Tuesday, March 04, 2008

ElectionLand - The biggest show on earth?

A US Presidential election is a major spectacle, without question. (Even bigger than a British royal wedding.) This one already seems to have been running forever, but it has kept much of the world increasingly transfixed--and the main event is still 8 months away. We're still running the primaries!

One might argue that this nomination contest is infinitely long, scandalously expensive, stupidly reported, and almost baroque in its state-by-state technical complexities ... and, frankly, such an argument wouldn't be easy to dismiss ... but at least we're producing first-rate political entertainment for the whole world! (Cheap at the price, right?)

Writing from London a month ago, at the time of the Super-Duper Tuesday primaries, Timothy Garton Ash suggested that this spectacle is not only absorbing, but valuable. (Thanks to Norm for tipping me off to TGA's piece.) It makes democratic politics exciting:
In the early 21st century, American presidential elections have become the political equivalent of the football World Cup. Half the planet watches on television. Everyone recognises the star players and most know the rules of the game. Strike up a conversation with a complete stranger in any bar in any city on any continent, and you can be fairly sure the talk will turn to this. "Who are you backing, Hillary or Obama?" is, at least for Europeans, an almost universal opener, perhaps even a chat-up line. In a media world at once increasingly connected and increasingly fragmented according to special interests, it's so nice to find one topic that everyone has in common.

Probably we don't know the rules of the American game as well as we think, but it's amazing what knowledge of American politics British reporters take for granted. [....] There is no other foreign story for which anything like these assumptions could be made. It's as if half the world lived inside the beltway. (That's the ring road round Washington - I don't need to explain.)

In fact, it's almost as if half the world were voting in this election. Send us an email, cried another British radio presenter, and tell us who you backed. Though Super Tuesday is only the electoral equivalent of a football quarter-final, we are all captivated. [....]

There's a rational element to this fascination: it matters enormously to all of us who the next president of the United States will be, especially after two terms of George W Bush making such a hash of it. But, actually, who succeeds President Hu Jintao of China or Vladimir Putin of Russia will be pretty important for us, too. Yet no one sends text messages or emails to their friends saying, "Who are you backing, Xi or Li?" Most of them don't even now who's Hu.

No, it's not just a rational concern about the global consequences of America's choice that keeps us in thrall. Rather, it's a triple whammy of soft power: the soft power of democracy, the soft power of the media, and the soft power of America. The notion of soft power is much misunderstood, especially on this side of the Atlantic, where Europe's alleged soft power is often contrasted with the US's hard power. But according to Joseph Nye, the leading academic proponent of the concept, the essence of soft power is the ability to attract. And people are drawn irresistibly to the American presidential race because it's like an exciting horse race or a well-made soap opera. This is precisely the kind of power that the political institutions of the EU most spectacularly lack. [....]

But along the way, and in the end, there are the voters. Ultimately, they choose. For all the framing, spinning and lobbying, for all the polling and punditry, nobody knows who will win until the votes are counted. And that's the soft power of democracy. It's a real contest, like a football match. It's never over till it's over, when the referee's whistle is blown for the last time. No wonder China's central committee can't compete. Get up there on the hustings, comrades Xi and Li, tell us your story - and we'll all be watching. [....]
And this cross between a political reality show and a mass spectator sport isn't being followed with passionate attention only in the Anglosphere, or in western countries. As TGA correctly points out, it's really more like the soccer/football World Cup (except that American fans follow it, too). The whole world is watching. In Kenya, according to the BBC:
It is said there is a bitter joke among Kenya's Luo community that the United States of America will elect a member of their tribe as president before the East African country does.

The ironic gag is a reference to US Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama, whose father was a Kenyan Luo. [....]
Burma is a sealed-off police state with no Luos, but according to Samantha Power (who is, admittedly, a foreign-policy adviser to the Obama campaign):
"I have a friend who just came back from Burma last week," she told the Sunday Times," and said all that anybody is talking about on the streets of Rangoon is Barack Obama."
And here is Jonathan Kulick's report on how the US primary election campaign looks from Georgia (the one in the Caucasus, not the one next to Florida):
As we are told is the case everywhere, Russians are following the US primary races closely. Or, at least the Kremlin-controlled press is. The “what does this mean for Russia?” discussion is all McCain, all the time. From the outset of the campaigns, Russia has hardly figured prominently. McCain is the only candidate with a consistent record of making an issue of Russia (and Biden the most so of the Democrats), and has been in fine form, calling it a rogue state and calling for regime change. The others have all touched upon Russia when the circumstances call for it.

Now that McCain is the GOP heir apparent, the press is going bonkers, heaping obloquy upon scorn upon contempt on him. And, demonstrating their keen grasp of the American political press, they frequently cite the views of influential columnists Pat Buchanan and Justin Raimondo, to demonstrate that McCain is not as popular as election results might suggest. Normally, I’d be happy to ignore every word that either pundit puts to paper, but I’m unable to, as both are preoccupied with Georgia. In their monthly-or-so philippics against McCain (or against US engagement anywhere, for any purpose), they often cite his support for Georgia. They find especially risible his expressed support for Georgia’s sovereignty in South Ossetia, which serves as their real-life Freedonia or Duchy of Grand Fenwick.

Needless to say, most Georgians love McCain. I try to explain that US Russia policy tends to be bipartisan and driven by the permanent foreign-policy establishment, and that the same is true for Georgia. Hard to get across when the main road to the airport is George W. Bush Avenue.
I would be nice to think that TGA is right to say all this excitement and fascination is due, at least in part, to the "soft power" of democracy ... and it probably is ... in part.

At all events, the show goes on. Today's primaries add up to the biggest and most important showdown since Super Tuesday, at least on the Democratic side. Depending on who wins them, and by how much, there may be a pause in the action for a while ... or we may simply start gearing up for the Pennsylvania primary in April. We'll have a better sense of that a few hours from now. But either way, there's still a long election season ahead.

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub
=========================
The Guardian (CommentIsFree)
Thursday, February 7, 2008
A triple whammy of soft power sees the world in thrall to Super Tuesday
The appeal of democracy, the media and America has us all hooked. What if we could replicate that for global institutions?

By Timothy Garton Ash

In the early 21st century, American presidential elections have become the political equivalent of the football World Cup. Half the planet watches on television. Everyone recognises the star players and most know the rules of the game. Strike up a conversation with a complete stranger in any bar in any city on any continent, and you can be fairly sure the talk will turn to this. "Who are you backing, Hillary or Obama?" is, at least for Europeans, an almost universal opener, perhaps even a chat-up line. In a media world at once increasingly connected and increasingly fragmented according to special interests, it's so nice to find one topic that everyone has in common.

Probably we don't know the rules of the American game as well as we think, but it's amazing what knowledge of American politics British reporters take for granted. Yesterday morning I heard a BBC radio correspondent say: "Remember, of course, that Ohio is a swing state in American elections." Of course. After listing some of the primaries that will follow Super Tuesday, including those in Virginia and Maryland, an article in the Spectator talks without explanation of "the Chesapeake contests". Spectator readers are simply assumed to know that Virginia and Maryland abut Chesapeake Bay. For right-leaning metropolitan Brits, the US is, after all, just "across the pond". There is no other foreign story for which anything like these assumptions could be made. It's as if half the world lived inside the beltway. (That's the ring road round Washington - I don't need to explain.)

In fact, it's almost as if half the world were voting in this election. Send us an email, cried another British radio presenter, and tell us who you backed. Though Super Tuesday is only the electoral equivalent of a football quarter-final, we are all captivated. "It was the biggest day so far in the race for the most powerful job in the world," gushed a Radio 1 presenter. There's a rational element to this fascination: it matters enormously to all of us who the next president of the United States will be, especially after two terms of George W Bush making such a hash of it. But, actually, who succeeds President Hu Jintao of China or Vladimir Putin of Russia will be pretty important for us, too. Yet no one sends text messages or emails to their friends saying, "Who are you backing, Xi or Li?" Most of them don't even now who's Hu.

No, it's not just a rational concern about the global consequences of America's choice that keeps us in thrall. Rather, it's a triple whammy of soft power: the soft power of democracy, the soft power of the media, and the soft power of America. The notion of soft power is much misunderstood, especially on this side of the Atlantic, where Europe's alleged soft power is often contrasted with the US's hard power. But according to Joseph Nye, the leading academic proponent of the concept, the essence of soft power is the ability to attract. And people are drawn irresistibly to the American presidential race because it's like an exciting horse race or a well-made soap opera. This is precisely the kind of power that the political institutions of the EU most spectacularly lack.

As with Desperate Housewives or HBO's mesmering series The Wire, not to mention The West Wing, the reality show we call The American Election has - this time particularly - a cast of strong, contrasting, remarkable characters: Hillary, Obama, McCain, the egregious Mitt and the folksy Huckabee. (As in all good soap opera, one name only is required for most of the characters.) Moreover, the heart of the competition is not between contrasting policies, ideologies or visions. These will become more important once it is a straight Democrat-Republican general election this autumn, but for now these primaries are mainly about individual characters selling versions of themselves - and telling stories about themselves and America.

One saw this very clearly in Obama's Super Tuesday-night speech, which quite literally told a story, almost a biblical narrative, about change spreading across the land. About how "what began as a whisper in Springfield soon carried across the cornfields of Iowa, where farmers and factory workers, students and seniors stood up in numbers we have never seen before". And how, yea verily, their voices "echoed from the hills of New Hampshire to the deserts of Nevada, where teachers and cooks and kitchen workers stood up to say that maybe Washington doesn't have to be run by lobbyists any more". (Kitchen workers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your lobbyists - lobbyists and Clintonists, that is.)

Stirring stuff. But there's another way to tell the same story. It would go something like this: "What began as a whisper on YouTube soon carried across the tall sheets of the New York Times. Their voices echoed on the soaring satellites of CNN, ABC and BBC, where the anchors and producers and newsroom workers of CBC, France 24 and al-Jazeera International stood up to say that the momentum for Obama was now the story". The medium is not the message, but media and politicians are locked in a systemic clinch, out of which a triumphant narrative is eventually born. Sometimes the politician manages to impose his or her narrative on the media. (McCain has been doing well at that, of late.) Sometimes the media imposes its narrative on the candidate. ("Giuliani has blown it" - and so he had.) But usually it's an interaction, a constant reblending of the two; and the same narrative is told and retold almost instantaneously across the planet. For a year, this is the world's bedtime story. "Once upon a time, there was a young man called Barack ..."

But along the way, and in the end, there are the voters. Ultimately, they choose. For all the framing, spinning and lobbying, for all the polling and punditry, nobody knows who will win until the votes are counted. And that's the soft power of democracy. It's a real contest, like a football match. It's never over till it's over, when the referee's whistle is blown for the last time. No wonder China's central committee can't compete. Get up there on the hustings, comrades Xi and Li, tell us your story - and we'll all be watching.

The rest of us, non-Americans, obviously don't have a vote. Our stated preference makes little more difference to the result than it does to say you're backing Brazil to win the World Cup. For us this is, so to speak, participation without representation. Yet we are much more interested in it than we are in most of our own elections, let alone those of our neighbours. We'd rather watch the World Cup quarter-final than kick a ball ourselves in the local team. But suppose we could vote in a distant contest that the globalised media allow us to follow so closely. Suppose the election were not for another country's president but for the leadership of the United Nations, the World Bank or the IMF. There's a striking contrast, isn't there, between this passionate, global, popular involvement in the election for a single nation's government and the almost total lack, in any nation, of any popular involvement at all in the shaping of global governance. Now that would be the day ...

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