This is my 3rd US presidential election season spent in Europe. Although I’m certainly aware of much of what happens I’ve been mostly insulated from negative campaign ads and the constant diet of meaningless spin and posturing. I’ve also had the opportunity to view a globally unique process from outside eyes.
Make no mistake about it, the US presidential election is a matter of great attention around the world. There are two reasons for this. First, it is a totally fascinating form of entertainment, offering a compelling glimpse into American culture. Second, it is a plain fact that America has an impact on the world that far outweighs its relative population size. American foreign policy has a significant impact in Europe and Asia, and American media is consumed throughout the world. Europeans are usually aware of the national political seen in multiple countries, so why shouldn’t they be interested in what happens in our country?
I spent the 2000 election season working in Switzerland, mostly living in the Glockenhof Hotel of Zurich. Bush’s narrow victory was somewhat marred by a controversy–especially in Florida. The idea that the election for the chief executive of the most influential country in the world could be determined by hanging chads was baffling to the Swiss, if not completely distressing. Switzerland, which arguably has been a democracy for centuries longer than the USA. Although a much smaller country, the Swiss Federation has a fiendishly complex electoral system, supporting local and minority interests through proportional representation. The next time we consider sending a delegation to Zimbabwe to ensure fair elections, we need to be aware that the Swiss seriously discussed sending a delegation to the US.
The 2004 election, at least from the outside looking in, seemed very much to be a referendum on the Iraq War, a preemptive war that was deeply unpopular throughout Europe. Relatively few Americans seem to be concerned about how the rest of the world views their president, which is a ‘foreign’ attitude to Europeans, who usually have strong opinions about the leadership not just of America, but also of the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Israel, Australia and a variety of other countries. The deep unpopularity of Bush’s policies has lead to even greater interest in Europe in his successor.
This brings me to 2008, an election that continues to attract attention throughout the globe. Joe, who turns out not to be a plumber (nor is his name really Joe) has been front page news here, and everyone in the UK has seen him on TV. Tonight’s news did a story on Palin having spent $150,000 on clothing (they missed the important fact that part of that was spent on hair and makeup). They dug up some earlier footage of Michelle Obama talking about how little Barack spent on clothing, and a recent clip of Palin claiming to be a redneck, pointing out that she was wearing a $2,500 jacket at the time. The Brits know all about rednecks.
Although it was considered an insult to suggest that Tony Blair ‘wanted to be president,’ the English actually are a bit jealous about the American’s having the ability to directly elect their national leader, explaining some of their curiosity about the process. When we were still at the lapel pin controversy stage, I did think that TV in the UK was going out of its way to film Americans making silly comments. Treated to the spectacle of seeing McCain, to a chorus of boos, explaining to his rally attendees that Obama is not a terrorist, but is an honorable man (although he’s been pallin’ around with terrorists), and that Obama is not an Arab, but is “a decent, family man” (I leave it to my readers to decide for themselves if ‘decent Arab’ is an oxymoron).
One pundit suggested that this year’s campaign “might be the last great presidential race of the TV Age.” That’s hard for me to judge, because I’ve been seeing this year’s political videos on the web. We do get more US TV than ever before, so I can get my fill of Fox, which generally just shows the same stuff here that it does in the States–MSNBC and CNN have EU offices and concentrate on non-US news. We started getting Colbert Report and the Daily Show here recently, two shows that I’d heard about, but had never seen. I’m not quite sure what the Brits make of them, but they have a long tradition of deeply satirical news shows, and were doing it long before SNL and Chevy Chase.
US presidential races certainly make for a much more colorful race than Europeans are accustomed to, although Zimbabwe and South Africa have their moments of drama. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Palin is just the most recent in a long line of American politicians who started in show biz, including Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Ventura, and multiple congressmen. The Brits have had a couple of actors as MPs, and the Italians notoriously elected a porn queen, but none of these people have reached the level of national political importance (although Berlusconi has a background in media and sports) . Asking some of my continental coworkers if they could think of any entertainers or atheletes turned politician, a German somewhat indignantly replied that nobody really wanted to be a politician in Germany. Before discounting that as yet another example of eurodecadence, I would suggest that it might be possible for somebody to want political office just a bit too much.
Well, I’m going to get my news fill on The Daily Show, now, and tomorrow, Elizabeth and I are off to Rome to see what the latins think about the political circus.