For all of its present socio/economic woes America remains the most powerful, influential country in the world: possibly even the most powerful, influential country or empire there has ever been. Even if China or India overtake it in terms of building a stronger economy, it is very unlikely that either of them would ever have the same sort of political, cultural, military or moral impact.
Now—and this may sound provocative—I tend to the view that, for the most part, America has acted as a force for good around the world. There have, of course, been some peculiar and deeply disturbing episodes along the way (including Vietnam, the propping up of some very unpleasant governments in Latin America and an ambiguous approach to terrorists); yet, generally speaking, America has done some really positive work to champion democracy and encourage political/electoral freedoms. Put bluntly, I think the world is a better, brighter place because of American influence, impact and intervention.
So how come a country as ‘can do,’ vibrant, powerful and genuinely dynamic as America throws up so many oddities in their presidential contests? How do so many flawed, clay-footed, morally spineless and often intellectually vacuous people even get to the stage at which they are regarded as serious contenders for the most powerful political office in the world? That said, the rest of us should probably breathe a huge sigh of relief that the road to the White House is such a long and winding one; otherwise the chances of a certifiable nutcase taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be pretty darned high!
What strikes me as even more extraordinary, though, is the fact that a country which sets so much store by the ‘Word’ and ‘Presence’ of God (and let’s not forget that opinion polls indicate that almost 70% of Americans believe in both Heaven and six-day Creationism); and whose presidential hopefuls invoke the Almighty’s name on an almost hourly basis, should then see so many of those candidates tumble out of the race because of behaviour which is a direct contradiction of God’s guidance on personal standards. Or, stranger still, having been accused of immorality, infidelity, misinformation, or downright lies of one sort or another, isn’t it just as extraordinary how many of them are able to throw themselves on God’s mercy and stay in the race?
Although it is not of biblical origin, the tendency to “hate the sin, but love the sinner” plays a huge part in American politics. Just look at how many tarnished political figures (as well as those television evangelists exposed as hypocrites) begin both the excuse and rehabilitation phases by portraying themselves as the victim of their sin, rather than the author of it. It’s always the perfect card to play in a country where born-again redemption is just as important as born-again political careers. Bill Clinton, for example, played the card on at least six occasions during his political career.
Herman Cain, the former pizza boss and Baptist minister has, to all intents and purposes, ended his presidential bid after a number of women alleged sexual harassment and another claimed to be his long-term mistress. The candidate most likely to pick up his voter base is Newt Gingrich. While his first wife was recovering from cancer he left her for his mistress. He then cheated on his second wife at the same time as he was spearheading the attack on Clinton over the Lewinsky affair. He is now on his third marriage. Mr Gingrich responds to attacks on his personal life with the response, “I have made mistakes, but I have also made my peace with God and earned His forgiveness.” How many politicians outside America would get away with that line?
Gingrich is helped by a number of other things. Most of the other candidates make him look normal! Rick Perry has been talking nonsense during candidate debates and blaming the pain killers he has been taking after a back operation. Michele Bachmann didn’t do her candidacy any favours with her suggestion that “Lady Liberty and Sarah Palin are lit by the same torch,” or that global warming is “voodoo, nonsense, hokum and a hoax.” Ron Paul is a libertarian, red in tooth and claw, but even some of his followers think he takes his logic too far. He reminds me of the comment made about Mrs. Thatcher: “Most of us get off at this stop on the underground, but she goes all the way down the track to Barking.” Jon Huntsman, probably the most eloquent, thoughtful and middle-of-the-road of the candidates has sunk without trace—precisely because he is the most eloquent, thoughtful and middle-of-the-road.
Yet Gingrich’s biggest bonus is that Mitt Romney, who has been the unconvincing front runner for almost a year, is a Mormon: and if there is one thing that Republican right wingers (and Tea Party supporters) hate more than Democrats, gays, abortionists, gun-controllers and Obama’s health care legislation—it’s Mormons! In other words, a born-again, God-forgiven serial philanderer trumps a dull, centrist Mormon any day. No wonder, then, that Obama has a broad smile on his face and a jaunty spring in his step. He may be a pretty poor President—and I think he is—but he will face no challenge from his own side either because no Democrat wants to be accused of undermining the first black President and risking a rabid Republican back in the White House. My, my, what a way to choose the leader of the free world!
Anyway, back to my original question. With so much business, intellectual, artistic, scientific, technological, entrepreneurial, innovative, inspirational, cultural and inventive talent available in America, how come the race for the White House seems restricted to such an incredibly small number of people? Indeed, how come a country as big as America (which isn’t a dictatorial system) has only two main political parties: unlike European countries, which often have half-a-dozen main parties and maybe dozens of smaller ones? Yet America seems able to get along with just the two big political tents, albeit tents which have to accommodate a very wide array of interest groups, values groups, single issue platforms and far left or far right fringes.
It’s mostly to do with money. It’s probably fair to say that most candidates buy their way into politics, for if you can’t find the hundreds of thousands of dollars required for a State election, let alone the millions for Congress or Senate, or the hundreds of millions for the White House, then you have little or no chance of getting your name on the ballot paper. Also, once elected, you have to spend an awful lot of time encouraging donors to fund you for the next contest. In most democratic countries it is possible for people of talent, yet limited financial means, to get elected: not so in America, where large sums of money are required up front, meaning that talent is less important than the possession of money or the ability to raise it.
Does it make a difference to politics there? Actually, and this may seem an odd conclusion, I think that the present system (absurd though it may seem to outside observers) is perfect for America. Indeed, it’s the real source of its strength and worldwide influence. Too many parties and too many ideologies would divide and diminish the country and dilute the power it wields.
There is a spirit of unity at work within the system. Above and beyond all else Americans treasure their freedoms and their individual rights: they remain unashamed and unembarrassed patriots, proud of their flag and Constitution and proud to be American. It’s that spirit and patriotism which keeps Presidents and politicians in check. Money clearly buys you elective office; even if the price—in both financial and scrutiny terms—is too high for hundreds of thousands of people who have talent but limited resources. Yet somehow it all works. It works because Americans don’t want too much ‘thinking’ from their politicians; they just want people who will protect and promote the values that make America “the greatest country on God’s earth.” And sinners are welcome, particularly if they turn out to be winners!
European sophisticates may sneer at the brash style of American politics and the seeming lack of intellectual, ideological debate. Yet it’s the American concept of doing it for yourselves, rather than waiting for government to do it for you, which has seen America dominate the last century and look well set to dominate this one, too. There is determination, self-belief, a refusal to take no for an answer and a we-can-help-the-rest-of-you idealism at the heart of American politics: and that idealism is bigger, much, much bigger, than the combined flaws of all of the people who throw money like confetti in their efforts to reach the White House. It’s bigger, too, than the hand-wringing dithering and self doubt of most other countries. That’s the wonder and the sheer oddity of American politics.