Bingeing on US politics

I have just listened to an hour-long discussion about delegate allocation in the current Democratic presidential nomination contest.

This would be a fairly geeky thing to do for your average American political junkie. But I’m a New Zealander, living 14,000 kms away from the action, with no right to vote in US elections — primary or presidential.

And it’s not just delegates. I keep a close eye on polling in the 2020 swing states, have firm views on the merits of Medicare for All versus a public option, and feel angry — with a passion that surprises me — about voter roll purges conducted by Republicans in Georgia.

As you can see, American politics has become something of an obsession for me over the past few years.

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, like so many people around the world, I occasionally tuned in to the nominating process for both parties, started paying more attention as things moved towards the general election, and watched in horror as Donald Trump was elected president.

Soon after that, I sought out as many American politics podcasts as I could find — Pod Save America was my gateway pod-drug — and have been an avid follower ever since. I am ashamed to say I pay more attention to what is happening on the other side of the world than I do to what’s happening in New Zealand’s own Parliament Buildings, three kilometres from where I live.

So why do I follow the politics of a country on the other side of the world so obsessively?

Perhaps most obviously, it has to do with the stakes involved for the global community.

At least since the end of the Second World War, what’s going on in US politics has had an outsized influence on the world, whether we’re talking trade, war, climate change, human rights or democratic norms. But Trump’s erratic behaviour combined with the aggression of Russia, the rise of China and the emergence of authoritarian regimes in places like Brazil and India suggests a significant realignment of the global order. Put simply, if ever there was a time to get interested in American domestic politics, now would be it.

But my fears for what might happen to the world during the Trump presidency doesn’t really explain why I’m fascinated enough to try to get my head around the Electoral College.

Setting aside my curiosity as to whether a stray tweet is likely to kick-start war in the Pacific, I think my obsession has something to do with the influence of American politics as a cultural export.

I’m not sure whether Americans appreciate just how pervasive their culture is. I can only speak for how it shapes New Zealand but I imagine our experience is broadly similar to that of many other countries.

Here in New Zealand, we have a rich national identity, combining the indigenous Māori culture with a British heritage imported during the colonial period and more recent influences from our Asia-Pacific neighbours.

Nevertheless, American culture still functions as something of a default setting. Our cinemas are full of American movies. Our TVs stream American shows. Our radios and phones pump out American music. There is a McDonald’s and KFC in most fair-sized towns. We celebrate Halloween and shop on Black Friday.

And while we have a very different political system to that of the United States, American political discourse has exerted a subtle but significant influence over how we think about politics and politicians here.

My understanding of politics as a struggle of big ideas articulated in soaring rhetoric is more The West Wing than the Westminster system I was taught at law school. Similarly, when I imagine abuses of power, political crimes and corruption, I’m more likely to think about Frank Underwood than New Zealand politicians like Rob Muldoon.

Given how thoroughly the American expression of politics has wormed its way into my subconscious, perhaps it’s not surprising that I’m bingeing it as I would Netflix. Time and again, I catch myself hankering for the latest news from America as though it’s an episode of Veep. At times, it’s hard to tell the difference.

I feel guilty about how I’m consuming American politics. Even though it can seem like a circus, with a cast of characters that wouldn’t make it past a first pitch to studio executives, the current political environment has deadly serious consequences for America and the world.

But in a way, this is precisely how I’m supposed to consume these politics. Since the presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy, television has been central to political strategy and the present crisis has only underlined its importance. As many pundits have observed, Trump rode his TV celebrity into the White House, his presidency has unfolded with all the melodrama of The Apprentice, and his impeachment has been conducted by Democrats with an eye on how it will play out on TV screens across America and, indeed, the world. According to Dan Pfeiffer — who I listen to dutifully every Thursday on Pod Save America — Democrats need to plan their impeachment proceedings as though it’s a TV drama, storyboarding the investigations, House hearings and Senate trial as one would a particularly salacious soap opera.

Who knows how the Trump presidency will end. It seems unlikely to wrap up with a perp walk to a waiting helicopter, although I live in eternal hope. But whether he’s out of the White House in a year, or whether he gets another four, I wonder what his presidency will mean for how we all engage with politics in future.

I would like to think things will go back to normal. That the political climate will cool and regain some sort of equilibrium. However, given how successful Trump has been at stoking outrage and converting that into votes, I fear we might be in for more of the same. And not just in the US — there are plenty of politicians around the world who have relearned the lesson there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

For my own part, I hope some stability returns if only because I feel exhausted at the volume of information I need to get my head around to fully understand this historical moment.

I’m listening to ten or twelve podcast episodes a week, monitoring several different polling websites on a daily basis, keeping an eye on the Democratic debates while simultaneously reading the latest developments from the impeachment proceedings — and that’s before I get to the hot takes on Twitter.

This information overload makes it easy to lose perspective. The news breaks with such monotonous regularity that it becomes hard to distinguish the signal from the noise. Strangely enough, I wonder whether those who pay only passing attention may in fact have a better sense of the bigger picture.

What’s even more worrying is how this obsessive consumption of politics encourages a passivity towards the political process itself. It’s all too easy to find yourself sitting back, watching what’s happening, rather than making a conscious effort to go out and do something about it.

But, as with any bingeing, it feels like I can’t stop. Even if I feel slightly sick.



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Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith

I’m an avid reader from Wellington, New Zealand. History, crime fiction, literary classic. You name it, I’ll read it. Twitter @pileobooks