lessons from America

Life imitating art imitating life

How to prepare for Denver? That’s my challenge. In under a week I’ll be there, following the Convention from my base in the Big Tent. So I’ve watched the West Wing – the final two series all about the post-Bartlet primaries and the general election. You can see the Obama candidacy emerging first on screen, mapping the path to the White House for a political outsider with a funny name and non-white skin who proclaims a message of change and fires up the young people and Democrat activists.

Then I watched the entire run of Commander-in-Chief. A Hillary-vehicle, some cynically said, as it offers us a world with a credible liberal woman as the first female occupant of the White House. The series ends as battle lines are drawn for an election run, so we never know what happens next. Intriguingly, the show not only sympathetically features a black chief-of-staff, but also has him about to take up the post of Vice President. A case of hedging bets before the primary season perhaps?

Now, I’m at the Edinburgh Festival. Along with happily sampling the usual comedy, musical and theatrical fare – and some fantastic live African music – I’m trying to discern if there’s an American election undercurrent around. In past years (this is my 4th Festival in a row) I’ve managed to pick up and follow a theme: one year it was blogging and diaries; another it was constitutional reform (you gotta believe it). I am on the hunt to see if US electoral politics is on the menu. And I don’t just mean anti-Bush rants / jokes. I’m looking for Obama and McCain gags, “Si si peude” chants and November references.

Leafing through the fringe guide, there weren’t nearly as many obvious references to election year as I imagined. Only two shows have it in their titles: Jeff Kreisler ‘08 (an American comedian’s stand-up show taking aim at contemporary political and pop culture); and ‘Tina C – Tick my box‘ (a spoof about a country & western singer running for president). Both have ads in the guide which depict electoral images, like ballot papers or campaign posters.

There were another two shows that focused on politics and elections stateside: ‘The Americans’ (a sketch show from a trio of Comedy Central actors depicting the nation as a once proud family on the verge of collapse); and ‘Queen of Wyoming’ (a musical about the protagonist’s father running for Governor of a Midwestern State). ‘Attack of the Soccer Mums’ sounds like it could be an account of the 1996 election, or even a Obama horror story, with women rising up to support Hillary Clinton, but is no such thing; instead being about over-competitive parents. Another that flatters to deceive in its name is ‘Jaik Campbell – The audacity of hopelessness’ – but full marks to the riff on Obama‘s book title. I wonder how many people here actually get that joke though?

I did however manage to dig up one show that Obama would be proud of. ‘Word-up’ is billed as an insight into the hip-hop generation, dealing with the post-segregation world and the fall out from global economics. That sounds more like the spirit of change.

Two long-running Festival favourites that draw heavily on the elections are ‘News Revue‘ (the satirical look back at the year) whose finale features Bush, Condeleeza, Clinton and Obama in a Bat out of Hell pastiche; and ’Political Animal’, a revolving group of comedians talking and joking about politics nightly.

The legacy of Bush‘s ‘War on Terror’ is perhaps the one issue that has captured the passion and imagination of artists. The Patriot Act (a serious play); ‘The Axis of Awesome’; Jesus: the Guantanamo years; Eco-friendly Jihad all draw inspiration in their titles – if not always their content – from that rich artistic vein.

Iraq may be a lot less prominent that in previous years, but Bush’s chief ally – our very own former PM – still attracts an audience; with two shows about him (Tony of Arabia / Tony! The Blair Musical). He is on a par with Mugabe, who also gets two shows about him: ‘I am Mugabe’ and ‘Requiem to Robert Mugabe’. Compare that to Gordon Brown or John McCain: neither get to be the subject of shows. Neither may get to win an election either.

And so the November election. ‘The Americans’ ends with Obama in the ascendant, but possibly about to be denied victory by someone fixing the election for the Republicans. Only time will tell whether life imitates art in this respect.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America, the world wants obama | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The American reality is currently only a dream for us

A copy of ‘America goes to the polls – a report on voter turnout in the 2008 Presidential Primary’ from a US voter engagement org has just landed in my inbox and I couldn’t wait til tomorrow to share some of the highlights with you.

1) More than one in four of all eligible voters participated in a primary or caucus. This is a rate not seen since 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18.

2) Voter participation in Democratic primaries was up 112% and caucuses by 223% compared to 2004 – ie.the turnout in Democratic primaries doubled and tripled in the caucuses.

3) Youth participation rose at a faster rate than any other age group. Turnout by voters ages 18-29 went up for the third consecutive national election year (2004 and 2006).

But alongside these startling facts, there is a salient message: besides competitive elections (which are very important) or the date of the primary, a number of factors influenced voter turnout. Election Day Registration and Early Voting most likely contributed to higher turnout in many states.

“Election Day Registration (EDR): Allowing voters to register or fix their registration at the polls ensures that more voters can successfully participate. Of the states with some form of Election Day Registration, most held caucuses. The three states with primaries, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and North Carolina, had high participation. Voters in North Carolina, normally a lower turnout state, benefited from the state letting early voters to register and vote at the same time up until 3 days before the election.”

“Early Voting: Allowing voters more and better opportunities to vote early can raise turnout in contests with traditionally lower turnout, like primaries3. Four of the ten states with the highest 2008 voter turnout – Oregon, Illinois, Florida and California – have broad early voting systems in place.”

Maybe both are measures the Ministry of Justice should be more seriously considering within its Governance of Britain discussions and consultations, rather than just the tinkering round the edges that constitute its proposals on weekend voting and giveaways at polling stations.

And perhaps the main lesson to take away from the report is that:

“The 2008 election provides fresh evidence of the difference made by meaningful competition and a diverse field of candidates and the higher levels of voter mobilization and participation this engenders.”

Meaningful competition. A diverse field of candidates. Those phrases are right out of the electoral reform playbook. To continue with the sports analogy, the MoJ really should be allowing these discussions onto the field of play; rather than leaving us – and logic – shouting from the sidelines

August 24, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , | Leave a comment

Voting in America event at Parliament

In June, Rob Richie – head of FairVote USA – was over in the UK doing a short speaker tour. One of his stops was in Parliament, to talk to the All-Party Group on Electoral Reform, who were hosting an American elections special. Anthony Barnett, of Open Democracy, was the other guest speaker. Here’s a summary of their contributions, along with my own commentary at the end.

America APPG meeting panel - cropped.JPG
Rob Richie – FairVote

There are over 2 million elected representatives in the US – that’s a lot of elections! This can lead to dispersal of accountability and lower turnout for many elections.

There is quite a large amount of institutional inertia. Only twice (1994 and 2006) in the last 56 years has there been a change of party in the House of Representatives. Some State Senate seats have not swapped parties for over 100 years.

This is the first time since 1952 that no sitting President / Vice President has contested the election. Obama is a freshman Senator and barely 3 years from taking his seat is his party’s figurehead and stands on the verge of leading his country. NB. Interesting comparison with Cameron, who took over running his party 5 years after being elected and within 9 years of becoming an MP may be Prime Minister.

1.5% of all Americans donate to a candidate in any even given election cycle. 10% of Iowans voted in their caucus in January.

The Democrats use PR delegate allocation which roughly equates to delegates reflecting the vote share state-wide, though various anomalies and complicating factors. The Republicans use a winner takes all system. Before the other candidates dropped out of the race, McCain was winning all the delegates in many States, but with no more than 37% of the votes. Republicans missed out in media attention and in party building and in voter id as a result of their primaries no longer be competitively fought after 5 Feb.

McCain and Obama both support Instant Run-off Voting (the Alternative Vote). The US has no national referendum or elections. Even the president is elected via State-wide votes, not nationally. Nebraska and Maine are in the only non straight winner-takes-all elections within the Electoral College. But even they are winner-takes-all, just based on the vote not just state-wide but within congressional district. Neither 2 States has yet split their electoral college vote between candidates.

Bush only bothered polling in 18 States in the last year of his 2004 election campaign. The rest did not matter. Voters under 30 are much more likely to turn out to vote in a close election than if it is not a competitive race.

There is at last some real momentum behind reform of the electoral college: the national popular vote campaign, seeking for each state to pass a law which would give that State’s electoral college votes to the candidate who had won the most votes nationwide.

Anthony Barnett – Open Democracy

Why doesn’t reform happen? Global imperial powers, didn’t want possible Napoleon emerging, but wanted to strong centre and potential to remove any political elites who overstep their mark – ie. wanted ability to vote the ‘buggers’ our but not anything else that might enhance democracy. Time may have moved on, but the political elite’s view of government and power has not. Wales, Scotland, London and Lords are all institutions which surround the central state and are all slightly freer to adopt different voting systems and ways of working than the Commons. You won’t get Turkeys voting for their own Xmas.

Below are the points I raised in the discussion afterwards. Not directly looking at what we could use over here, more how American system could be improved. But obviously there is a crossover and some lessons we could usefully bear in mind. These are all strategies to expand the political map, give incentives to participation, enhance democracy and try to modernise the ‘imperial power’ still within our system.
1) Primary versus Caucus – the former involves many more people and is easier to participate in; the latter is better at fostering meaningful political debate / dialogue, being more of a community event, and increasing volunteer activism. Perhaps there is a case for more States to follow Texas’s lead and have a two-step process: 75% delegates apportioned to the primary results and 25% to the caucus results.

2) PR delegate apportionment – needs more fine-tuning: an end to even-number districts and a greater winner’s bonus. Otherwise might be more of a backlash against it.

3) 50 State Strategy – value of having your vote heard and issues articulated, even in safe seats / areas. Supports wider PR arguments and is part a step towards the type of politics and campaigning we would want to see. Also has positive impact on voter registration and turnout.


NB first published on MMVC blog 23 June 2008

August 24, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment