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America at Election Time

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America thinks itself good at war and is bad at it. America thinks itself
bad at democracy and is good at it, very good.

Every time I visit America at election time I am left exhilarated by the
sheer, pulverising potency of its democracy. Nowhere on earth are the
mighty brought so low, nowhere is power so tested by fire. Yet ABC News
this morning could announce judgment day with the downbeat message that it
was "the nastiest mid-term election in history."

Nasty is right. Within two minutes of turning on my television I hear
"Andrew Cuomo is lying", Bob Menendez is supported by kickback hoodlums,
worst calumny of all, Thomas Kean "supports George Bush". Almost everyone
is in favour of killing babies, rupturing stem cells and torturing Iraqis.
The corridors of power are awash in corruption, adultery, mendacity and
sin. The torrent of abuse is relentless and, to those used to the bland
hustings of European oligarchy, gloriously refreshing.

Above all the negativity is good. The Karl Rove strategy of identifying
electoral difference rather than consensus inflames democratic choice as it
should be inflamed. Voters cannot make that choice if, as increasingly in
Europe, candidates are bland mirrors of each other. Only at an American
election am I told what candidates stand for, because their opponents tell
me so, in vivid technicolour. Voters are merely the residuum of democratic
scrutiny of power. It is those out of power and craving it that are the
real scrutineers. By hook and by crook, American elections deliver that
requirement.

The sums of money involved in these elections are shocking to outsiders, as
is a constitution that allows incumbents to gerrymander their own
constituency boundaries. No less extraordinary is the pork-barrel tradition
wrecking state and national budgets. But at $10 a voter the costs are less
by far than candidates used to pay in 18th-century Britain, and they bring
the election into every living room. The age of the internet has made
money-raising a facility available to many not just a few. The ailments of
American democracy are at least curable and tangential to the main task:
giving the bastards a really hard time.

Everything I see, the knocking ads, the robo-calls, the push polls, the
face-to-face contact, the grip-and-grin, is directed at one objective,
closing the ever-dangerous gulf that divides the individual voter from the
character and views of those who purport to exert power of them. I love it.