Friday 5 February 2016

The Greatest Show on Earth

I've always been fascinated by US Presidential campaigns. I've been following the latest one, but refrained from blogging about it until now. Of course I'll have a lot more to say about the candidates, but first I want to step back and consider the election itself.

On Monday the first votes were cast, in the Iowa caucuses. So begins an election process louder, crazier and more expensive than any other, to choose the most powerful person on the planet.

It's weird to give so much importance to Iowa. The USA is a massive, diverse country of 300 million people. It's given a crucial role in choosing its President to the three million Iowans, disproportionately old, white, and rural. Fewer than 400,000 of them voted in the time-consuming caucus process.

It's as if the UK chose leaders by first polling Norfolk, a rural county of about 860,000 people, and considered this a perfectly natural and logical thing to do. It looks very peculiar to an outsider.

It is the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of the campaign which makes it so compelling. Lesser nations can have an orderly and sober process for choosing a leader. The Americans have a lengthy carnival of voting, debating, shouting, pandering, advertising, scandalising, and voting again. From the first primaries to the general election spans ten months; and that doesn't include preliminary scrapping for position, which has been going on for at least a year.

The sprawling, unruly, and energetic campaign befits the nation it serves. The stakes could not be higher, and the predictable, establishment candidate does not always win. There is hope that some brilliant statesman will rise from obscurity to the White House; and fear that one of the clowns or lunatics will do the same.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson:
I know that I, like many other Americans, have behaved like a total buffoon. But we Americans are England's children.
I know we don't call as often as we should and we aren't as well-behaved as our goody two-shoes brother Canada, who by the way has never had a girlfriend. I'm just saying.

Some elections are more exciting than others, but all have the capacity for surprise and drama, and more often than not they live up to it.

Consider a few recent examples:

  • In 2012, bland multimillionaire Mitt Romney faced off against an extraordinary parade of the repellent, the stupid, and the certifiably deranged for the Republican nomination. He beat them in the end, but he had to work for it, foreshadowing his weakness and ineptitude in the general election.
  • In 2008, Obama was a nobody with a weird name who had been in the Senate for only four years, up against the mighty Clinton campaign machine. For the Republicans, McCain was at first overshadowed by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who had led from amid the rubble of the World Trade Center. In the high drama of the general election, Obama offered hope and change; McCain offered Sarah Palin, who let the beast of reactionary hatred so much further out of its cage.
  • In 2004, the passionate anti-war candidacy of Howard Dean crashed on takeoff, and the Democratic nomination was taken by boring, decent John Kerry. The Democrats thought a decorated veteran of combat in Vietnam would be safe from attacks on his patriotism; they would pay a high price for their naïveté.
  • In 2000, the election campaign was relatively dull, at the end of an era of peace and prosperity. It was followed by the excitement of Florida and the fateful elevation of George W Bush, as the election was settled by a mere 537 votes and a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court.
Looking further back, there were a few less colourful elections (1988, 1996), but most have been occasions for operatic drama and low farce, frequently at the same time. Even the most one-sided elections can be gripping. I've just started rereading Hunter S Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail," an account of the doomed attempt to unseat Richard Nixon in 1972.

This election is shaping up to be as fascinating as any of its predecessors. We may yet see mainstream nominees, conducting business as usual for their respective parties: Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, most likely Marco Rubio for the Republicans. (The Republican mainstream isn't what it used to be; some of Rubio's remarks make George W Bush look positively reasonable, but at least he isn't totally divorced from reality.)

I wouldn't place money on either one, though. In Iowa, Clinton finished in a virtual dead heat with the socialist Bernie Sanders. In contrast with Clinton's cautious pragmatism, he offers radical change, wresting power away from tycoons and corporations.

Rubio placed third behind Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Trump has received more media attention; but Cruz is more intelligent, more organised, and may ultimately be more dangerous.

Both Trump and Cruz peddle a far-right populism which oozes bigotry and celebrates ignorance. The prospect of either one reaching the White House is genuinely terrifying.

The curtain has risen for the greatest show on earth. The rest of the world will be watching, with popcorn and copious amounts of alcohol.


  1. I kind of wish I'd placed money on Rubio back when he was at 12/1... It's kind of funny that for a process that is so expensive and time-consuming, in a country so vast, it often doesn't find good candidates. Could the Democrats really not find anyone better than Kerry to take on Bush in 2004? And was Romney the best that the Republicans could offer in 2012? Both elections strike me as ones that the losing side might have won with a better candidate...

    1. It's a puzzle. But the campaign is so stressful and personally intrusive that it scares off a number of otherwise good candidates. (Eg. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden.) Some other candidates looked good on paper but self-destructed under the rigors of the campaign. The demands placed on a Presidential candidate are so extraordinary that it may in fact be very difficult to find a good one, even in a nation of 300 million.