Saturday 30 August 2008

Pimp my Convention

I’ve been watching the Democratic Convention with something approaching disbelief on the one hand, and disgust on the other. Yes, I can understand the need for a slickly-packaged, made-for-TV event to rally the party faithful and usher in the Democratic candidate. But is it really necessary to this extent? Four days of saccharine, feel-good, ultra-politically-correct posing, culminating in fireworks? Has politics in the United States become so devoid of meaning, so ridiculous, that we need to sell it like a rock concert?

Honestly speaking, I can’t reconcile the political tradition that stretches back to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, or George Washington with this spectacle we’ve been watching the past few days. I certainly can’t reconcile it with the two great Democratic figures Barack Obama invoked in his acceptance speech – Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Neither Roosevelt nor Kennedy had to work this hard. Has the country changed, or the quality of the candidate?

The only thing I can reconcile this spectacle with is Caligula and the “bread and circuses” approach of the early Roman empire. The decadence, palpable commercialisation and lack of substance of the entire process is so blatant, that I’m surprised it’s taken seriously by so many. The drive to sell appears to have usurped any kind of self-respect, or respect for the voter’s basic intelligence. Instead, we must apparently advertise everything to everyone, as furiously as we advertise McDonald’s hamburgers or Coca Cola.

I find it entirely demeaning-not just to myself, but to the candidate-that we have to hear not only from Barack Obama, but from his wife and two children, not to mention about his mother and grandmother. None of these people are on the ticket, and from my perspective they have no bearing on my vote or my political priorities. We should respect their privacy and leave them out of it, and Barack Obama should have the strength of character to establish that some things are off limits and do not need to be marketed.

I also read with great interest that, inevitably, someone’s making money off the Convention. As I read in the International Herald Tribune (As conventions rev up, carmaker buffs its image, 28 August 2008), GM has provided 700 vehicles to the convention, some of them running on “waste beer”, or “beer that gets damaged during the production process.” Over 100 corporations, ranging from Qwest to FedEx to Hewlett Packard, “are treating the conventions as a glorified trade show.” The host committees of Minneapolis and Denver have raised over $ 112 million in private money so far.

Now, why would they be going to all that trouble? According to the IHT,

Donations to the host committees are tax-deductible, and they come with the promise of political access that is increasingly difficult to come by under ethics rules passed by Congress last year. Corporations are barred from making direct political contributions, but they can write six and seven-figure checks and get VIP credentials to the convention floor, invitations to private events with lawmakers and state officials, and the ability to plaster their logo and set up exhibition booths at events.”

What happened to “Change we can believe in?” Has it now been substituted with “Advertising we can believe in?” Or “Fundraising we can believe in?”

Now, in the middle part of my life, I am finally beginning to understand that William Butler Yeats line that was drilled into our heads in high school:

The best lack all conviction, while
the worse are filled with a passionate intensity

How in the world have things come to this?

Tuesday 26 August 2008

US Elections - Will you take the Red or Blue Pill?

So, the Democratic Convention has finally opened. Back in January 21st, I predicted that John McCain would win the Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton the Democratic one. I also predicted that if Hillary did win the nomination, it McCain would win by a small margin, whereas if Obama won it, it would be too close to call before the election: a 50-50 tie.

A little bit later, I, like many others, decided to switch votes (from Hillary) and back Obama. There were a range of reasons for this, but primarily the fact that I didn’t trust the Clintons to keep the business of the country above their personal business, and I didn’t feel that the incremental changes promised on the Clinton campaign site would lead to anything. To my vast surprise, he won the primaries. He’s run an incredible campaign, and it keeps getting better. By contrast, the McCain campaign gets worse and worse.

And this brings us to the Convention. I’m amazed. I knew we had entered the age of “MTV Politics”, but I didn’t quite realize how prevalent this is. We have the corporate sponsors, opening acts, balloons, everything except the fireworks, and I’m sure those will be coming soon. How fortunate the Convention was scheduled after the Beijing Olympics.

Pundit after pundit gravely inform me that this is all necessary, that elections aren’t about policy platforms, but about personality and running a good campaign? Really? How sad. Here I was complimenting myself on making an informed decision on who to vote for based on their internet platforms, and now I have to change my mind, again?

Quite simply, I believe that Barack Obama is the candidate most suited to lead the US in the 21st Century. This statement comes with a number of caveats: As I’ve already stated, I doubt Barack Obama will be able to pay for many of his promises. Many other promises – such as the pledge to re-negotiate NAFTA or tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve – are unhelpful or disingenuous. The solutions to other problems, such as tax competitiveness and reform of the financial regulatory system, are barely mentioned. But on the whole, he’s the most suitable candidate. We can re-phrase this as the “least bad choice.”

And given that the other candidate promises to bankrupt the country by continuing business as usual, this is good enough. Despite my respect for his life story, I don’t see how John McCain’s foreign policy experience or “character” are the best options. As Frank Rich wrote on August 23rd: Does a bellicose Vietnam veteran who rushed to hitch his star to the self-immolating overreaches of Ahmad Chalabi, Pervez Musharraf and Mikheil Saakashvili have the judgment to keep America safe? Not to mention the Iraq invasion, and the fact that he apparently doesn’t use email. Hello?

I must also confess that I’ve entered the post-euphoric stage of political engagement in this election. Honestly speaking, “a pox on both your houses.” The entire process is ridiculous. A game show convention. Media stupidity. The war of polls. Negative advertising. Political promises that no one can keep, or are unrelated to the root causes of the problem (and therefore do not present a real solution). Projections that over $ 1.5 billion will be spent on the Presidential election alone this year.

It’s a disgusting, unwholesome mess which serves almost no useful purpose that I can see, except to seduce a number of participants in the belief of their own importance and, perhaps, relevance. Welcome to the “desert of the real.” Do we really have a choice, or is this all a grand illusion?