I'm fascinated by the US elections. I think this interest really started in earnest back in 1992 when I read a really vivid account of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, running hopelessly late for each of his scheduled rallies in the Deep South somewhere. I remember being very impressed to read that no matter how far behind he was running, Clinton ignored his aides and absolutely insisted on spending time with the people who had waited to see him.... the journalist described how even though it was the middle of the night, it was pouring with rain and almost all of the press corps had gone, he saw Clinton out amongst the people, not just pressing the flesh, but actually being genuinely interested in them and what they had to say. For all the subsequent disappointments and let-downs of his presidency, that image of Clinton has always stayed with me.
I must say though that I do find the electoral process in the USA a little arcane. It's not as though the dear old "first past the post" system that we use in the UK is exactly straightforward, and my ignorance of the process is my problem not Americas.... but Caucauses really seem to be something else, don't they? Initially I really enjoyed reading all those stories in the papers last week about Democrat supporters in Iowa preparing the various rooms in their house so that all Obama supporters could move to the kitchen to be counted, Clinton supporters to the bedroom and so on. Borrowing chairs from the local church to put up in the living room so that people could sit down during the debates. That kind of thing. Those crazy yanks, eh? The not-so-subtle implication of many of these articles being that the USA really was a crackpot country. Who the hell are they to lecture the world on democracy when this is how they choose their candidates? And anyway, what do you expect from a system that delivered the wonder of George W. Bush to the world? How we laughed from our own comfortable position of moral and democratic superiority.
Thinking about it though, coverage like that isn't exactly helpful.... focusing on the nature of the caucuses rather than on the candidates themselves and the major issues doesn't really do anyone any favours. It's interesting enough, I suppose, but stuff like this only really serves to reinforce the commonly held view of the USA here that it is a country of massive, unquestioning patriotism, of right-wing christian nutcases and of lunatic, gun-toting hicks. We hear of things like the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay, and we question the right of the USA to be the policemen of the world and to try to dictate their way of life at anyone and everyone else. If that's your idea of moral leadership, then you can keep it. Look to the timber in your own eye, we say, before you try to blanket-bomb the splinter in your neighbour's eye. With hypocrisy like that, it's no wonder the rest of the world hates them and wants to blow them (and their allies - i.e. us) up.
You can hear this kind of stuff all over the place in Britain, from the coverage in the media to casual remarks made on blogs.... Blogs like this one and including this one: I have most certainly been guilty of it myself. Isn't it a form of racism? Do we only get away with it because it's Good'Ole America we're talking about, and not a more volatile state like ...say.... Pakistan? Surely we really know deep-down that not everyone in America owns a gun, and that not every gun owner is a psychopath waiting to go on a killing spree? We know that not everyone is creationist or a scientologist. Not everyone has a "What Would Jesus Do?" bumper sticker....
The BBC's US correspondant Justin Webb identifies and hits back against this attitude towards the USA in an interesting interview on the Guardian website today,
"Look at the way that Iraq was run before the invasion, look at Iran now, and then look at America. I mean, can you seriously say that there's some kind of moral equivalence between the way they treat their own people and the way the Americans treat theirs? I mean, hang on a second, when you look at all the appalling behaviour that there is in the world, you know, in Sudan and all the things the Chinese and the Russians do, we need to keep a perspective. It's not a matter of airbrushing the things that America does do, but it's about placing them in a world context"
America is not perfect by any means and they don't have the perfect democracy, but still I am mesmerised by the unfolding story of who is going to follow George W Bush into the White House. Clinton, Edwards or Obama? Giuliani, McCain, Huckabee or Romney? Who knows? What I do know is that there are some 11 months of election coverage still to come, and already I'm growing tired of people in the UK telling me how little difference it will make to US foreign policy anyway and how the presidency is determined simply by money and by big business, not by people or policies. I'm even growing tired of all that endless trumpeting about the end of George W. Bush.... I can't get away from the possibility that even the American Idiot himself has been over-simplified and over-vilified. Is he really so dumb? Has he really made unforgiveable mistakes that someone like John Kerry (or you or I, for that matter) would have avoided? Really? Does that justify comparing him unfavourably to a chimpanzee? Is this the level of debate that rational people need to use? Even Bush deserves a balanced retrospective, and I would suggest that none of us have the qualifications or the perspective to write it, so perhaps we would do better to keep some of our more ill-informed opinions to ourselves.
Do we have to be so cynical about everything?
I've got opinions on the USA that I'm not sure I have the knowledge or understanding to be able to back up*. This has got to change. I'm going to do my best to be informed about the US Elections this year; to try to understand some of the issues and candidates. Above all else, I'm going to challenge my perspectives and attitudes towards the USA and to try to avoid subscribing to (m)any lazy stereotypes.
How about we try to give the American people some credit for a change?
* Yes, I realise there are lots of things that I have opinions on that I don't have the knowledge or understanding to back up.... but bear with me. One step at a time, eh?