American politics has always fascinated me. There is a grandeur in the way an American Presidential election is played out that makes for an intriguing story. Australian elections pale in comparison. Part of that is definitely the personalisation factor, part is the ritual that has developed around the LoL presidency, the personification of a certain type of national tradition.
A friend was recently bemoaning the fact that our politics was so “dull” in comparison:
“If only we had people that were such larger than life figures [Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice and Bush of whom she is no fan at all] maybe at least people would take some interest in politics.”
However the voter turnout in US elections doesn’t suggest an overwhelming level of interest in these figures from American citizens
While the ritual drama might be fascinating from a distance, it gets scary up close, it would seem.
Matt Taibbi’s fascinating article in the latest Nation, about being on Howard Dean’s Sleepless Summer campaign tour of nine cities, is a fresh online gaming insight into the glitzing up of politics even by such a supposedly idealistic candidate.
First there is the “Imageering 101 political staging.”
At most every stop Dean had a statistically accurate multicultural microcosm await his arrival on stage, usually against a background of a giant American flag. Milwaukee, the second stop on the tour, was the most painful: seventeen supporters of various races (in proper proportions: three blacks, two Hispanics, etc.), frozen and seemingly afraid to move or make a face against the league of legends backdrop of a mammoth Old Glory. Watching them wait for Dean gave me shivers; they looked like sausages nailed to a giant red, white and blue crucifix.
This type of staging can at least be taken as good symbolic politics but the subtle conspiracy, between the candidate and the press corp, to avoid substantive issues is really disturbing.
When given a chance to run with a statement by Dean on the “war on drugs,” the opportunity’s not taken up. Dean went part way in saying that not all drug offenders should end up in prison, but the follow-up questions were few. As Taibbi says:
It would be revolutionary for an American President, or even a major-party nominee, just to say that nonviolent drug offenders shouldn’t go to jail. The breaking of that public taboo on a nationwide basis would be a major event, a huge step in halting the idiocy of a 2 million-strong prison population. But the press wasn’t interested gaming in making it happen, even though Dean was serving up the chance on a silver platter.
In the end, looking at it all close up, Taibbi is more disillusioned than inspired. Disillusioned by his own colleagues:
As much as the reporters snickered about the campaign fakery, and occasionally cracked about it in print, there is no question that they were attracted to the big-campaign symbolism like moths to a lamp. To be full of shit in American politics is a signal to our political press that you are serious, and it was quite obvious that the most transparently meaningless or calculating aspects of Dean’s behavior were what most impressed the Sleepless Summer press corps.
It’s about time we found new ways to cover elections, as Jay Rosen recently argued in his analysis of the Californian recall election
He suggests that the electability question – the famed horse race model of election coverage – should not be the only criteria for campaign reporting. He suggests the “ideas race” is as important:
Let’s give the second narrative a name: the idea race. It’s news about the recall that tells us who’s floating new, interesting, counter-intuitive or maybe even useful ideas for California, which people should be talking about anyway. If reporters are allowed to gauge who’s ahead in the money race, in the polls, and among campaign insiders, they can certainly be permitted to judge who’s a player in the computer online game of offering fresh wisdom, inventive proposals or a more nuanced diagnosis of the state’s problems. From there it’s easy: you just cover the players. It might even prove refreshing to ask who’s winning the idea race?
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