Monday, January 07, 2008

The 2008 Election - An Answer to Mad Minerva

If you ask me, there are two democracies in the world truely deserving this label: America and Switzerland. Two completely different approaches of trying to get the people's will represented - but both superior to any other political system I know.

Are Swiss and Americans happy with their political system? No, they are not. If you have ever visited a Swiss blog headquarter of political punditry, you know what I'm refering to. Or take this NYT opener, for example:
Even by the low standards of presidential campaigns, the issue of immigration has been badly served in the 2008 race.
Low standards? Dear Sir/Madam, hiding behind the "Editorial" curtain, have you ever happen to follow an election campaign in any given European country? My suggestion: Do it! And recalibrate your expectations.

Or take the undisputed Queen of Conservative Middle-Of-The-Roadism: (any objections, Brian? ;-))
it seems vaguely unjust that a tiny state like Iowa has such a huge impact on the entire presidential election process of 2008. Less than 1 million Iowans will actually "vote" in the caucuses. I also doubt that Iowa is an accurate representation of any piece of America as a whole other than Iowa.
Read this and think again, MM (emphasis mine):
What an absurd way to choose a president, sneer many non-Americans, perhaps forgetting their own arrangements (the coronation of Gordon Brown as Labour leader and prime minister, without a single vote, springs to mind).
(Nota bene: the coronation of Gordon Brown wasn't only without a single vote, but through a single vote: Tony Blair's. In Germany, it wouldn't have been different.) Read the whole thing: In praise of the primaries, The Economist)

I'm absolutely thrilled by the American 2008 election campaign. Today, I got an email by the aforementioned Mad Minerva which starts as follows (link to her related blog post added):
I'm glad you're enjoying the start of the 2008 American political marathon! You say it's "thrilling." A British commentator has said so, too. Is the American race's atmosphere so different from European elections?
Girl, I don't want to sound mean, but ... are you serious?

The short answer is: YES.

The more elaborated answer? Well,... where to start? Coming to think of it, it's hard to find even similarities between the German way to elect a Bundeskanzler (let's restrain it to Germany) and the American way to choose a new POTUS.

Let's begin with a statement of one German correspondent in America, aired on German public radio Deutschlandfunk the other day (my emphasis, again):
The election campaign is lasting for twelve months now. The first hopefuls trudged through the snow of Iowa and New Hampshire in January 2007. Each candidate had to organize and finance his campaign by himself. No other nation expects such exertions of their top politicians.
(Full German original is here: Das Signal von Iowa. Von Klaus J├╝rgen Haller)

This statement gives some useful hints. An American would probably say: "Yeah, self-financed and self-organized. Are ya tellin' me there are other possibilities to run a campaign???"

Well, um, yes, there are. In Germany, the campaigns are financed and organized by the political parties. And where do those get the funding from? Guess what, from their members, from donations - and from the state. And where does the state get the money from to fund the parties' campaigns? Guess what - from the taxpayers. It's quite obvious that this influences the atmosphere of an election campaign, no?

Next, the scrutiny depth. In Germany, the candidates are chosen by the parties, that is to say by the party establishment. And in most cases, it comes down to a self-nomination by the party leaders. Now, self-nomination means: no quality check, no scrutiny.

And in America? Every newspaper, every TV station (as local as it might be), every other media outlet (not to mention bloggers!) is X-raying each candidate (plus his loved ones, and ex-loved ones, and business partners, and ex-business partners and so on) over and over again. It turns out that you, the candidate, pilfered someone's lunch snack when you were a third-grader? Gosh! That's "mayday-mayday!" for your staff! Your second cousin faked his tax declaration? OMG, CNN breaking news! Wolf Blitzer live, interviewing the second cousin's ex-wife!

Admittingly, the media hype, fuelled by mean bloggers, has taken this scrutiny issue a bit too far lately, but I still prefer the American way of collecting some information (including medical record and personal financial situation) about the candidates before voting for them to the German approach, where this is left mainly to the candidates' party and some MSM gatekeepers.

What else is it that makes the atmosphere of an American election campaign? The mere number of hopefuls - especially this time! In Germany, it usually boils down to two well-known candidates. (If there would be three, it would be considered a political earthquake.) Not to forget the campaign methods, like TV debates, NEW!--->youtube debates<---NEW!, door-to-door-campaigning, fundraising dinners, speeches before huge audiences, classroom chit-chats, internet chats ... you name it. In Germany, we have market place speeches (only one candidate, no debate), some TV debates with party officials (including the smaller parties), two important TV debates (if anything) and some internet embarrassments - and that's about it.

I'm feeling like I could go on for hours on that one. Perhaps, you already got my point.


Brian J. Dunn said...


Well, we kind of worked over the British a bit so we don't have to bow to queens and kings so the title isn't one I'd pick--but other than that, no argument!

I can certainly see how American democracy is bewildering and even scary to outsiders.

But then I can never understand how European democracies get such high voter turnout arguing about a choice between a slightly center-left party and a slightly center-right party. (With apologies to Steyn for stealing his line)

Our democratic process angers and depresses me until I think about messing with it--and then that prospect makes me angry and depressed.


Don said...

Yes, some of the dour European (and American) criticisms seem rather dog-in-the-manger to me. European envy and American angst.

European elections often seem rather fixed to me; the party leaders always select the candidates and one of them always wins. Not that it matters that much because it's usually a choice between tweedledee and tweedledumb.

In the US that can happen also but there is always the possibility of some exotic sport (polite word for mutant) of a rude outsider forcing his way in and shaking things up. Some of them work out well (Reagan), some don't (Carter), and some are mixed blessings/curses (Clinton). Csn't happen in Germany or the UK, much less in the EU, and Europe is the poorer for it.

Marian said...


Thanks for your comment!

so the title isn't one I'd pick

In a follow-up attempt to get your whole-hearted approval on this, would it be helpful if I'd replace "Queen" by "Gold Standard"?

I can certainly see how American democracy is bewildering and even scary to outsiders.

I don't feel like an outsider (look, I know more about Michelle Obama than about any of my own countries' politicians - and she is only running for the First Lady job!), but apart from that, where do you see such tendencies? For some Europeans, the US democratic process is just another opportunity to look down on America - but without any justified reason! Even those who look down on you don't appear to me as being "scared" or "bewildered".

Our democratic process angers and depresses me

Would you like to explicate your point? What in particular angers you?

I can never understand how European democracies get such high voter turnout

The voter turnout in Europe isn't that much higher. And contrary to America, it's on a steady decline.

Don said...

Another point in favor of your argument; Looking at great European democratic leaders, whom would one rate as the great ones? I'd say Adenauer, De Gaulle, De Gasperi, possibly Thatcher and Mitterand. Kohl? Jaures and Clemenceau in France.

Most of these seem to have one factor in common; they did not go through life thinking of themselves as leaders, constantly scheming for power. De Gaulle was not even a member of the political class until 1940, although he might have been a bit of a political general (I'm not sure).

The Brits may be the exception - I would rate Lloyd George and Churchill among the great, and Lloyd George was a schemer. Rather he began as an idealsit but became a corrupted schemer, although not until after he accomplished his great work as the War PM. Churchill seems never to have been corrupted.

They all also seem to have been outsiders, even Thatcher. Thatcher served in the cabinet but never in any of the great departments of State (Defense, Foreign Office, Cahncelor, or Home Office) which are normally the stepping-stones of leadership in the UK system. She was shadow secretary of Education (I think) when she challenged Heath and won against all odds. Even the challenge was a surprise; she was the deputy leader of the free markets group and stepped up when the leader refused to do the challenge himself.

I think a political system needs a fair proportion of outsiders with fresh ideas lest it grow fusty. The US primary system promotes that - most of Europe does not. Except (maybe) France. There seems to be a kind of primary-like process there, because neither Sarko or Royal were the favorite of the party leadership last year.

Marian said...


long time no see ;-). Welcome back!

it's usually a choice between tweedledee and tweedledumb

I'm not so sure about that. Especially as for Germany and France.

Don said...

Actually I just thought of an exception also, Marian - but not in Germany or France. Pim Fortyn was well on the way to being elected PM of the Nederlands.

In Germany you express differences in a different manner, in the balance of power between myriads of small parties. But none of those parties grow up to bebig parties and have chance to take power - it's always the SDU or the CDU.

In the US the differences are usually expressed within one of the two big parties (though perhaps more accurately called alliances or groupings). They are not ideologically consistent over time, and successful leaders of either party shamelessly steal good ideas from anyone, even the other party. But the system does handle change well. The way I'd express it is 'Unhappy? Throw the old bums out and elect a set of new bums'. Which began in 2006 and seems in full cry this year's election. Viva la change!

Brian J. Dunn said...


My bewildering and scared comment was not directed at you personally.

Since Carter and Reagan, I've just gotten the impression from reading European English-language news that in a world where your leaders are groomed within known parties and few surprises happen, our ability to catapult unknowns to leadership who may then do things that no foreign ministry has anticipated is bewildering.

The frightening part comes from the fact that we have so much power that we we do matters to other countries in ways that Americans don't worry about new governments in most other countries. We have an impact just from size no matter what we do or why we do it. I can only imagine the worry that Ron Paul, Kucinich, or Huckabee excites as observers wonder if America could REALLY be run by that guy in a year!

It scares and depresses me to see our press act like swooning stalkers for candidates they like that week and vengeful ex's for candidates they don't like. And it switches for no particular reason.

I hate the candidate pandering to different special interests that often goes unnoticed even in internet age.

I hate the inability of the press to rise much beyond polls and fundraising comparisons.

I hate the length of the campaign.

I hate the ridiculous limits on free speech that campaign finance laws impose on those without lawyers to identify the loopholes.

But somehow, improbably, the whole mess of awfulness works. It allows us to scrutinize candidates, get fresh people into the process outside of the political machines, inject new ideas that will be absorbed by the candidates even if the one introducing the idea falls early in the primaries, we can see if the candidates can take the pressure of that scrutiny over months, make people involved in the selection, and usually get two acceptable candidates at the end of the process. And if we don't like who we elect, we can't say we didn't have a chance to get to know him/her beforehand. I wouldn't get rid of it for anything. They can take my electoral college from my cold, dead fingers ...

Interesting on the turnout. Our press keeps telling us how awful we are and how civic-minded other countries' voters are.

As for Minerva's title, shouldn't she get to pick? Far be it for me to get on her wrong side ... :-)

Rayson said...


elections follow political systems. Good or bad, the German system favors institutions over persons which is mainly due to some recent (in historical terms) experiences. And we like proportional representation which also has consequences for the way politicians use to campaign and we use to vote.

Among the bigger European countries we only find Italy and Spain with similar systems, even though Spaniards still have a king and Italians a mafia...

I think it would be quite interesting to compare the American system to the French one where they also elect a president using a majority voting system.

Don said...

I read somewhere about the Roman Catholic Churche's method for selecting bishops. Apparently they rarely appoint a successor with a similar style to his predecessor. The piece identified three styles (though there probably are more than that. A thoelogan will be followed by a pastoral bishop who may be followed by an administrator.

This recognizes that different people bring different gifts to the job and all are necessary to the functioning of a successful organisation. The Roman Catholic church has lasted for 2000 years so perhasp they have something right.

Something like this may apply to politics as well. I think there is a tendency to select a leader much different from his predecessor, at least in US politics. This can be a strength. Clinton brought some strengths to the job but I doubt we'd want a repeat anytime soon.

Obama is very different to any recent president. He is very analytical and logical but has an interesting view of the political process; he believe that lasting changes bubble up from the grassroots rather than are imposed from on high. So perhaps an Obama presidency would listen a bit more than Bush or Clinton did. I do believe we need to break the Bush/Clinton monopoly on the office - I don;t think President Bush or Hillary Clinton listen nearly well enough.

Mad Minerva said...

"Queen" or "Gold Standard"?

I am BLUSHING! ;-)