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Obsessed by personalities, they've forgotten what democracy is for/G.Younge

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  • anjalisaga
    Obsessed by personalities, they ve forgotten what democracy is for The US media is gripped by election fever - but discusses the candidates highs and lows
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 5, 2007
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      Obsessed by personalities, they've forgotten what democracy is for


      The US media is gripped by election fever - but discusses the
      candidates' highs and lows rather than the real social issues

      Gary Younge in Washington
      Monday February 5, 2007
      The Guardian

      "You want to run for president?" asked Frank Bruni in his book Ambling
      into History. "Here's what you need to do: Have someone write you a
      lovely speech that stakes out popular positions in unwavering language
      and less popular positions in fuzzier terms. Better yet if it bows to
      God and country at every turn - that's called uplift. Make it rife
      with optimism, a trumpet blast not just about morning in America but
      about a perpetual dazzling dawn. Avoid talk of hard choices and
      daunting challenges; nobody wants those. Nod to people on all points
      of the political spectrum ... Add a soupcon of alliteration. Sprinkle
      with a few personal observations or stories - it humanises you. Stir
      with enthusiasm."

      Watching the contenders for the Democratic party nomination at the
      Washington Hilton this weekend during the party's winter meeting was
      to see Bruni's formula applied with precision (though he might have
      added: "Have millionaire backers, be tall, married and able-bodied" -
      it is unlikely the wheelchair user FDR would have been elected in the
      era of mass television).

      The candidates were each allowed seven minutes, 30 seconds of theme
      music, and 100 poster-waving fans, to lay out their stall for the new
      American century. Each one spoke of how the nation's historic mission
      as a beacon of liberty, justice and opportunity throughout the globe,
      had been traduced by the Bush administration. There was nothing bad
      enough you could say about the Iraq war, the budget deficit or the
      state of healthcare. There was also nothing concrete that most of the
      candidates would say about what they would do to fix them. With little
      of substance on offer, delivery was everything. Barack Obama, who
      delivered beautifully, called for an end to cynicism in American
      politics. That's a lot of work for just seven minutes.

      Americans, such demanding consumers in every other aspect of their
      lives, curiously expect little from their political leaders. They hold
      the principle of democracy dear; but the purpose of democracy remains
      elusive. The notion that "the people shall govern" is the cornerstone
      of American political identity - even if the nonchalance with which
      they watched Bush steal the 2000 election revealed a disturbing
      reluctance to defend it. Yet the idea that elections should be the
      mechanism for effecting real change barely seems to register - which
      is why it was relatively easy for Bush to get away with robbery.

      The weekend before November's midterms, for example, I walked up the
      Las Vegas Strip asking people if they thought the coming elections
      mattered. Roughly one in five either did not know the elections were
      taking place or had no intention of voting. Yet precisely 100% said
      they thought the elections mattered. This dislocation is not
      particular to the US. For all its inadequacies, America's political
      culture has proved far more responsive to opposition to the war or
      corruption than Britain's. But both the popular attachment to
      democratic ideals and the general ambivalence to democratic outcomes
      are more intense, making the discrepancy more pronounced.

      Everybody knows that, if counted (a significant if), their vote will
      make a difference to who is actually elected. But few expect that
      whoever they elect will really make any difference to the issues they
      care about. And so voting takes on a ritualistic quality. Like
      Independence Day or Thanksgiving, it marks a date on the calendar not
      for changing America's politics, but for celebrating its promise.

      Whether one participates or not seems less important than the fact of
      the event itself. The consensus view of November's elections is that
      voters turned their back on the war and the Bush agenda and opted
      instead for a new course in favour of bipartisanship and troop
      withdrawal. But the truth is that most of them turned their back on
      the elections. The fact that, at only 42%, this was the highest
      midterm turnout for 36 years is merely an indication of how entrenched
      this condition has become. The so-called Gingrich revolution of 1994
      was won with just 38.8% of the vote. In the words of Gil Scott-Heron:
      "The first thing I want to say is: mandate, my ass."

      The point here is not that there is no difference between the two main
      parties but that the difference is insufficient to make a significant
      impact on the lives of large numbers of Americans. The problem is not
      that people don't want or need change - the poorer you are, the less
      likely you are to vote - but that they have long since given up on the
      idea that voting is the way to get it.

      The future of the country was supposed to hinge on the outcome of the
      2004 presidential election. But somehow the issues of poverty, racism
      and infrastructural decay that were evident in the aftermath of
      Hurricane Katrina nine months later just never came up. By the time
      the midterms arrived, little over a year later, Katrina had somehow
      become irrelevant again.

      It's not difficult to see why. Elections are big business. Last year
      the parties spent $2bn on ads alone. Throw in the fees for thousands
      of lobbyists, consultants and fundraisers and the electoral-industrial
      complex starts to develop a momentum of its own. Hillary Clinton, who
      faced only token opposition in a Senate race she won by 30 points,
      still lavished $27,000 on valet parking and $13,000 on flowers. The
      people who provide this money have healthcare, housing and decent
      schools for their kids. They pay the pipers and name the tune.

      The mainstream media dances dutifully. Reporters somehow never
      encounter non-voters, instead constructing a country hotly debating
      the issues and weighing up the candidates. Obsessed by polls and
      personalities, they have a surreal fixation about who is up and who is
      down, with little indication of why we should care. They have barely
      digested the results of one election before they move on to devour the
      next. The morning after the midterms, with the fate of the Senate in
      the balance, CNN already had a banner along the bottom of its screen
      that read "America votes 2008". New York magazine hit the stands with
      a picture of Hillary Clinton on the cover and the words: "And now the
      real race begins".

      And so in the Washington Hilton the permanent campaign that transforms
      American politics into a never-ending soap opera continues. Four years
      ago a rank outsider, Howard Dean, made his name at this event with an
      anti-war speech that transformed the dynamics of the campaign. This
      year he wielded the gavel as the leader of the Democratic National
      Committee and everybody is against the war.

      It's almost two years until the presidential elections. We can only
      hope that between now and then progressive movements will again see
      the candidates' opportunism as their opportunity and bring their
      influence to bear on whoever decides to run. In the meantime, with
      little of substance to debate, the media are reduced to discussing
      strategy and style. Can the Democrats reclaim the west? Should they
      abandon the south? When will Obama's star fade? Are Hillary's
      positives greater than her negatives? Is America ready to elect a
      Mormon, a black man or a white woman? Enjoying the race, and ignoring
      what lies beyond the finish line.

      g.younge@...
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