Friday, 8 February 2008

The biggest political show on earth

Thus far I have refrained from blogging on the subject of the primaries for the American presidential election. However I have been following the contests in the mainstream media and reading with fascination comment from bloggers who have a much surer handle on the subject, such as Brian Crowe and Peter Munce.

I find Tim Garton Ash’s commentary in the Guardian to be something of a mixed bag, but I did find myself murmuring assent, reading some of his comments about the political contest unfolding in the US currently which appeared in yesterday’s paper. From the perspective of an ignoramus I have been amazed at the facility with which people in the UK have grasped the intricacies and nuances of the American electoral process and the easy fashion in which they have aligned themselves with particular candidates for whom they cannot vote and who belong to parties which they cannot join.

The analogies of sport and entertainment do seem to me to be particularly prescient. Close observers have been able to delineate the various strands of political belief to which the candidates broadly adhere, but undoubtedly the contest thus far seems to hinge more surely on presentation and personality rather than specific policy pledges. We are told, in broad terms, that Hillary Clinton is a candidate favoured by more traditional blue-collar democrats whilst Barrack Obama represents a more centrist approach. For the Republicans we are told that John McCain embodies a compassionate vision of conservatism, whilst Mitt Romney, the candidate who has admitted defeat by pulling out of the race, is a hardline Raeganite free marketeer.

Perhaps we may be given a skewed picture by coverage on this side of the Atlantic, but I get the impression that these broad brush differences are not manifested in many concrete undertakings to pursue particular policies at this stage. The extraordinary thing about these adversarial, personality based primaries is that once the candidates for president have been decided, the two parties will be expected to fall in behind their respective winners. All acrimony must then be forgotten, to the extent that competing candidates may find themselves as running mates seeking election together. Perhaps with this in mind the Democrat candidates seem to have moderated what at one stage threatened to become a viciously personalised contest.

The prolonged, expensive and highly publicised nature of these primary battles nevertheless must surely leave a bitter aftertaste and exacerbate intra party division. We are a million miles away from a few speeches, a quick count and then a cup of tea and a tray-bake at Cloughmills Orange Hall, but my god the contests are a lot more compelling and a lot more fun! Although there are those who will rightly point out that politics should not primarily be about entertainment or fun.

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