The American presidential election is an event most people have a passing interest in at the very least. Sunday brunch goers arm themselves with trivia about Donald Trump’s refusal to attend the Republican debate, the time Mitt Romney tied his dog to the roof of his car and Hillary Clinton’s alleged involvement in the Whitewater controversy to impress their fellow brunchees with their political engagement.
I come from New Zealand, a small island nation in the Pacific with no “real” power on the international stage. When our prime minister tugs a waitress’ ponytail or our country stands divided over the TPPA and our new flag referendum, the world does not watch with bated breath anticipating the outcome. It is the same for most countries. Experts and those with an interest get excited and no one else. Occasionally events such as Germany’s role in sustaining the EU, a new progressive Canadian Prime Minister or David Cameron’s pig encounter may capture fleeting interest, however, the American election has carved out an exception to the rule. This political circus receives international coverage. News networks saturate our lives with coverage, engaging people across the globe election after election, despite our inability to have an actual say in the outcome.
Part of the fascination with the American election is the sheer drama. Americans are loud and passionate and their politics follow suit. New Zealand is a proud nation, we love our All Blacks and tomato sauce, yet I have never met a loud and proud patriot. By comparison, unapologetic patriotism is a currency candidates cash in during their race to the White House. Whenever I listen to a debate I experience flashbacks to Gatsby’s green light with every mention of “making America great again” and the “American dream.”
People outside the USA also take an interest out of fear. My American political science professor summed it up well when she said, “I had a student who thought it would be good if people outside of the U.S. could vote in the presidential election because they did not trust Americans to get it right. They thought it was only fair considering the international community has a huge stake in the outcome.” I can see this student’s point. We are living in a world where Donald Trump may find himself in control of nuclear warheads capable of blowing us up a million times over. (All I can say in response to this is do not screw this up, America. We do not want to die.)
The exchange of brutal personal attacks on fellow candidates only adds to the drama. In the first chapter Hillary’s book Hard Choices, she wrote about her intense disappointment when Obama received the democratic nomination to run for president. Nearly immediately after his victory, Obama approached Hillary asking for her support. She discussed how hard it was to agree to his request because of the things he said about herself and Bill during his campaign. However, Hillary did concede she had said things too. There are countless examples of hurtful comments that serve no purpose but to brutally attack someone, based on their irrelevant past, personalities and even gender. When Sarah Palin entered the spotlight in 2008, I felt sorry for her daughter, who was unmarried and pregnant at the time. Her decisions were heartlessly used by the media and her mother’s opponents. While some may say that is the cost of fame, the media’s analysis of a young girl’s decisions as an indicator of her mother’s ability to be a political leader was cruel.
The public’s fascination with the first family is on par with the fascination surrounding the British royal family. The children of the White House find themselves photographed and written about during their most impressionable years. One photo that always comes to mind is one of Chelsea caught between her two parents after Monica Lewinsky came forward about Bill Clinton’s relationship with her. The First Lady is also under pressure, and there are even polls about her approval rating. She must publicly support her husband and be considered eligible for the role by the American public. The pressure for a presidential candidate to present his family as the full package on the American stage seems like an impossibly high threshold to place on a family. By comparison, there is no pressure on our prime minister’s family to have it together. Our current prime minister’s son, Max Key, has social media presence dedicated to documenting his flamboyant lifestyle and the husband of our previous prime minister, Helen Clark, made a point of keeping out of the spotlight (Helen was the first elected female prime minister of New Zealand and is now the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, FYI).
Policy angles and controversial debate topics are another source of surprise for non-Americans. In New Zealand, with the exception of farmers and hunters, no one has a gun, not even our police force. As a result, I cannot imagine living in fear of gun violence, let alone police brutality. What I find even more astounding is living in a country so split on how this issue should be dealt with. In New Zealand, the idea of having police armed or the “right to bear arms” is not a large part of our identity, let alone our elections. However, in the American political landscape the reverse is true. In response to this, all I can say is, “Stop feeling the need to shoot each other, America.” Similarly, most of us find political stances on women’s reproductive health and access to abortions mind-boggling. I am not saying we do not have these debates in New Zealand, but they do not have a dominant role in the political arena. I am sure this does not reflect perfect policies regarding women’s health in New Zealand. However, women do not worry about their access to reproductive health with each election. In the USA, it is common to see dramatic efforts be announced, such as Ted Cruz wanting to criminalize abortion. Quite simply, I find that desire to take away women’s autonomy archaic and terrifying.
Of course this is linked in with another point I find a tad cringe-worthy, and it is the heavy-handed use of religion in American politics. Few other Western countries consider the religion of a politician as an indication of their leadership skills. I am a Christian and as a Christian I cringed when Ted Cruz said “All the glory be to God” after his success in the Iowa primary. As a woman of faith, I believe I could not be where I am without God. However, when I graduate this year, I will not grab my degree and proclaim from the stage “All glory be to God.” Such an open display of faith does not seem genuine, and if it is, it is impossible to tell within the context of American politics as candidates are pressured to identify with a particular Christian denomination. For example, when Obama ran in 2008 there was huge speculation if he actually WAS a Christian and this was a threat to the success of his campaign.
Finally, the amount of money and long drawn out nature of the American presidential election is a marvel. Of course it costs a lot of money to run a long campaign, but the sheer amount seems unfair. It reminds me of sailing in the America’s cup—it is not about the skill of the sailor anymore, instead it is about money available to spend on the boat. Since politicians need so much money to run, does this make it inaccessible to others who may be do a better job than what we are currently witnessing? (*cough* Donald Trump *cough*)
If I could vote in the American election I would certainly be feeling overwhelmed. This is a big decision that undeniably has a large impact on the global community. The confusion regarding suitable candidates is only compounded by the style of media coverage. Sometimes it feels like we are in the Hunger Games and America is the Capitol, and all we can do is look on in horror and ask, “Is this really the best you’ve got America?” All this being said, the in-depth scrutiny these candidates are placed under is not a bad thing. Candidates are thoroughly analysed and need to exhibit resilience and stamina to win the race.
We non-Americans will keep watching, in part confusion, part horrified and part fascinated, while holding on to hope this is not the year the American public gets it wrong for all of us.