Monday, 1 November 2010


Most Americans would be shocked to discover how other peoples regard them – not with admiration, or envy, or hatred, but with embarrassment. The news media here and across Europe tend to regard US elections as a comedy programme, endlessly replaying the most egregious flubs of my country’s most dubious political characters.

Yet the American election still dominates the headlines here, either because people fondly remember the America that was or simply because U.S. military and economic disasters cause trouble for everyone else. As the resident American accent in the pub, I have to field a lot of questions about the latest election news. I disappoint people by telling them that not only am I not following the campaign trail, but I've also done everything I can do avoid it.

It's not that I don't care. It's that my vote takes a few days of research, not a year of hearing gossip. Before I mail the absentee ballot, I make a list of the issues I care about and compared them to candidates’ campaign contribution and voting records — not the coverage, the records themselves — calculate my choice and move on.

I want to see the United States restore its rail system, for example, so any candidate that made some meager noises in that direction gets some meager points on my list. Period. I don't care about their race, their reproductive plumbing, their flamboyant piety or from what wacky character they are six degrees removed. I don't care about the teacup scandals that crawl across the bottom-screen news feed or the hall-of-mirrors news coverage of the coverage of the coverage. I don't want to know.

Many Americans seem to believe that democracy looks like the Super Bowl, a New Top Model, an American Idol, the Oscars or an apocalyptic smackdown. In reality, it simply should be a job interview, and you are the employer.

Forget this idea that your candidates represent two opposite ideologies. The two major parties represent slightly different alliances of investors, smashed together by the accidents of history. There is no other reason that evangelicals, for example, should be in the same camp with libertarians, or neoliberals with conservationists.

Finally, remember that change mostly happens between elections in a hundred thousand living rooms and library basements and county halls and percolates into the halls of power under sustained pressure.

No election let women vote, or created the civil rights movement, or laws to protect our air and water. These things happened because neighbors met, organized, protested, ran local candidates, went to prison — and moved and moved and moved until they were a movement. America gets better when Americans get it into their heads that they should be the ones running the country, and cajole and intimidate elites until the elites back down.

This Tuesday, pick the guy you think will back down first.

This piece was adapted from an Opinion piece I wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2008.

Photo: "Elect Casey," courtesy of the Norman Rockwell estate.


Bettina said...

Hi Brian,

in Germany, as we have many parties, not only two parties as in the US, there's a kind of "election helping system" available the months before an important election. It's a service provided by, for example, SPIEGEL online and other media companies.

It's like a quizz where you answer pro/con statements/questions regarding nuclear power, traffic taxes, genetic engeneering, family issues, economy, foreigner policy, whatever,
and then compare with the partie's official statements.
You can even rank the themes and say which ones are most important to you.
Finally you get a detailed sheet where you can see which party matches best with your opinions.

Sometimes this is very surprising for the people who do this. Imagine all the years you voted for a totally wrong party, just because they have a certain "image"...

Sorry for my bad english.
I enjoy your blog, being on the same journey.

Brian Kaller said...


That's something I wish everyone did, no matter their country. It always amazes me how many people vote for people who clearly do not represent their beliefs -- not even out of pragmatism, but out of complete unawareness of what candidates support.

I wish we all had multiple choices when we vote, as well. And your English is fine. :-)

Thanks for reading.

jpbenney said...

Brian Kaller,

if you think American elections are embarrassing, you should take a look at Australia.

Australia is not regarded with the embarrassment the US is externally, but in reality it is far more embarrassing in your terms.

Essentially, its two major parties, the Australian Labor Party and the coalition of the Liberal Party and National Party (historically Country Party) both represent a position that might be called "Republican lite" by the standards of US politics. Though outside academia Australia is as right-wing as the most Republican American states, there is no push for radical anti-government measures found in the Politically Incorrect Guides and similar books.

However, much more than the US population, Australia's people seem to believe that elections can change things like the country's appalling greenhouse emissions is not possible unless the wealthy mining and electricity interests are forced to pay the costs so that their power over the major parties can be eliminated.

This can be seen recently with the discovery that Western Australia's greenhouse emissions are set to soar at the same time as the state's southwest experiences rainfall three-quarters of the previous record low and less than half the average at pre-industrial carbon dioxide levels. Worse, people in Australia are (surprisingly, I think) among the strongest believers in man-made global warming, so they need to be the most militant activists in demanding a rigid zero emissions target. Pitifully, we do not see this at all!

Brian Kaller said...


The gap between the pols and the polls sounds like my native country -- a vast majority of Americans opposed the Patriot Act, though, yet almost all US Senators and Congress members voted for it. On most issues I care about, Republicans and Democrats have not been very different.

Why do you think Australian politicians favour such policies? Is it corporate money? Ideology?

jpbenney said...


the basic reason Australia’s politicians are able to do so little certainly has a lot to do with the power of the mining industry.

Owing to its complete lack of glaciation and tectonic activity, Australia has the largest (and least explored) mineral resources in the world. The result is that Australia has experienced a virtually continual mining boom ever since World War II. Quietly but very steadily and surely, the mining corporations came to control the country’s political system by, if you will, internally inflitrating it. There is in fact evidence that the fossil fuel and mining industries are actually allowed to write Australia’s energy and presumably transport policies. The only way this could be stopped is if they were taxed sufficiently so that they did not have the wealth to exercise the control they do over government - even if it is by means other than donations.

Nor do the mass of suburban Australians understand how high quality public transport could provide an equivalent level of mobility to the car at much lower energy costs if the government invested in transit instead of roads. Nor do they understand the polluting power of Australia’s coal industries, or how lucky Australians are to have energy six times cheaper than most European or Asian countries.

Moreover, Australia’s quiet and relaxed culture seems not to have room for the necessary aggression for the public to tackle the country’s appalling environmental record.

Brian Kaller said...


I checked out the link you posted -- very educational. I've never been to Australia, but just from seeing where the population is concentrated, it seems like public transit should be simple. Of course, the same thing is true in my own native country...

TiradeFaction said...

Well, we do have multiple choices on our ballot, well in most states at least. It's just most people don't vote for those other choices, nor we we have a fair electoral system that gives all candidates/parties a chance. I'm happy I do generally vote third party though, might as well vote for someone who at least exposes the positions I agree with...

Brian Kaller said...

Tirade Faction,

Absolutely true, and I have often voted for third parties sometimes, pragmatically at other times.

The USA used to be more of a multiple-party system like other democracies. In the 19th century we didn't have proportional representation or runoff voting any more than we do now, but we did have "fusion" -- more than one party could endorse the same candidate.

This means that, while a candidate may have nominally been a Democrat, they actually had to seek out the endorsement of multiple parties, and couldn't win unless they made concessions. The two biggest parties outlawed such practices in the early 20th century, though, solidifying a hold on power.

I recommend Lisa Disch's book "The Tyranny of the Two-Party System" for background on this method.

A coalition of Greens and other groups challenged Minnesota's law regarding this, brought their case to the Supreme Court, and lost. Amazingly, the US Supreme Court actually ruled, amazingly, that the two-party system was an essential part of the American system.

The decision is here:

TiradeFaction said...

Hi there Brian,

Thank you very much for that Supreme Court ruling, I never knew about it. And frankly, the conclusion was a bit frightening.

You may be interested to know some states still practice electoral fusion. Oregon just adopted it, New York still uses it, and so does Vermont. Speaking of Vermont, did you know they actually have a rather successful third party there, dubbed the "Vermont Progressive Party"? They currently have 6 state house seats, and 2 state senatoral seats. Pretty amazing really, and they've played a pretty good role in keeping the "Democrats" in line, and it does show.

Also, there were some interesting close races for other third parties, like the Greens.

Here's some on the Green side

Also, because the Democrats in Maine got clobbered by the independent vote going to Elliot Cutler, they're openly endorsing Ranked choice (instant run off) voting now.

Thought I might as well share those highlights :)

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks for the links, Tirade. Keep in touch.

Durandal said...

It's not surprising that the challenge originated in Minnesota, as it's one of the only states I know of with a major third party. It's called the Independence Party and it's the party of Jesse Ventura and an offspring of Ross Perots old Reform Party. It has a few House Reps in New York state as well. Also Greens are fairly big in Minneapolis.

Other than that, the Constitution Party almost won the gubernatorial election in Colorado and has had influence in Montana, and the Greens had a House of Rep. member in Maine for years, and typically poll 10 percent in their gubernatorial elections.

And as tiradefaction noted above, Vermont has a thriving third party. Despite all of that, our system is piss poor and needs to be reformed to allow more parties in. Instant Run-Off voting is spreading, so that's a start.