The American Elections: why Americans vote and Brits don’t

Even if you’ve caught only a few minutes of news on TV today it will have been pretty much impossible to miss today’s big news.  America elected Barack Obama as their next President, beating John McCain by a significant margin.  In fact, so big is this news that it dominates the headlines here in the UK too.  It’s as if the American President is our America President too.

I have been interested to note a certain level of bias in our news.  Now, I know politically-minded critics will say that no media is totally unbiased, but some are more likely to express opinions than others.  For instance, I am not at all surprised when Channel 4 or even ITV shows a report that is clearly in favour of one candidate over the other, but I was more surprised when the mighty BBC fell into the same trap.  I’m not at all interested in politics, and yet the media reports were such that I know plenty about Obama and next to nothing about McCain.  It’s as if this country has been told that Obama was the right person to win, and we’ve all just accepted it without realising it.  Everyone’s really pleased that Obama won, implying that we wouldn’t have been quite so overjoyed with the alternative outcome.

But what has intrigued me most is the different approach the Americans have in their elections. They vote for people, not parties.  Personality over policy.  Sure, there are those who take an interest and pay attention to what the politicians are promising, but we all know that there are only so many ways to run a country effectively.  Things have to be done in the right way, regardless of what you promise in your manifesto.  And to make this point a little clearer, I’m going to compare it to our own system of government and the way we vote (or not, as the case may be) for our Prime Minister.

And that’s just it – we don’t vote for our PM.  We vote for a party, who elects people to vote for our PM on our behalf.  I certainly don’t remember voting in Gordon Whatsisname.  Brown.  That’s the one.  The country as ruled by the Labour party hasn’t really been noticeably different from when the Conservatives were in power.  Sure, they’ve done things differently, but the country has still ticked over and kept running, just as it had been before.  All the problems Tony Blair had to contend with would have been exactly the same problems anyone else would have had to contend with.  And most would have overcome the problems in much the same way, I suspect.

Take the war with Iraq as an example.  I’m pretty sure ‘going to war with Iraq’ wasn’t on the Labour manifesto when Tony was voted in.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that Tony as a person would have been against the idea right from the start.  But the fact of the matter is that something had to be done, and we trusted our government to take action on our behalf.  And we trusted the government because we trusted Tony.  Tony was, after all, one of us.  He smiled, he had a family, he enjoyed watching football, he came up from the gutters like the rest of us.  When we voted him in it was largely because we knew this was someone who knew what the country needed, not just how to listen to advisers and make pompous speeches.  In that sense, it’s much the same with the American elections – Barack is one of us, while John is just another old man.

While Tony B was in the hotseat everyone knew where they stood.  Even while going to war and going through trouble after trouble, Tony was still there, smiling to reassure us.  Gordon can’t do that.  If Gordon Brown had told us that we were going to war with a country we’d hardly heard of for a cause none of us really knew existed, we probably wouldn’t quite so readily get behind him.  He’s not a motivational speaker, after all.  He’s not one of us.  He’s not ‘my friend in Downing Street’.  He’s just another man.  In fact, so unimpressive is Gordon that the media still has to refer to him as ‘Prime Minister Gordon Brown’, just to remind us of who he is.  And for that reason, Brits are less likely to vote him back in.

But what to put in his place?  That was the problem last time round when we ended up voting Tony back in – there was no alternative.  The other candidates were less impressive than what we already had.  So unimpressive in fact that John McCain would have wiped the floor with them.

But, as I stated right at the beginning, part of the problem we have is that we don’t vote for people, we vote for their party.  We supposedly vote for our government based on their policies and their promises, and how they’re going to make the country better.  In practise, however, only a small percentage of any party’s manifesto makes it into reality, because of the nature of governing a country.  Everything has to be done in the right way at the right time at the right pace.  The Monster Raving Loony Party had some fantastic policies in the past, but if they’d actually got into power the country would have collapsed.  In fits of laughter perhaps, but collapsed nonetheless.

While America has similar issues of having to deal with the everyday running of the country, they have voted in a leader, someone to take the initiative and take action.  In that sense it doesn’t matter quite so much what the party as a whole stands for, because they trust that Obama will push through the important stuff and make things happen.  If change is what that country needs, they don’t want a leader who takes action by forming sub-committees.  That’s the sort of thing I would expect from Gordon Brown.  Barack Obama strikes me as the sort of person who, if a national crisis took hold on a Hollywood movie scale, would be out there with the people, rallying support, giving powerful speeches to motivate people to action.  McCain strikes me as the sort who would sit in his office writing letters to people asking them to sort everything out.  It’s not their policies that make the difference, it’s the way they make things happen.

And possibly for that reason alone, the Americans got out there and voted.  Regardless of who they voted for, they voted.  They were passionate and fired up, excited about the future of their country.  They were voting for a person, a real person with real values and real emotions.  They were both, in their way, people to get excited about.  Here in England, passion and politics only go hand in hand where a bottle of sherry and oak-panelled walls are the background for a group of old men wishing they could smoke indoors again like they used to.  Brits don’t vote because there doesn’t seem much to vote for.  What’s one old man got that another old man hasn’t?  If we vote for one party instead of another, will it actually make any difference?  That’s the mindset of the people, and if we carry on voting for abstract concepts instead of tangible people I doubt that’s going to change.

One thought on “The American Elections: why Americans vote and Brits don’t

  1. I still think the whole political process is totally flawed anyway. I mean, how on earth can you distill your entire political view into one of two candidates? It’s absurd. Same thing here.

    There was a good system outlined in an episode of “Yes, Prime Minister” where the government was basically comprised of locally elected representatives, bringing the government “closer to the people”.

    It seemed like a good idea, and I think it probably is. It’s got to be better than the situation we have at the moment, where political parties are so abstracted away from our politics and beliefs – and what actually happens (as you point out) that we might as well flip a coin at the election.

    The only solution to political parties, IMO, is to scrap them. The government should be forced to work for the benefit of the people, not to toe a party line or try and “get one over” the opposing party.

    I’ll stop ranting now…


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