US Presidential election 2016: a commentary

James Hacker: Humphrey, I’m worried.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Oh, what about, Prime Minister?
James Hacker: About the Americans.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Oh yes, well, we’re all worried about the Americans.

Yes Prime Minister

I have no doubt many Americans would think I have no right whatsoever to comment upon, much less mock the American Presidential election process, but this does exemplify one key difference between American and British culture: we, often rightly, feel free to tear apart the many gaps and deficiencies in our version of democracy (which often feels closer to an elected autocracy); so do Americans about their system, and every other – but they would defend their constitution and process to the death from external critics.  So regard my comments not as satire but a cultural analysis, an anthropological adventure in Stateside politics.

Bear in mind that this is a different concept, given that we have no elected Head of State, much to the chagrin of republicans like myself.  Not only is theirs a Presidency, but POTUS is an Executive Presidency at that, a role finely balanced against a bicameral Congress that is frequently hostile not only in terms of party representation but on principle.  Equally, you may think some US Presidents to be so laid back they barely touch the pedals, let alone understand what is really going on, though I could not possibly comment.

Meanwhile, the election machine is now heading rapidly towards the November showdown between chosen Democratic and Republican candidates, going through the shakedown process now – the primaries and the caucuses.  These are a rare sight this side of the pond, so they are worthy of further exploration: essentially, they determine the delegates to the annual conference, thereby which candidate for each party will be elected, though attendees may be a member of one, both or neither leading parties.  The sad thing about being a voter is that you can’t select who you would wish to vote for, only those nominated, such is life – you have to make the best of the bad bunch presented to you.

These events take place in a traditional order rather than any constitutional stipulation, starting with Iowa, then New Hampshire, continuing with several more and then “Super Tuesday” (yesterday in this case) – by when the candidates who are clearly not going to win will have quit the race and endorsed whichever chump secretly promises them the best role, should they win the presidency in return for an endorsement.  By then, the eventual winner may be blindingly obvious, but the show rolls around to every other state in turn so the I’s are dotted and T’s crossed – ready for the triumphal conference and the keynote acceptance speech before battle resumes between parties.

This extended beauty pageant between the toughest bruisers on the scene continues for some months, though there is no requirement for any to hold political office to be selected – as witnessed by Donald Trump.  The USA being what it is, there is no guarantee that the candidates with greatest intelligence, eloquence or skill will win out.  Arguably there is a proportion of the electorate that holds out for the candidate most like them, or at least the most photogenic or capable of killer soundbites.  You only have to listen to Sarah Palin and understand that some took her presidential bid in 2012 seriously to realise that in American politics the brightest women have more sense than to enter the race.

Rarely if ever are Presidential candidates the most capable of knowledgeable people, but typically the ones with the sharpest elbows.  In practice, this means TV debates between the candidates end up as mud-slinging contests with lots of cat-calling and shouting over one another, which I’d argue is the worst of politics and demonstrates nothing so much as lack of mutual respect; negative electioneering often goes way beyond what would be considered acceptable over here.

While American friends often tell me the wonderful thing about America is that you can come from even the humblest of origins to become President, fact is that while home spun myths are often related to build up the “one of the common people” vision, the vast majority of candidates were born into fabulous wealth or acquired it by one means or another – though you have to remember that being wealthy is more typically the subject of aspiration, even to the poorest communities, rather than earning disapprobation.

Despite the wealth factor, almost all candidates need financial backing, which typically comes through a massive parallel campaign of fundraising dinners, events and sponsorship through commerce – notably corporates who expect something serious in return for their money – they sure don’t give out millions to would-be political leaders out of sheer wanton generosity.  In this country, we keep a close eye on those buying influence, but there it is commonplace and apparently not sneered upon – and we don’t trust anyone who tries to buy power.

The Bush support for energy company fracking programmes was hardly a surprise when you allow for the vast funding “Dubya” in particular gained from “big oil” – though it seems to be cheerfully accepted by America.  Perhaps all Republicans are being sponsored by the energy sector, given that they are all apparently climate change deniers, to a man – in spite of the unequivocal scientific evidence.  But then, there is always a sense that politics is three steps removed from reality, and that anything said should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The other thing Americans like is their own royal families – the political dynasties that give a springboard for any would-be candidate, not that that guarantees success.  The Kennedy family were successful to a point through JFK, and had he lived, Bobby Kennedy may well have made the White House – though Ted Kennedy and all subsequent generations failed to live up to the hype.  The Bushes succeeded in getting 16 years in the Oval Office, courtesy of George senior and junior, though Jeb Bush failed to make the hat trick.  Whether Hillary Clinton can follow in the footsteps of her husband Bill, who would then become the first “first gentleman” will soon emerge.

In fact, up to Obama candidates were always white, and it’s fair to say that women have almost never been regarded as serious candidates – up to this year and Clinton.  In fact, this year’s Democratic contest is almost unique, given that one leading candidate is female and the other (Bernie Sanders) a self-confessed democratic socialist and previously an independent senator.

The S-word (socialist, not senator!) is usually taboo to Americans, for whom it is not understood but does carry connotations of the dreaded Soviet system, which in the Cold War every American was brought up to hate with a passion – to the extent of referring to our own humble NHS as “socialised medicine” in spite of the US being one of the very few civilised countries not offering universal healthcare.  The interesting thing is, as I’ve found out by talking to Americans across many years, that the individual policies consistent with democratic socialism are probably very appealing to them, but the label is not.

Which brings us back to the primaries: these contests have over the years typically been about which candidate can sound the most conservative (small C) in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator of voters – those who vote cautiously – and prevent the other candidates painting them as dangerously radical and therefore un-American.  The other aspect is to hide or spin any aspects of a candidate’s own past that might render them in shock horror headlines on Fox News.

To us it seems bizarre but it is pretty much impossible for any President to be elected unless they declare themselves to be a born-again Christian and to support their definition of religious values, though whether, like Ted Cruz, declaring their religious beliefs to be their first allegiance in a secular state, over and above the law and the constitution, is muddy waters.  Ironic then that we have an established church but are notably less religious as a population than the USA.

The Republican contest, by contrast, has been a race of the three Rs to see who can sound most right-wing, most religious and most racist.  It’s often been said by analysts that any candidate who can’t provide a positive vision for their country that voters can tap into will go for scare tactics – so Trump’s frontiersman-like foray against Mexicans, Moslems and almost anyone else, while displaying shocking ignorance of the reality of foreign policy, is an attempt to appeal to the basest instincts and prejudices of his audience.

However, it is important to remember that rabble-rousing speeches mean absolutely nothing.  There is seldom a manifesto commitment that US Presidents stick to, so the vote is an emotional tie rather than a specific policy commitment, and is often accompanied by large mouthfuls of hypocrisy.  Many of the promises made on the hustings may appear alarming, though you wonder how many will see the light of day – particularly when they fail the common sense or achievability test.

For example, Obama’s commitment to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp took the whole of his Presidency to achieve, but he appears to have succeeded in scheduling that event; a Trump presidency promising that there would be a wall built across the border funded by Mexico has been met with utter contempt by the Mexican President and government, so there is a strong probability that would not happen – unless Trump also intends revenge on the Alamo by invading Mexico (joke!)

Politics being the art of the possible, there are some things no President can get through a hostile congress – and presently universal healthcare, cuts to defence spending and gun control are three that would be impossible in the current climate, whatever candidates may promise – in spite of the many middle class Americans who suffer crippling medical bills when their insurance fails to pay up.  What you say to get yourself elected and what you do when you get there are two completely different things, but then we all know about political promises.

Where you draw the line in American elections is a fascinating question.  The fact that Watergate passed down into political folklore tells you there are some things you can’t get away with, but the cultural morality associated with American elections is quite different to our general elections, for example.  But then, with the actual presidential election there is a touch of self-censorship to ensure the office is not tainted with a whiff of impropriety – even if Nixon and Clinton turned it into the occasional farce.

Granted that you can often hear rhetoric becoming increasingly vindictive and more personal by each election, but perhaps the UK is always lagging slightly behind the American process.  Since as yet we don’t elect our Head of State, nor even Prime Minister  directly (apart from voters resident in their constituency), we are generally one step removed from the highest office, which to me seems a major flaw in our system – though both operate a first past the post system rather than a more democratic PR system where the outcome is measured directly by votes cast.

But even despite the nasty elements at either extreme our elections are generally conducted in a more civilised air, up to the point where the new leader is in place – whereupon there is a greater dignity about the American election process.  It’s as if we never accept the result of an election and want to keep at it until we get the right result for our own tastes.

Where there are similarities, albeit on a smaller scale, are the support bases for each party.  Here, the shires are the domain of the Tories (blue) and the inner cities and Scotland typically Labour (red) territory, though less so in 2015; in the States, the East and West Coast intelligentsia tend to vote Democrat (blue) and the bible belt and deep south Republican (red.)  There is some flux over the years, but rare that the general rules are too far from the truth.

Over here there are typically 100 swing seats out of 650, and most American states will also tend to remain fixed in their voting habits – with some always volatile and maybe a good predictor of the final outcome (see the Missouri bellwether) – though some would claim there are other more bizarre factors that predict the outcome (see here.)

Perhaps the final word here is that whoever actually makes it to the role of US President will have been through a marathon, not a sprint.  Once they have mooted for support within their own party, established interest, begun fundraising, formally declared their intention to stand, gone through the gruelling primaries and only then the actual election itself, you might think they deserve it – but that’s when the fun starts.

The effect of four or eight years in the job has turned many an incumbent’s hair silver – small wonder they call it the White House!  Imagine what might hypothetically do to Trump’s legendary thatch, were he elected, not that the polls favour his long-term chances.

Is it worth it to become officially the most powerful man (or woman) on earth?  Perhaps the wisest and cleverest people are the ones who stand in the shadows and make the real decisions, not the puppet who achieve the office and the public acclaim – if you believe the paranoid projections of TV programmes, anyway.

PS. If you want to see a comprehensive demolition of Trump, you won’t find better than John Oliver‘s analysis.  See here.

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