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US politics as theatre


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I have often wondered why the rest of the world is so fascinated with American presidential elections. The obvious answer is that despite regular pronouncements about its imminent demise as a superpower, it continues to dominate the world in a way no state has done in the past.

In terms of science, technology, entertainment and pure military muscle, the United States remains the pre-eminent global power, and is likely to remain number one for the foreseeable future. And while its economy is performing poorly, recovery seems to be in sight. So who is elected president is clearly important to the rest of the world, and not just to Americans.

But there’s more to it than that: after all, why should foreigners follow the twists and turns of the endless American electoral cycle so closely? Why should we be obsessed with the constant fluctuations in the fortunes of the two candidates as reflected in opinion polls? I find myself compulsively reading articles assessing the strength and weakness of Obama and Romney. Had I not been on a plane last Wednesday night, I would probably have stayed up to watch the debate between the two.

And not only do we follow the race, but we are deeply partisan. In many opinion polls, foreigners were found to be supporting Obama over Romney by a wide margin. Despite the fact that in large measure, Obama has continued Bush’s foreign policy, he is still widely viewed as a far more attractive candidate. Repulsed by Bush’s swaggering machismo and threatening behaviour, we find Obama’s calm, cerebral approach to be more reasonable.

Even though he has accelerated the drone programme in our part of the world, he is somehow not the hate figure George W Bush was for much of the world. Given how we perceive Romney and Obama, we are constantly amazed that the race is as close as it is. To foreigners, the choice between the two is a clear no-brainer. One reason for Obama’s unpopularity among a large section of American voters is that he is seen as closet socialist. As evidence, they assert that his first act as president was to introduce medical care reforms that would cover most of the poorest Americans.

They forget that in fact, his first presidential initiative was to save the American car industry as well as the banking sector on Wall Street. The same corporate America that begged him for help in his early days is now pumping money into the Romney campaign. For non-Americans, the very notion that Obama is somehow a secret socialist is baffling.

Another reason many Republicans detest Obama is that despite evidence, they are convinced that he was born in Kenya (and therefore ineligible to be president), and is, deep down, a Muslim. This is in spite of the fact that he attends church regularly, and has written movingly about his faith in his memoirs. Again, foreigners cannot understand where this visceral hate is coming from, if not from racism.

But it’s not just the current campaign that grips our attention. I’m old enough to recall the excitement Jack Kennedy generated around the world when he moved into the White House. I also remember the grief we all felt after his assassination. Since then, I have followed every presidential race.

One reason for the interest the world takes in American presidential campaigns is their theatrical nature. Most other leadership races are short affairs between candidates we know little about and care even less for. But in America, the race for the next election starts almost before the new incumbent in the White House has managed to unpack. Within a year, a slew of contenders have tossed their hats in the ring, and the process of winnowing begins.

Some withdraw as they fail to find any traction for their bid, while others are anointed as front-runners. These candidates then go around, raising funds, shaking hands, kissing babies, making speeches to anybody who will listen, and seeking exposure through media appearances. At this stage, the public, having barely recovered from the last presidential election, is largely indifferent to these contenders.

But this brave band persists. Gradually, they start registering on the media’s radar. Sound bites and images about these contenders begin to filter through to the voters who, somewhat reluctantly, start looking at them and hearing their arguments. Before we know it, it is time for the nomination process to be launched, and with it, all the hoopla and the hype.

Before Mitt Romney was finally nominated, he was forced to go through months of expensive and exhausting campaigning against a bevy of rivals before he finally clinched the required number of delegates. The American nomination process is probably unique in its duration and its rigour. While observers, including many Americans, criticise its length and expense, the fact is that it tests the stamina and character of candidates as few contests could. It allows American voters a chance to see how politicians stand up to pressure.

Once a candidate is nominated, his party closes ranks behind him and gets to work, demonising the incumbent and raising money. Another thing the rest of the world can’t get its head around is the vast amounts of cash pumped into a presidential campaign. Currently, both the Democrats and the Republicans are posed to spend around a billion dollars each. The Supreme Court’s decision to allow corporations to donate unlimited funds to campaigns (albeit indirectly) has made it impossible for poorly funded candidates to compete.

In a sense, a presidential campaign can be seen as a play in three acts. In the first, a large number of wannabe presidents test the waters; in the second, a smaller group of hopefuls get into the brutal race for the nomination of their party; and in the third act, the actual campaign unfolds with its twists and turns.

One reason we get so involved is that by the time the curtain is drawn on the final act, we have become familiar with all the characters, and cheer or jeer them according to our preference.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (28) Closed

Ajay Oct 08, 2012 07:37pm
Sir i am amazed at the clarity of your analysis, as a first generation immigrant into the united states, i feel exactly about Obama and Romney as the way you have described it. In additon, i feel that the United States carries the deep vertical divide from its Civil war days, barring a few exceptions one could almost, desginate most of the confedrate states as Red States and the Union States as Blue states.Also independents are largely Constitutionalists who are not always in favor of large governments, this country is very much a bottom up country unlike the top down cultures in South East Asia. Great Masses of people from the grass roots work in various campaigns (local to federal), there is absolute absence of muscle power or vested interests in the campaign a lot of fund raising is at the atomic and grass root levels as well (less than $100 contributions). No country can be perfect but having been here for 16 years i have truly seen exceptionalism, empowerment and a sense of fairness, that is absent in many other nations. As always i enjoy reading your articles.
Hassan Oct 08, 2012 07:10pm
I will say what you would like to hear, Rohit. True democracy in the world is only practiced in India and I am not being sarcastic.
Basit Oct 08, 2012 07:44pm
I second that. USA may be down right now but it would be back.
Saeed Oct 08, 2012 12:55pm
The royal we? Certainly the 99 percenters here in poor imploding Pakistan don't give a hoot. Probably the same in other countries including sarcastic Rohit's own country. It certainly generates considerable interest but amongst the American public, for obvious reasons and the pseudo intellectuals.
H.Mani Oct 09, 2012 12:13am
You can bad mouth USA,as much as you want.I will ask you one question,just answer it honestly.If you a have a magic wand,and you can wave that wand ,and make that country ,USA,in all respect.I will name those country,just pick.(1)India (2)Isreal (3)U.K. (4)Germany (5)Pakistan (6)Iran (7)Iraq (8)Russia (9)China (10)Japan.I will not even pick India,you know why,if you think corruption is bad now,it will be 100 time worse.Same apply to every one of that country.Will you pick Pakistan,not if you your life depended on.Uk,remember what they did,when they did not have even 1/10 of USA,power to us and Africa,same goes for every other nation,USA is far from perfect,but it is still a force for most good.
pathanoo Oct 09, 2012 12:10am
Ali, What stone are you living under? Please crawl out form under it and see the day light.
pathanoo Oct 09, 2012 12:09am
Really, Ali. Under what stone are you living?
Rao Oct 08, 2012 01:17pm
I agree with you. Only what is important is what happens is in Allah's domain. rest is Jahilliyah.
Rohit Oct 08, 2012 09:57am
Ohh yes....only Pakistan represents true democracy. Rest all are fake :)
BRR Oct 08, 2012 02:05pm
The theatrics are great. It is like a Broadway show, with lots of pizzazz. It is too long drawn and nobody cares until the last 6 months.
jawed Oct 08, 2012 05:21pm
well I think that romney is an act, he is there to make sure that everyone gives vote to obama. So the world will see and think its all fair but unfortunately its not........
Sue Sturgess Oct 08, 2012 04:01am
The rest of the world is NOT fascinated by US presidential elections. The president is only a figure-head, and who occupies the position, does not have much relevance - the world keeps spinning.
guest62 Oct 08, 2012 01:16pm
Wrong sir , at least I did not care at all , I did not even know what was the debate about and when it was held and who said what until it crossed my eyes in a new paper days later ! I give a three hoots to this process as such , not interested in the sense , who ever comes in or stays in for another 4 years , my poor people will be killed in dozens and hundreds and thousands by the USA's future war Toys being perfected in technology and tune ups by hitting my country's western borders areas .
Raj Deshpande Oct 08, 2012 12:32pm
In fact most people in the US do not care. That is why only 40% vote in the elections.
Raj Deshpande Oct 08, 2012 12:31pm
You are so wrong. Most people outside the US just do not care. They lead busy lives, taking care of their families and don't give a hoot who wins the White House.
Laxman Oct 08, 2012 10:13pm
Excellent. No present or future american president can cause trouble inside Pakistan as long as your military is willing.
Cyrus Howell Oct 08, 2012 05:16am
Everyone likes to weigh whether or not the next American president is going to cause trouble.
Rao Oct 08, 2012 01:14pm
But who is in the White House affects affairs of your country and international affairs directly or otherwise. So to many who follow the news, politics of USA is important.
Ali Oct 08, 2012 06:00am
The truth is that American democracy is a sham.
pathanoo Oct 09, 2012 12:07am
BRAVO!!! Vital. Spoken like a true patriotic American. I came with six dollars and fifty cents in my pocket (Govt. of India gave eight dollars as foreign exchange - it was broke in those days - 1967). America is not perfect but it is the most generous, fairest and decent society the humanity has ever seen or will see in foreseeable future. The proof is in the pudding. Even the vilest America haters want to come here, do come here and defintiley do their utmost to send their children here. NEED MORE PROOF? I worked all my life, after getting my MS in Mecahnical Engineering, in the jet engine business, was granted Secret Clearence to work on what we call Black Programs and was treated the same as any American, was treated fairly and was paid well and am retired comfortably. I LOVE THIS LAND.
H.Mani Oct 09, 2012 12:00am
So also in India and all Middle-East.
H.Mani Oct 08, 2012 11:58pm
Indian democracy is large Bannana republic,have you lost your mind.?
Agha Ata (USA) Oct 08, 2012 02:43pm
How true. In Pakistan even criminals can become heads of the State, and many good people live in exile.
Bakhtawer Bilal Oct 09, 2012 01:03pm
Well, I agree with most of what you said, except your saying that there is no vested interest. Common, corporations are people too! super pacs, you know what I am talking. Well do you believe more than two billion dollars can be traced to individual donations, no way. It is the vested interests of corporations and wealthy individuals like Koch brothers in such glaring display.
NASAH (USA) Oct 08, 2012 04:24pm
There are two disadvantages that beset President Obama wherever he goes and whatever he does in the Republican part of the United States. His color and his middle name.
Lamashtar Oct 09, 2012 08:52pm
I say UK. It has it's issues, but is more attractive to me than the US system. Possibly Germany.
Vittal Pyati Oct 08, 2012 12:49pm
USA is still the best country in the world. I came to the US in 1959 with $50 in my pocket, went to Michigan and earned a PhD and been retired for 10+ years after working for the Industry and Federal Government for 36 years. I'm not a millionaire but live comfortably. My neighbors (white and black) are very friendly. I've been treated here far better than in my native India. But that is the beside the point. Americans are the most generous people in the world. Whenever desaster strikes even in the remotest corner, Americans are at the forefront with relief suppies of food, medicine, tents etc. The fact that a black man won the presidency in 2008 by a landslide speaks volumes. Need one say more.
allaisa Oct 08, 2012 01:29pm
USA may be irrelevant to you, but the President can go to war against another because 'that man tried to kill my father' and slaughter a million and there is nothing the world can do about it. The only thing you can do is pass these inane comments and hope you do not live in that country!