The 51st State

The mid-term US Congressional elections are imminent, and as always seems to be the case these days, they’ve been extensively covered across all media. I can see why the result of American elections, especially the presidential ones, are deemed significant enough to warrant attention – it is the most powerful country on earth, after all. However, I must admit to being somewhat baffled why it is felt that we, the British, not being eligible to participate in these elections, are felt to require blow-by-blow accounts of campaigns for and against Senators and Congressmen who may be big news in Ohio or Nevada, but are utterly unheard of in Birmingham or Portsmouth. The “Tea Party” movement are a colourful if, frankly, insane bunch, but it’s not as if we’re being asked to vote for them anyway.

Perhaps even more difficult to fathom is that some Britons genuinely seem particularly obsessed with the US political system. Clearly, we are talking about a small minority here – it’s a struggle to get many people in this country interested in our own politics, let alone the USA’s. One of the same newspapers that featured the Congressional elections heavily also carried an article stating that 3.5 million British voters hadn’t bothered to get themselves on our electoral register. However, there are some middle class, educated, liberals, inside and outside the media and the political class, who rather appear to wish that they were on the American equivalent. The absurd levels of hype that greeted Barack Obama’s election as US President two years ago provides some evidence of this (although, to be fair, this reflected even more absurd levels of hype on the other side of the Atlantic).

The usual argument for being interested in US politics is, I suppose, the one I gave a moment ago – America is the most powerful country on earth, we are affected by the decisions of its politicians and it is an ally. However, this can’t be the whole truth. Less attention was paid to the details of American politics during the Cold War, when a President might have made the decision to launch a nuclear strike on Russia with devastating implications for the UK and, furthermore, when the US and the Soviet Union stood alone as superpowers. American dominance is not quite so clear-cut now; there are more international players that can make a credible claim to some kind of status as world powers. So why has the fascination increased?

George Orwell once wrote that not only were most people, even sophisticated ones, influenced by fiction far more than they they cared to admit, but that the worst books were often the most influential. Update books to television series or films and I think you have part of the explanation. From The West Wing to Independence Day and All The President’s Men to Mr Smith Goes To Washington Hollywood has done a much better job at selling the American political system than its British equivalents have of selling ours. Their more positive takes on the politicians show them as glamorous, successful and idealistic; even the more critical ones take them seriously enough to show them as powerful (if perhaps evil). When British cinema or television tackles British politicians, the tendency is to show them as ineffectual idiots – see Yes, Minister or The Thick of It. This is not to say that the American approach is closer to the truth than the British one; merely that it’s better propaganda. It was an American who described politics as showbusiness for ugly people and perhaps this is an illustration of that attitude.

On a deeper level, however, I think some of the obsession can also be traced to a hankering after Britain’s own lost imperial status and nostagia for politicians who, as the US President still does, bestrode the world. Britain is now at best a medium-sized power and its politics are relevant to few outside its shores. How much more satisfying to admire remote, God-like figures beyond the ocean making world shaping decisions than deal with the much more limited and drab local version. Unfortunately, limited is what we are and it will do no good at all to pretend otherwise, quite apart from whether Barack Obama is quite as powerful in real life as the President in The West Wing anyway. Anyone who’s really keen on living in a superpower had better apply for US citizenship, although you should be prepared to put up with a Tea Party activist as your Senator if you do…

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