanced
U.S. cable television, where most Americans get their news about the election campaign from, is the most partisan and propagandistic in the developed world – which is rather curious given the deep attachment to objectivity professed by many of its venerable practitioners. Fox News is legendary – even in Europe – for its venom and vitriol. Lesser known is MSNBC, which has become as much an echo chamber for the left’s prejudices as Fox is for right-wingers. CNN is left dithering in the middle, watching its audience dwindle.
9. USA! USA! USA!
When a protestor unfurled a banner urging “End Climate Silence” at a Romney Rally Thursday, he was drowned out by Republicans shouting “USA! USA! USA!” The chant could also be heard at the parties’ conventions as speaker after speaker lined up to say what a brave, blessed and bountiful country the United States is. For a people who don’t lack confidence, Americans need an awful lot of reminding from their politicians that they come from the greatest country on earth. Luckily for the candidates, nobody has fact-checked this claim. If they did – say by consulting international league tables on issues like competitiveness, employment, press freedom, women’s rights, standard of living etc – they might be faced with the inconvenient truth that high-tax, big government and pro-environment countries like Denmark and Sweden are top of the charts.
10. Knock-out politics
It is easy to criticise U.S. elections but there are few places in the world where democracy is as vibrant and visible. The European Union, for example, has three presidents. The two who have power are not directly elected and the one who is directly elected has no power. China will shortly choose its next President in a similar way to the Pope is chosen – without the smoke. Nobody does political theatre like America either. The second presidential debate, with the two candidates circling each other like boxers in a ring, was not only gripping TV. It was electrifying politics found nowhere else on earth. God bless American politics and god bless the United States of America!