Monday, 1 November 2010
Most Americans would be shocked to discover how other peoples regard them – not with admiration, or envy, or hatred, but with embarrassment. The news media here and across Europe tend to regard US elections as a comedy programme, endlessly replaying the most egregious flubs of my country’s most dubious political characters.
Yet the American election still dominates the headlines here, either because people fondly remember the America that was or simply because U.S. military and economic disasters cause trouble for everyone else. As the resident American accent in the pub, I have to field a lot of questions about the latest election news. I disappoint people by telling them that not only am I not following the campaign trail, but I've also done everything I can do avoid it.
It's not that I don't care. It's that my vote takes a few days of research, not a year of hearing gossip. Before I mail the absentee ballot, I make a list of the issues I care about and compared them to candidates’ campaign contribution and voting records — not the coverage, the records themselves — calculate my choice and move on.
I want to see the United States restore its rail system, for example, so any candidate that made some meager noises in that direction gets some meager points on my list. Period. I don't care about their race, their reproductive plumbing, their flamboyant piety or from what wacky character they are six degrees removed. I don't care about the teacup scandals that crawl across the bottom-screen news feed or the hall-of-mirrors news coverage of the coverage of the coverage. I don't want to know.
Many Americans seem to believe that democracy looks like the Super Bowl, a New Top Model, an American Idol, the Oscars or an apocalyptic smackdown. In reality, it simply should be a job interview, and you are the employer.
Forget this idea that your candidates represent two opposite ideologies. The two major parties represent slightly different alliances of investors, smashed together by the accidents of history. There is no other reason that evangelicals, for example, should be in the same camp with libertarians, or neoliberals with conservationists.
Finally, remember that change mostly happens between elections in a hundred thousand living rooms and library basements and county halls and percolates into the halls of power under sustained pressure.
No election let women vote, or created the civil rights movement, or laws to protect our air and water. These things happened because neighbors met, organized, protested, ran local candidates, went to prison — and moved and moved and moved until they were a movement. America gets better when Americans get it into their heads that they should be the ones running the country, and cajole and intimidate elites until the elites back down.
This Tuesday, pick the guy you think will back down first.
This piece was adapted from an Opinion piece I wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2008.
Photo: "Elect Casey," courtesy of the Norman Rockwell estate.