17 October 2012

American lessons for Scotland...

Looking in on US federal politics is a queer business. I’ve never crossed the Atlantic myself, but have several American friends and acquaintances (Oxford is awash with them), and like them, I’ve been obsessively tuning in to see Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and President Obama spar in their 2.00am debates. Such is the familiarity of the wry observation that Britain and the United States are “two countries divided by a common language” that it is easy to forget the germ of caution which the witticism prudently commends.

There are several perils for the international watcher of American politics, foremost amongst which are ‘false friends’. A familiar tactic in British politics has been to steal the rhetoric of your opponents – Tories nuzzling up to the NHS and the Labour Party’s enthusiasm for new management mumbo-jumbo and the introduction of internal markets into English public services. For all of this triangulation, and for all of these costume changes, if we listen to an Ed Miliband speech, or a policy announcement from a Tory cabinet minister, we, “parse” the concepts we hear, as the Americans say. When Alex Salmond speaks about the conception of “social justice” which his government is committed to, we mentally tick off the sort of things this means in concrete policy terms. In his case, we might think of the universal provision of certain public services, no tuition fees, a progressive taxation system, but lower levies on corporations. 

For those who are not steeped in domestic American politics, or savvy about the main details of the federal programmes and entitlements being discussed – like me – presidential debates are littered with opportunities for confusion and outright misunderstanding, as American rhetoric is mistranslated into domestic political terms. Take this short segment from last night’s debate. In the second half of the debate, Obama said: 

“I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy’s grown. That’s how we build the world’s greatest middle class”.

I dare say that few folk would disagree that people should “have a fair shot”, but Obama’s views on the metrics of fairness, and how government ought to do to foster opportunity, diverges wildly even from the political consensus in Westminster, and the albeit embattled idea that the state has an extensive moral vocation to support its citizenry. Enthusiasm for Obama among left-leaning Europeans wildly outstrips the sort of joy his right-wing political convictions warrant. Certainly, the vulcanised Mr Romney, is the more obviously appalling of the two, but the lesser of two evils, and the choice between two reactionaries, is surely not, on most people’s sober analysis, something to be enthused by. 

There are other perils too for the English-speaker, bewitched by the apparent transparency of the language used, trying to understand these debates on their own terms. For those hailing from Britain, it is all too easy to conflate Congress with Parliament, and so to forget the implications of the American federal constitution, and the extensive jurisdiction which the US states enjoy to prescribe their own rates of taxation and to promote more conservative or liberal social agendas. A Congress without parliamentary sovereignty, and a trifurcated federal government of executive, legislature and judicial branches, affords no free hand to order or reform the American state freely as the president, the Supreme Court justices, or the Houses of Congress alone, see fit. 

Being on the outside looking in is not entirely disadvantageous, however. Leafing through the reams of blog posts, op-eds, news bulletins, twitter feeds and broadcasts which accompany these debates, it is striking  how hackneyed and repetitive they are. For all of the breadth and depth of writing on the US election and the debates which is going on, the discourse is dominated by endlessly repeated, circulating clichés. Characteristically, the fetishising of numbers abounds, as if the debate was reducible to an objective bean pile which political scientists and journalists need only neatly count, "reading off" and relaying the significance of the data to a credulous public, awaiting instruction on the science of whether Mitt or Obama triumphed. This obsession is buttressed by a range of instant technologies, firing out as-it-happens figures, which are enthusiastically taken and echoed by commentators who show striking faith in their importance for analysing the argument between the two candidates in proper aspect. 

You struggle to find any individual authorial voice in the industrial scale babble of sporting and war-waging metaphors which the numberless American gobjobbers and yammering consultants, bloggers and columnists manufacture. “Which Obama will turn up tonight?” “What does Romney need to do?” “Who won on points?” “Will he get a bump in the polls?” “How many percentage points?” “Who lost?” The word “narrative” is incontinently sprayed around, as is the “dynamic”. “Who dominated?” Did MSNBC “call it a draw”? How did candidates “pivot”, “back off” from, or “double-down” on their positions? “I’d say Romney won that, but only 5-4. Not enough to seal the deal” “How many times did he say “middle class”? What did the CNN dials do, what did the snap poll say, how did that go down with undecided white blue-collar workers in Ohio without a college degree? “That’ll damage him amongst women.” “What about the electoral college math?” Obama “won Benghazi”, one says, another that Romney nailed “small business”. Throughout, the assessment is primarily aesthetic, and it's all Win, win, win, win, win.

In a recent edition of Rolling Stone, the entertaining dyspeptic Matt Taibbi acidly describes the media’s response to the first debate between the two main candidates: 

“Romney’s performance was better than Obama’s, but only if you throw out criteria like ‘wasn’t 100% full of shit from the opening bell’ and ‘made an actual attempt to explain who he is and what his plans are’. Unfortunately, this is good enough for our news media, which drools other the gamesmanship aspects of these debates, because it loves candidates who sink their teeth into the horse-race nonsense that they think validates their professional lives”.

In an earlier piece, Taibbi describes "how the hype became bigger than the election", and (half seriously) suggests that publishing opinion polls should be proscribed during presidential campaigns: 

“Think about it: banning poll numbers would force the media to actually cover the issues. As it stands now, the horse race is the entire story – II can think of a couple of cable networks that would have to go completely dark tomorrow, as in Dan-Rather-Dead-Fucking-Air dark, if they had to come up with even 10 seconds of news content that wasn’t centred on who was winning”. 

This week, I've been particularly struck by the emerging Scottish parallels to this, in at least two respects. 

Firstly, we can already detect a tendency in reporting to personalise the politics of the constitution. “Is this really a referendum on your popularity, Alex Salmond? Will David Cameron’s intervention drive voters into the Yes camp?” With the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement, the echo of the American discourse was uncanny. On Monday, the Telegraph argued that “the PM has run rings around Alex Salmond over independence for Scotland”. The New Statesman declared a victory for "winner" Salmond instead. Both BBC Newsnicht and STV's Scotland Tonight presenters directly asked their guests whether Salmond or Cameron had “won” the negotiations, implying, of course, that the explanatory framework of victory or defeat was absolutely mandatory. Newsflash! It isn’t, and as I noted, Monday's Edinburgh Agreement represented a good result for both nationalists and unionists, if not for the disappointed middle, who'd prefer more devolution.

What's more, we’re arguably even beginning to ape the American fixation on numerical data, and the very thin range of concepts which polls survey for. "Who is winning at the moment? What do the polls say about the mountain the SNP have to climb? What does Alex Salmond have to do to win this?" Questions like these have more often than not, dominated the analysis we've seen on the telly this week. Robin McAlpine had this decent recent primer on some of the perils of quantification, rightly emphasising that polls do not simply reflect underlying opinion. Interpretations are inscribed on the limited (and often delphic) categories which pollsters elect to ask about, shape the sorts of opinions which are counted, and invariably reduce the complexity of the real world to an brisk but essentially impoverished table of numbers and percentages, leaving an infinite amount of important, relevant information uncounted, unarticulated, and critically, unconsidered if we limit our discussion to the numerical contents of opinion polls. The apparently inexhaustible ubiquity of John Curtice on our screens should serve as a warning on this score.

The vacuity of the American discussion is an object-lesson in what we shouldn't want the referendum to look and sound like. If we want to have a serious debate about independence, the threatened shift in our political discourse towards a US style horse-race, sustained by a number-crunching obsession with who is winning, rather than the arguments and the evidence, will have to be resisted, and resisted sturdily. 


  1. Was it Alistair Cook who declared the election of Ronald Regan with the comment, "America has just elected the evil of two lessers."?

  2. You've definitely put forward a good point here, which is that the lack of seriousness and overemphasis on campaign cliches has turned the Scottish referendum into a political farse rather than the serious debate it should be.

    But I suppose, does this beckon a simple question? Is the politics of insincerity not inevitable in a post-modern age when people are too apathetic to care about all the ideological intricacies of a given candidate, and better yet an entire election? After all, isn't the cost of learning anything about politics too high for most people who would rather focus on improving their quality of life? Is this not the essence of what post-modernism is?

    Now, that's not to say that I support the idea of a politically apathetic citizenry because I certainly don't, but I think it's only an inevitable consequence of our development.

    Still, how about the prospects of Scottish independence? Well, aside from the fact that any debate will no doubt be hampered by the realities of post-modern politics, independence might actually favor the unequivocally unionist Conservatives, for they will see a Labour bastion and drain on public funds disappear into thin air.

    I've written a nice little piece on my own blog detailing this very issue, and while unionism will always remain a partisan plank of the Tories, the apparent contradictions of their position on Scotland are clear.

  3. As an American who closely follows UK (and especially Scottish) poltics, let me say that this cannot be emphasized enough.

    Conservative and Liberal do not mean the same things on the opposite sides of the pond. Not. At. All.

  4. It behooves us to reflect soberly that the vacuity of the American election is itself not just a trait of contemporary American politics, but a sign of where the polity as a whole is at. For Romney and Obama represent a convergence of ideologies, strange as it may seem, each bent on offering their own spin on what is the exact same thing.

    And that thing is the post-1945 order which still lives on in glorious splendor in the American mind. It matters little whether Obama stamps himself what might roughly be termed the 'statist' candidate, or whether Romney polishes his buttons as the 'business' candidate. Both industry and government have supported each other for well over 150 years. Both were integral to America taking advantage of the fact that, after VJ Day, there was no one else who could extract and manufacture like the U.S. -- everyone else was bombed, broke, or both.

    That paradigm has long passed, but the damaging imprint that social mobility, wealth, and the fear inherent to being king of the hill remains. Just as the War Between The States redefined the polity from a prescribed one to an activist one, so too must the American polity make a drastic change to move ahead.

    But, as Romney and Obama demonstrate, a wide choice of alternatives is not there. Those two don't even represent a binary choice. Both men are perfect candidates for the 1950s, when the well-oiled symbiosis, however sinister, of industry and state is working well and whatever tweaks they want to make -- be it national healthcare or tax cuts for millionaires -- won't really send things off the rails. But the money isn't there, nor the political capital, nor any true social discourse, nor (and most critically) time.

    I interned with the SNP in 2006 at the Scottish Parliament and, as an American, I found candor, humor, but above all a much stronger sense of community and relation, even amongst opposing politicians. However bad you think it might be, even with a trend toward 'horse-race' reporting, an essential fact remains:

    Scotland is about to step up in the world should the indyref pass; but if it does not, it is not the end of the world. For Scotland is a nation, and its nation-ness precedes its politics. There will always be a chance to try again. For us Americans, we have obliterated all knowledge of our past, our nation-ness in order to achieve the heights we have; now we stand on the brink, with nowhere to draw any direction except the corrupted ideological memes of the last five or six decades. Let Scots be thankful, whatever the indyref outcome, that they will still have a chance again one day because they are still themselves and have not sacrificed it on the altar of power and prestige, as my nation has.

  5. LPW, you are like a more erudite and loquacious Jon Stewart. I wholeheartedly agree with your condemnation of the American media, with it's pathetic obsession with clichés and horse races. Winning is a deeply ingrained cultural meme here, however, as is anti-intellectualism, and the media feel an instinctive need to reflect both. All in the name of ratings, of course.

    Just about anyone capable of looking beyond the headlines despairs at the paucity of candidates the American political sphere has produced lately. Since 2000, really only John McCain has been anything to shout about, including both Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, and he had the misfortune to be shackled to just about the worst candidate for executive office ever fomented in any civilised nation (well, at least since Iain Duncan Smith gave it a go).

    I'd love to soothe your soul with the reminder that the executive is the weakest of the three federal branches, and is probably more relevant in terms of foreign policy and representing the mood of the nation - in short, as a type of elected monarchy - if it wasn't for the fact that the legislature is the strongest and Congress lately has been even more lamentable than America's candidates for King. Er, President.

  6. Clerical errer,

    Ha! I'll have to remember that one.

    J. R. Tomlin,

    An eminently fair point. As I noted in the piece, I always try to approach American politics gingerly. Unless you're alive to it, you can forget the slipperiness and the American referents of the discourse.

    Countdown to November,

    I'm still optimistic we can try to encourage a different sort of conversation around the referendum. It is, after all, early days yet and we're all feeling our way among the dazzling range of policies and considerations we might talk about. An interesting point about the politics of postmodernity, and the idea that we are at least rhetorically, if not practically, in a "post-ideological" phase of our democracy and governance. It warrants a fuller discussion, that.

  7. Autarkes,

    A pessimistic assessment! Thanks for the observations from your unique position betwixt and between Scotland and the US. As I say, my rubbernecking in on the presidential race is in some respects discreditably ignorant. I've never set foot in the U.S. Accordingly, and my American pals are all sorts who've left the country, are hyper educated and (save for the odd exception) all Democratically inclined, with greater and less enthusiasm. I dare say many of the folk staying up to watch the bouts are similar, their encounter with America limited to a very small cosmopolitan slice of the country.

    Craig Gallagher,

    High praise! I'm not sure what Mr Stewart would make of the comparison, mind you. You're studying over in Boston now yourself, aren't you? Like Autarkes, but the ambassadorship is the other way around!

  8. Whoever wins the debate and the election, the oil and armaments boardrooms will stay in charge. It's just America's Next Top Model and whoever wins or loses, the Fashion Business will survive.

    My wife (who is American, funnily enough) tells me that the first thing she thought was attractive about me was the automatic way I pulled the sporting section out of the newspaper and chucked it in the bin, unread. So you can see I hate the media intention to project the prsidential election as just a game, just sport, just entertainment. The 'debates' might as well be compered by Tyrah Banks, for all the relevance they have to political outcomes. 'I hold in my hand two photos, but only one...'.

  9. Vronsky,

    "My wife (who is American, funnily enough) tells me that the first thing she thought was attractive about me was the automatic way I pulled the sporting section out of the newspaper and chucked it in the bin, unread."

    I'm a past master at this economical disposal. I had no idea it was a potentially alluring gesture. When next I refuse to be detained by the inevitable sporting supplement, I'll have to keep an eye out for comely observers!