Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Please, Europeans, stop obsessing over the US election

"American exceptionalism itself has something of a Sunset Boulevard feel to it, a black comedy where a faded silent movie star believes she is still the most luminous presence on the screen."

Over my decade in Europe I've seen a lot of BBC correspondents come and go from their American postings. But none has seemed to grasp the real affliction facing America like Nick Bryant (quoted above).

His observations during this absolute farce of an election season have been particularly spot-on. And Europeans, who tend to be far more interested in American politics than they really should be, should give him a read.

As funny as the above quote is, we have to admit that at the moment, the US election is the star of the global show. And I absolutely hate that. Because a faded silent movie star doesn't warrant this kind of attention.

Every US presidential election cycle I go through the same frustrations. My European friends on social media, particularly British friends, become obsessed with every minor development in the election. I become frustrated for two reasons. 

Firstly, I'm embarrassed by the depths to which American political discourse and democracy have sunk, and I know that the extra attention from people for the entertainment value (at home or abroad) is making the situation worse.

Secondly, I'm frustrated that Europeans would rather spend their time obsessing over American politics than become engaged in their own national or EU-level politics. I understand the reasons. America's circus-like political atmosphere is just more entertaining. 

But I also think it stems from the chronic infantilism that has marked Europe's relationship with America over the past half-century. Europeans look to Washington, rather than to themselves, for leadership. And so the US presidential election becomes far more important in Europeans' minds than their own elections.

It isn't just Europeans, though they are the most affected by this bug. The American election was the number one most talked-about subject on Facebook globally in 2015, more than a year before the actual election. As Bryant observes, "Presidential elections are box office."

The problem is that this isn't a game. And when I see European friends gleefully posting the most lurid developments of the US election, it frustrates me. Because they are only seeing it as entertainment, and not thinking about the dire consequences for a world in which America is crumbling. I don't find any of this funny, or entertaining.

"The problem is that the greatest democratic show on earth also doubles as the most outlandish," writes Bryant. "For international onlookers, it can seem freakish and bizarre: a long-running farce populated by cartoonish characters, which works as entertainment but is a poor advertisement for American democracy."

Here's the scary truth: it isn't just American elections that are systemically broken. It's American governance. The United States is the oldest democratic nation-state in the world, and because of this Americans believe with a firm conviction that their way of doing things is the right one. They have a semi-religious attachment to their governing system and the constitution, which date from 1789.

The United States is operating under an archaic democratic structure, but Americans believe so firmly in the sanctity of this structure that there is no serious talk of adjusting it. Other countries, including the comparatively younger nation-states of Europe, are able to adjust to modern realities. But the United States remains mired in an idealised past for its governance solutions.

It is particularly ironic for a nation which is the most innovative in the world in the commercial space. How can people who are so good at developing ideas to make money be so bad at developing ideas to run their society?

In his latest piece on 'American exceptionalism at a time of American malaise', Bryant hits the nail on the head. "Many of the problems are systemic, arising from flaws in the democratic model that was supposed to offer a prototype. Much of the gridlock in Washington stems from checks and balances that have come to be used as partisan weapons. The constitution, an extraordinary document reflecting the brilliance of its authors, looks, to many, out of date. In this age of mass shootings, laws are still based on a document drafted in the era of the single-shot musket."

More worryingly, though Americans seem to realise that something is wrong (the 'malaise' Bryant refers to) they don't quite seem to grasp what the problem is. Instead they are blaming immigrants, Muslims or fat-cat bankers. Nobody, including Bernie Sanders, is talking about a new democratic model (outside of a myopic focus on campaign finance reform). 

With this in mind, Europeans would be far better off using the time and energy they spend obsessing over the American election (and America in general) to instead focus on the future of their own continent. That continent is, let's face it, falling apart. And America isn't coming in again to save the day. 

So please, I beg my European friends, just stop paying attention to the American election. It's a sideshow in an overall circus of decline. Look to yourselves. Look South. Look East. Just please, jostle yourselves out of this infantile obsession with America.

The stakes are too high right now to waste time talking about American elections. It's a sad carwreck on the highway of history, and slowing your car down to watch it is going to keep you from getting where you need to go.

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