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2 July 2016 05:57 (South Africa)
World

2016 US presidential election: Understanding the game

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: Donald Trump (L) talks with fellow candidate and former Jeb Bush during a commercial break at the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Just hours before people all over the state of Iowa begin the process of selecting delegates for the American presidential election, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at all the things that have shaped him in his efforts to understand this astonishing process.

By Tuesday morning in the US, Americans (and the world) will finally have the first actual results to contemplate in the ultra-marathon that is the American presidential election. Until that moment, everything just has been thoughtful or shallow, well-informed or wild-eyed conjecture. But afterwards, everything that will follow will now be judged in light of what the Iowa caucuses has revealed about the likes and dislikes of this privileged small corner of the American electorate.

There are, of course, many ways to think about an American election. One can go with the kind of optimism about the process that argues it is a harsh, unforgiving Darwinian process that winnows out the weaker candidates, until it ultimately leaves the people’s choice, the winner, to step forward and take that short oath of office at mid-day on every 20 January of a post-Olympic year, and then enter the White House as the world’s most powerful leader. Or, this same process can be viewed as a clash of ideas, ideologies, and massive, unseen economic forces that finally produce a winning candidate amenable to shadowy, hidden interests. Or, more cynically, one can decide the entire exercise is simply an example of the circulation of elites – mingled with a kind of harsh economic determinism - and that whoever wins, in the end, remains firmly in the grasp of larger economic forces. For such views, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” is the key phrase.

This writer has been watching American presidential votes with a near-all-consuming interest since the 1960 election – especially as it was beamed directly into people’s homes via the resurrection of the idea of a series of unscripted, unrehearsed candidates’ debates, meant to echo the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the Illinois senatorial race of 1858. These televised clashes in the autumn of 1960 pitted Democratic Senator John F Kennedy and Republican incumbent, Vice President Richard M Nixon in three debates.

These events really marked the moment television truly became an integral part of the presidential races. Reporting continued to focus ever more closely on the candidates’ campaigning; it extended more deeply into the primary elections process; and gavel to gavel coverage of nominating conventions took on a life of their own as shared national events. And, of course, election night programming on all four TV networks, CBS, ABC, and NBC (no cable, satellite or Internet streaming yet) became a must-watch quadrennial event that began at 6 PM and stretched straight through into the late night or early morning until one candidate finally came out to his supporters and offered – usually – a gracious concession as the winning candidate offered his jubilant victory speech.

In reading about the American political process and the elections, this writer eventually reaches back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s magisterial study, Democracy in America, first published way back in 1836. Sent to America by the French government to examine America’s prisons, de Tocqueville spent a half-year in the US, and broadened out his investigation into what made American society so different from the European states he was already familiar with in his life. Ultimately, one of the key points he fastened upon to differentiate America from the rest was American preference for free, voluntary associations as a way of demonstrating their participation in public life, rather than giving way to their betters in the upper reaches of society.

As de Tocqueville wrote in his study, “The political associations that exist in the United States form only a detail in the midst of the immense picture that the sum of associations presents there. Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”

In today’s Internet/social media universe, with Facebook friends, twitteratti followers, and Tom Friedman’s electronic herd in international economic decision-making, Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations would appear to be even more useful than when they first appeared nearly two centuries earlier.

Over a century later, De Tocqueville’s perspective of this great democratic experiment infused Theodore H White’s multi-election series of The Making of the President volumes. White had first made his name years earlier with his book, Thunder Out of China, a narrative of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s. Then, from 1960 onward, researched and written over a decade-and-a-half, White essentially scripted the presidential races as a kind of large-scale metaphor for the evolution of the nation. Inevitably his sagas began with candidates trudging through the snows of New Hampshire, trying to conquer the nation’s first primary, reaching out to potential voters – virtually one person at a time. White’s volumes were immensely readable and they set the template for a whole library of books that would follow from many different authors.

There have, of course, been rather less emotionally uplifting versions of this story as well. Volumes like Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President took readers behind the more usual story of a campaign, peeling back the skin so readers could experience how communications specialists and spin doctors manipulated both the message and its delivery in Richard Nixon’s successful campaign in 1968. (NB One of the Nixon's spin doctors, Roger Ailes, today presides over Fox News. - Ed)

Meanwhile, at university, lecturers introduced this writer to a range of political theorists who offered other much less optimistic readings of the American political process as well. Scholars like EE Schattschneider offered insights into the impact of interest groups on the political process (or as Schattschneider is remembered for having said, “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent”). And VO Key and his successors made it mandatory, henceforth, for electoral scholars to engage in the deep analysis of the impacts of race, class, religion, region and history on the voting behaviour of citizens. More darkly, political theorists such as the American Theodore Lowi and Italian scholars Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, among others, focused closely on elite theory, pointing to the less than transparent nature of political leadership and elections.

And those university courses on quantitative methods in political science and statistical methodologies for the social sciences left their marks as well. As a result, the writer can still understand most of the gobbledygook associated with survey data – and especially the gaps and assumptions in the results and why they might be flawed.

Together with a revolution in the quality, complexity and depth of voter preference and attitude polling, these quantitative elements in election reporting have become increasingly important in dealing with American presidential races. This, in turn, has given rise to a whole tribe of pollsters who have become essential to every campaign and polling analysts such as the indispensible Nate Silver of 538.com whose evaluations are both legendary and usually dead-on accurate – and crucial for anyone trying to interpret the ongoing electoral process.

The analysis of money and its place in presidential politics has become an increasingly important task as well. Long time California State Legislature power broker, Jesse Unruh’s axiom, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” may never have been truer than it is now, but it is not necessarily in the straightforward way so many people easily assume. If money were the be all and end all, the Republican race would already be over and Jeb Bush would be that party’s nominee. Same same with Hillary Clinton.

Yes, it is largely true that a majority of the torrential downpour of money contributed to candidate superPACs (Political Action Committees) comes from a collection of people who could fit comfortably in the seats of their own Boing 747. Meanwhile, individual contributions are limited to approximately R50,000 per person in the primary season, and then the same amount in the general election phase, and millions of people do contribute much smaller amounts to their respective candidates of choice. And these contributions increasingly come via crowdsourcing efforts using the Internet. (This writer gets at least ten solicitations a day from candidates and campaigns as a result of signing up for all the newsletters from the various candidates. Annoying it may be, but it helps keep track of contribution solicitation trends.)

But this flood of funds is largely directed not to change a politician’s mind but, instead, to support the chances of a candidate who already agrees with the positions of the contributors. All of this is terribly complicated to track, but, increasingly, reporters are finding the tracing of these flows of funds to be very fertile grounds for reporting. Deep Throat’s immortal advice, “Follow the money”, has become a critical bit of advice for reporters.

Meanwhile, fictional works such as Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (as well as Joel Klein’s Primary Colors) have helped sharpen the writer’s understanding of the essential connections between politics, money and sex. And along the way, cinematic electoral/political thrillers such as All the President’s Men, The Ides of March and The Manchurian Candidate have, over the years, also injected a frisson of excitement to the task of election watching, even as they have piled on a kind of mythic sensibility to the routine exercise of picking a president every four years.

Out of all these influences and approaches (as well as some brief experiences working in a couple of political campaigns), going forward, the writer must now focus more closely on what is called the horse race aspect of the American presidential selection process – who’s winning, who’s ahead, who’s behind – as well as the actual policies being advocated by the various contenders and how they are being received.

And along the way, we must now prepare for a tidal wave of analysis about to break after fewer than a quarter of a million people venture out in the midst of an Iowa winter on 1 February to sit in school and church halls and community centres to listen to a series of brief speeches and then vote to decide which candidates will receive how many delegates committed to them in the respective Republican and Democratic presidential nomination races.

The real irony is that Iowa (and similarly with New Hampshire, when it follows the Iowa vote eight days later with its first-in-the-nation primary) is a state starkly atypical of the larger nation. Iowa is mostly white, significantly older, more rural, and strongly evangelical than the rest of the nation. These are all factors that could make it the most unlikely of states to start the race as being representative of the nation. But that is how the political traditions have evolved in the US since 1980, and the winner - or the second and third place finishers – will live to fight on another day in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. By Super Tuesday on 15 March, one candidate in each party may well have virtually wrapped up the race. Or not. But now, finally, actual voters will take the race into their hands as the game has begun for real. DM

Photo: Donald Trump (L) talks with fellow candidate and former Jeb Bush during a commercial break at the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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