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US politics as theatre

October 08, 2012

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.