Monday, February 04, 2008

Ignore SuperTuesday

I accept that the outcome of all these American primaries will be important. We will all have to live with the president they eventually produce. But I'm trying to ignore all the vast wash of coverage of the primary process. For most of us, it's best not to know, I'd say.

Primaries are image competitions, not politics. It shouldn't need to be said, but the Republicans are all Republican, the Democrats all Democratic. There just are not the substantial differences among the Republicans or among the Democrats to fuel a substantive debate. The only question in each race are: Who looks like a winner? Who looks like my kind of person? Who do I feel good about as my president? The whole process is about constructing and marketing a personal image, and so the whole contest is delivered into the hands of the image makers.

After months of this image battle, do we think we know McCain or Obama or Edwards, or whoever? We know diddley. We know the image their teams are delivering. It's a brand management competition, not politics.

The length and expense of this endless image war delivers politics into the hands of the money raisers and the money spenders. The greatest promoters of the primary are the media, who benefit massively from the constant flood of marketing dollars being spent on the candidates' media campaign. The message of the primary system is not about policy, or expertise, or ideology, or any other worthwhile political virtue. It's about which campaigns can raise the most money and spend it most effectively.

I can accept there is a certain frisson in horserace journalism, in an election where the only question is, who's leading? (for months, for years) And when the only story is the horserace, everyone has an interest in making it close, in producing a dramatic contest and a photofinish. (Hey, surprise, it seems they now have a dramatic contest and a photo finish.)

What is missing in all this is the touchstone of democracy, accountability. Amid all the myriad special rules and conditions about who can vote where and how and on what terms (and that's democratic how?), an American may be able to cast a primary vote (or more than one). But he or she will never be able to say to a candidate: I voted for you, you are accountable to me, deliver. A local representative, by contrast, has an office, has an address, has a place in the community. As long as they are in public office, you can pursue them if you need to.

Primaries are designed to eliminate all that. In the primary process, constituencies are too vast, connections too transitory, the process so mediated by other forces, that candidates are almost entirely freed of accountability to anyone but their funders and their brand managers. This is not good for politics.

Finally, we Canadians could try to ignore all this as foreign politics (sure, we could). But it comes home. All the failings of the American primary process are repeated in our Canadian leadership contests. What are the hallmarks of those squalid battles: endless length, enormous cost, lack of accountability, lack of issues, horserace coverage.....
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