Politics as universal comedy

Posted on 16 October 2012 by JasonK

In a few weeks it is Presidential elections in the U.S. The choice there is between a President who has done very little to change the daily lives of US people and a candidate who intends to ignore most ( about 47%) of the population and further dismantle the state.

Part of the problem for the US is that the electoral process is broken and there are so many lobby groups in there it is hard not to feel alienated from the election process.

Electoral politics in many countries is now broken and while that is good for satirists and comedy it is not good enough to help with political and economic change.

What surprises many in New Zealand is that US politics is so far to the right that there doesn’t seem to be any real incentive to vote for change as it is not going to happen.

The Political Party Quiz by PEW
Answer 12 questions that were part of a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, and find out where you fit on the partisan political spectrum.

For the record on this survey I rate as a liberal democrat but some questions are a bit hard to answer well given that I don’t live in the U.S. Nevertheless it is also clear when looking at politics in the UK, Australia and New Zealand that we all find a deeper level of cynicism about the political process and real outcomes.

Former VP Al Gore was in New Zealand recently and the role of big money in the US elections was mentioned as a growing issue. From NZ it is hard to pick winners but it is normal for the lines to be blurred by elections and for the gap between the two parties to close up.

Obama seems like the better choice but his body language is very mixed and he needs to be seen to want the job so unless he does better in the next debates it may be his election to lose. Fivethirtyeight has a good record of picking the numbers and so far it still looks better for Obama.

In 538’s scenario analysis the probability of a – Recount (one or more decisive states within 0.5 percentage points) is 10.9%. Which after looking through the other scenarios seems quite probably especially when added to this one –  Obama loses at least one state he carried in 2008 98.8%. Of course it depends on which state is lost but you don’t need to be a magician to work out that the results will be much closer than they should be.

If voters looked at policies and real achievements the differences should be apparent but the closer the election gets the less rational it becomes and also the posturing where for example Romney says he supports Obamacare becomes flat out confusing.

Even more interesting is that presidential candidates usually get a home state advantage. Romney as a former governor of Massachusetts but it is a safe Obama state. The sentiment there is they Romney well so they won’t be voting for him.

And even if Romney wins the election the Democrats now control the Senate and will keep him from doing his worst so that no one wins.

I’d guess that the plethora of polls may also contribute to some tactical voting especially in swing states like Ohio which Nate Silver shows as having a 43% probability of determining the electoral college vote.

Part of the real dilemma for voters in the US and most other democracies is that in an age of focus groups and massive PR spins backed by big money campaigns is lack of faith that anything substantive will change.

In New Zealand the National Party slams a labour policy like Working Families but continues to support it at least at some level. OTOH now they are in a second term there is a some serious meddling going on at the policy level.

Back in May at TEDxSydney Luca Belgiorno-Nettis gave a presentation on new democracy which would be skewed toward collaboration rather than winner takes all competition.

Luca’s comments that “contests actively discourage common ground” ring very true.

What we see in all election contests is a deliberately fuzzy middle ground where both sides try and claim ownership of popular programmes in order to win. After the election then all sorts of absurd rationalisations are peddled out.

In NZ the national party claimed a vote for them was a vote for selling off SOE assets when every time voters were asked about the SOE idea they objected.

Belgiorno-Nettis references Professor Alex Zakaras whose 2009 book Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship is summarised like this…

Democracy, unlike any other form of government, demands that citizens take responsibility for their politics. And yet, over the past fifty years, observers of American democracy have worried that Americans are failing to do so. With occasional exceptions, voter turnout and civic engagement are declining, and the average citizen’s knowledge of public affairs is flimsy at best.

Citizens’ political posture is mostly passive: they receive political propaganda designed by marketing professionals and consume staged political spectacles that are scarcely distinguishable from other forms of “reality” entertainment. The Rockwellian ideal of democracy–participatory, deliberative, egalitarian–that still captivates our imaginations is for the most part anachronistic.

And that disconnect with the political process is common to NZ, Australia, UK and other democracies around the world.

A huge irony for the U.S is that it seems like the very best insights into the US political system come from comedian Jon Stewart. Of course elections are a rich source of comedy and this is conflated by a broken system.

As best as I can tell the popular vote in the US is very close but the electoral college system gives an advantage as the number of seats “overhangs” the vote in some states. Ohio is the key state for electing the President and subject to the upcoming debates the outcome is looking more predictable now.

In Italy Beppe Grillo and the Five Star movement shows signs that good things can come from enlightened comedians. Five Star movement and Beppe deserves more coverage as that has come close to a 20% share of the vote in some elections for mayor in Italy.

There is a long profile of Beppe from 2008 in the NY Times which is still worth reading.

See also When life imitates art This is about a UK tv show ” The Thick Of It”.

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