Tuesday 19 February 2008

I went to a college dinner tonight and sat near some Americans. This would not normally be a good thing (I am not anti-American—it’s having to go to a college dinner and talk to anyone at all I object to), but I decided that I would throw out my life-long card-carrying pessimist attitude and see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to find out what the Hell is going on in the US presidential candidate-choosing fiasco-thing.

The news coverage over here is truly bemusing. So bemusing I had to call the race the ‘US presidential candidate-choosing fiasco-thing’ just then. I mean, you might call them the primaries, but then some smartarse would point out that some states hold caucuses rather than votes. And the reason they’re called ‘primaries’ is because the democratic institution they have most in common with is a primary school.

Has anyone ever mentioned the words ‘secret ballot’ to the US? This whole we-all-vote-sometime-in-the-next-couple-of-months thing is like the vote for milk monitor where everyone in the classroom is squinting through their mostly-closed eyelids at the people putting their hands up. Except it’s not. It’s even worse than that. It’s like a vote in an understaffed primary school with fifty bickering children jammed into a classroom where everyone keeps their eyes open, fights over who’s going to go first (and some kids who are seen as bickering too hard have their votes disregarded), and then votes one at a time, with teachers and newscasters dissecting every poor child’s choice as the results come in.

The caucus things are barely any better. When was the last time you decided something by people moving to the corners of the room and shouting arguments at one-another? That’s right, you were choosing who was going to be on your basketball team in PE. You weren’t choosing who should be allowed to run for Commander in Chief of, amongst other things, over five thousand nuclear warheads.

If the etymology of ‘caucus’ is anything like ‘primary’, we can only assume that a caucus school is one specially reserved for the terminally stupid.

There is one special day when a load of the schoolkids could all agree to vote at once—Super Tuesday (only in America could anything so sombre as an election be declared ‘super’) was supposed to provide the answers. Enough states voted all together this year that it was dubbed Super Duper Tuesday (Jesus). You’d think if it was a super-duper piece of democracy from the leaders of the free world that it would be quite something to behold: a bastion of egalitarian fairness leading to a conclusive result. Was it? Was it buggery. Clinton and Obama emerged neck-and-we’re-both-revolutionary-candidates-neck.

And now, weeks later, still no-one seems to be able to decide. It’s probably something to do with the fact that Clint-o and Obam-o are, give or take, identical candidates, combined with the fact that none of the later states, who are used to relying on the earlier-voting states to work out which way to vote, have any idea what to do.

The Republicans appear to have completely missed the point, as usual—against the paradigm-shifting black and female candidates, they’re more-or-less finished picking an old, rich white bloke. At least he’s heard of ‘climate change’ and, one would hope after the publicity these last few years, ‘Iraq’.

So, in the absence of a clear majority of delegates at the Democratic convention, the Democratic nominee’s fate could be decided by…guess who? The superdelegates!! The only thing super about these guys is their total affront to democracy. They can vote for whoever they like, regardless of the popular vote in the state that they represent. Wow. So all that shouting and moving to corners of the room was an evening wasted, eh?

Finally: money. Imagine an opening sentence of a newspaper report describing someone running for parliament over here: ‘Johnny MP-To-Be’s campaign is going well, with his scathing attacks on the Labour council for neglecting the local hospital going down well amongst voters.’ Now let’s re-imagine that as a presidential candidate over in the States: ‘John All-American’s campaign gathers momentum in key swing states, with fundraising at high enough levels to eradicate third-world debt, or, alternatively, buy three prime-time advertising slots on NBC. That’s one Hell of a war chest. Oh…I’m just hearing…we interrupt this report to bring you news of a high-speed car chase on the Interstate. Looks awesome! Over to you, Paula.’ (They don’t have newspapers in the States, just vacuous 24-hour rolling news channels. Watching is easier than reading, and shooting is easier than both. It’s the American Dream.)

Over the pond, the cash is the defining feature. It makes you sound better on the news and gives you more to spend on billboards and commercials. Why not just give the rich a hundred votes each and have done with it?

The whole affair feels like a drawn-out American TV drama. Whether it be voting for a president or escaping from a magical island on which your plane crash-landed, why get it over with quickly and efficiently when you could commission three more seasons and watch the profits roll in?

I asked the Americans sat next to me, and they didn’t seem to know. Maybe I should have opened with a shorter question.


  1. And presumably, given that they were attending an oxford college dinner, they represent the smarter members of the US populace, and if they don’t understand whats going on….how does the rest of the nation make a reasoned voting decision?

  2. That mirrors my feelings exactly. The part that I still don’t understand is that they get these huge sums of money just to fight against their ‘fellow’ party members. Not only that, but once one has won, they then publicly support the presidency of someone that they were previously spitting bile and suggesting would be the worst thing ever to happen to America were they to become president.

    It’s worse than primary school. It’s like an all girls’ primary school at the wrong time of the month, when Chelsea starts spreading rumours (rumors?) about what Casey has been up to.

    The coverage in the British media wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t assume that we were already au fait with concepts such as ‘caucuses’ and ‘primaries’ and whatnot. Either they assume the British public are au fait with it or – more likely – are aware that they’d find it so mind-blowingly stupid that they’d wish they’d never known. At least dressed up like something worthwhile behind an impenetrable facade of jargon, we can live in peace believing that there is some method behind the madness of the US political landscape.

  3. This is absolutely brilliant. In all the coverage of the US election that I have read (and I’ve read quite a bit), I’ve never heard anything quite like this. Keep it coming!

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