I, like most people, am not an American citizen and never plan on living in the United States of America. Even still, it is deemed important for informed citizens of the world to maintain an opinion and organise preferences with regard to American politics, and especially the quadrennial presidential election. Despite this, I can honestly say that it doesn’t bother me too much who wins a US presidential election. I follow the media coverage of course, and check out the latest opinion polls, so obviously there is some degree of attention paid. Like most Europeans I would like Obama to win. I would compare this preference however to a recent World Cup final, where I had a preference for Holland, but Spain eventually ran out winners in extra time. I was down for a few minutes, but after that I just forgot about it. I may be naive and inconsiderate, but I just don’t think the results of American elections affect me as much as many would have us believe. I do however maintain an interest in tracking the nature of election campaigns around the world, and the United States Presidential Elections are always on the cutting edge of this particular topic. As I have mentioned, I don’t care too much about American politics, so I state here explicitly that I write in this post about The Election Campaign, and not partisan politics in the USA.
The reason I don’t care too much about the results of this election is that I consider myself a political realist. Political scientists reading this will question how I plan on explaining this, but I boil this down to one particular aspect of realism: that in politics, interests are favoured over values. With this logic, Obama and Romney both preach from a pulpit about the particular values that their America will possess in the future. Romney appeals to conservative values, while Obama maintains a liberal, progressive rhetoric and policy standpoints that appeal to liberal values. These appeals-to-values evoke emotive, fanatical following amongst the supporters of both candidates. However, both of these candidates have made policy promises that align with the wishes of those whose support has been tapped. Both Romney and Obama have implied that they will give certain things to certain groups of people in the event of a successful election campaign. In this way, the values that politicians align themselves with are often really just smokescreens for promising rewards to voters who will make the difference in the next election.
When put this way, I do not see much difference between Mitt Romneys much-publicized private speech praising the wealthy, and President Obamas recent revelation that he favours gay marriage. Both candidates were appealing (and making promises) to those that are most likely to vote for them, in order to make sure that this support is maintained throughout the election. I am not saying that Obama or Romney are bad people, or that the opinions they express in public are not their own. I am simply saying that in Realist theory, these opinions would take a very secondary role to acquiring the support of those needed to ensure success in an election. This is, of course, not saying anything with regard to my personal opinion about these topics, and purely from an objective standpoint. That is also partisan politics, which is not the subject of this post.
As mentioned previously, I have maintained an interest in presidential election campaigns throughout the years, and particularly in the use of new media in these campaigns. This blog owes its existence to the blogging phenomenon which surrounded Vote 2004, where canny political advisors encouraged young interns to detail online their daily idealistic, enthusiastic experiences on the campaign trail. By Vote 2008, journalists were in love with Barack Obama because of his omnipresent Blackberry and associated tweeting. Election 2012 can only be described as the Campaign of the Meme. This became apparent after the Republican National Congress where Clint Eastwoods speech was used to launch the “#emptychair” hashtag on Twitter, prompting millions of Democrats to ridicule the idea online, and millions of Republicans to engage the idea and ask Obama questions using the hashtag.
The Eastwood Empty Chair speech was ridiculous, of course, as how is it fair to have one of the most popular entertainers in America stand in front of millions of people and blatantly mock the sitting president with questions he is not physically able to answer? This was the depths that the Republican Party had plummeted to, it seems. An unequivocal cultural institution (Eastwood) brought out to demolish an invisible incumbent. This was how it seemed, until the other side entered the game and we saw Samuel L. Jackson, an icon of liberal cool, appealing to Americas voters by scaring them to “wake up and vote”, albeit with more explicit language. This video was also explicitly anti-Romney, but conspicuous in its absence of official support from the Democratic party. In a two-party system however, condemning one candidate is the equivalent of endorsing the other. Similarly Joss Whedon, an icon of alternative, intelligent, American, creative entertainment, recently starred in a video implying that a Romney victory would inspire a Zombie Apocalypse. All of this is very funny, however it adds little more to the political debate than Eastwood did with his empty chair. Similarly, there is no difference between these pro-Obama videos and the much-ridiculed pro-Romney videos by Chuck Norris. They are all tools of campaign politics designed to manipulate fans of these celebrities into voting for their candidate. What is interesting is that those on either side of the campaign ridicule the others political memes, whereas they are identical in every way except for the political message entailed, and what that message means for that particular individual. That is back to politics, however.
In Europe, deprived of consistent information about partisan politics in the United States, we are slaves to the rhetoric and memes thrown at us by these elections. In addition to this, in American movies and TV shows there is an undoubted leaning towards the Democratic party. While party affiliations are never stated explicitly, ‘good’ presidents and politicians are bathed in blue and speak liberal ideals, while ‘corrupt’, “shady” presidents and politicians are awash in red and rendezvous with gentlemen speaking in affluent Southern accents. This doesn’t account for everything, but most of us outside America are automatically conditioned to support the Democratic candidate as a result of this. This should be taken into account by Americans discussing politics with Europeans, as we are somewhat subliminally biased, and our preference for the Democratic Party is not always based on rationality.
Campaigns that resemble that which has just transpired will hopefully somewhat alleviate the effects of such cultural brainwashing. I remember a friend telling me a few years ago that when he was in the Philippines during a local election, the candidates first had a debate on issues, and then were required to sing a karaoke song in public as part of the electoral process. Generally it was the candidate who performed best in the latter event that eventually won the election. I remember laughing at this when I heard it, however now I do not see much difference between this karaoke and the celebrity meme culture that has dominated this election campaign. The line I remember most from The West Wing, itself a love letter to the Democrats, was an admission of regret by President Bartlett and his Chief of Staff about the limits of campaign politics and promises: ‘You campaign in poetry, and you rule in prose’. What worries me is that if what they are saying in this current campaign is the poetry, then what can we expect from the prose?