Friday, 5 August 2016

Welcome to the UnConventional. The Internet and The Primary Season.


One of the strange things about moving here at the time I did rather say, ten or more years ago, is just what the advent of social media has done to the size of our world.



Now, I should make the point that I obviously have no problem with the internet or social media. It is a fantastic tool and I wouldn't have met my wife without it. It really did change my life. That's why I'm posting blogs about what its like to live as a British subject in an American world.



It can however have another effect, it has made the world appear much smaller to many people. We live in a world where the borders that exist between countries and cultures seldom exist in our minds anymore. No one is a foreigner in the electronic netherworld of the internet. We take in information, watch videos and form opinions based on what we find in cyberspace. So, while I try to understand this new world that I find myself in, I find that many people seem to already know more about this country than I do while living back in Blighty. Not that I'm making a judgment on anyone. Its just strange.



I have tried to stay away from politics while writing this blog, as its primary purpose is to talk about my adjustment to life here, it is a blog naturally more concerned with the minutiae of life than the cut and thrust of political debate. I have a tendency to be more than a little opinionated when it comes to matters of an ideological bent, but I'm not totally sure that I have the right to comment on the rights and wrongs of U.S. politics just yet.



Being a recent immigrant to these shores, I have a extremely defined legal status. I am a “conditional permanent resident”. My permanent residency is as a result of my marriage to Kelly but as we were married for less than two years when we applied, my residency is of a conditional nature for its first two years. After that I can apply to remove the conditional nature of my status.



Permanent resident status is what many people refer to as possessing a “green card”. I am required to have my card with me at all times, as it serves as my I.D. as well as proof of my right to stay in this country. It has many benefits that I share with U.S. citizens, I can work, I can pay taxes, I can gain a driver's license etc. However I have to tell the government every time I move house and I can't vote.



Voting is a reserve of full U.S. Citizens and I can't even apply to become one until I have been a full, non conditional permanent resident for 5 years. As I still have a year till I can apply for a change of status to reach such a categorisation, it means that it will be a full 6 years, at the very least before I can vote. So not only can I not vote in this Presidential election but I won't be able to vote in the one in 4 years time either.

Which is where the strangeness of the information super-highway hits me. Here am I, living in America, reluctant to make any comments relating to social and political issues because my voice really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of the American political system, if it ever does. However in the world of social media, everyone has a say in everything. It seems not to matter that you live 4,000 miles away from the U.S. because your opinion obviously matters in the coming Presidential election. And of course, everything posted online is more trustworthy than things found in the print and television media.



Now I'm not meaning to judge anyone who posts on this issue, but it shows just how the world we now live in feels connected like never before. We see it on the screen and we sympathise with our friends overseas and so we're going to let our voices be heard. Even if it doesn't directly affect us at all.



One of the subjects where this is most evident is in the videos posted online and the response to the convention season. In the classic, late 90s-early 2000s TV series “The West Wing”, the White House Communications Director, Toby Ziegler, attempts to pressure television networks into guaranteeing coverage of the entire Democrat Convention in the face of their natural opinion that no one will watch it. For many years, the convention has been covered less and less, with only the keynote speeches and candidates acceptance of the nomination getting any airtime at all. Now however, the Internet allows for the mass dispersal, promotion and spin of the whole over stuffed shebang.



This, of course, has been at least partially influenced, by the fact that the candidates this year are among the most controversial of recent years, neither of whom came out of the primary season looking like undisputed leaders of their parties.



So welcome to convention season, two weeks which amount to the most public, most drawn out and by far the most dramatic committee meetings in the world. Officially that is what they are, a meeting of each parties national committees where they each have delegates from every state in the Union and they each nominate their candidate for election to the highest office in the land. I am discovering in the midst of watching these conventions and people's reactions to very carefully selected excerpts of speeches that the Internet, watching “The West Wing” all the way through on no less than three occasions and knowing who Ronald Reagan's opponent was in the 1984 election have not prepared me for the experience of viewing this election from inside this great country.*



The Conventions however are only a footnote, merely a formality as it were and therefore the culmination of an entire primary season. By the time a candidate gets to the convention, they have already been on the campaign trail in some form or other for the last 18 months and still have nearly 4 months left to campaign. In answer to the question of when their journey to this exalted stage of their career started their speech writers will inevitably have concocted some heart warming story of the moment in their history when they realised that they wanted arguably one of the most powerful jobs in the world. But that is just hype.



Practically their journey begins with the formation of an exploratory committee. An exploratory committee's job is to gauge the level of support for the candidate both within their party and in the country as a whole, to start to acquire financial capital, no-one after all makes it even to the candidacy of their party without spending a stupendously large amount of cash. They also start to create the infrastructure for a national campaign.



If the exploratory committee thinks they have a shot then they will officially launch their campaign for the candidacy of their party. This is masterminded with just as much attention to detail and often flamboyance as a national campaign would be. They have a professionally designed campaign logo, a slogan designed to grab the public's attention, political directors, speech writers, spin doctors and media experts. They also have an ideological platform which will become the basis for their general election campaign position. That is if they make it to the convention as the nominee, of course.



The primaries are a battlefield, like any election. The battlefield is America and the individual battles are for the individual states. America is a federal republic which means that numerous aspects of political life are devolved to the states. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution defines the relationship between the individual states and the national or “federal” government, at least in theory. Each state has it's own laws, its own executive (a governor), a legislature (called numerous things depending on the state but generally mirroring the two chambered system of the federal Congress in Washington D.C.) and a judiciary.



The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are no exception. They have always been organised on a state level. The building blocks of the two party system in the United States is often found in the strength of their “grassroots” state organisations. This means that although the Office of the President is the executive arm of the federal government, the first electoral step on the road to it's oval shaped glory is to convince individual state parties that you should be their candidate in November.



Now, this isn't easy, America, for all its patriotic fervour is not some monolithic imperial power with a group mind that brooks no disagreement. Each state is motivated by its own issues. My adopted home state of Wisconsin, for instance, is obviously going to be extremely interested in the candidates stance on agricultural issues and awareness of rural and conservational issues as well as the economy and jobs. However a state like New York, while having a large rural area within it, will often tend to be more interested in the candidates stance on social issues directly affecting the inner city, primarily because the state is dominated by and named after New York City and its 8 million inhabitants. Water conservation and rights are going to be of interest to south western states with their dry climates but of no interest whatsoever to Washington state or Oregon with their abundance of rainfall.



To win the primaries therefore, the campaigns have to be ready to run fifty smaller campaigns for each state's hearts and minds. This was a revelation to me, even though I knew that, in principle, this was the way it worked. It turns out that when its your state's turn on the electoral merry-go-round, especially if yours is the only primary scheduled for that day, you start to wish that democracy itself didn't exist. That nobody wanted your votes for anything and that the candidates would kindly hurry up and get off your commercial breaks.



They advertise the candidate, like trying to get you to buy a used car. You are a consumer. Part of a demographic and a state they desperately need to win and so exposure to the candidates views are a must, this, after all is the ideological battlefield.



There are debates and mud slinging, gaffes and mistakes, speeches and less well intentioned oratory. It becomes a knock down drag out fight just to gain the chance to do it all again in November. Everyone is looking for that one vital moment to land the knockout punch and proceed to the convention as the presumptive nominee. The earlier you win, of course, the easier you can hide the fact that you verbally attacked the rest of the candidates from your party and present a unified front long before the convention winds around.



The conventions are supposed to exude a kind of celebratory party like kind of vibe. If the state rounds were all about trying to get the party to choose a candidate, this is all about showing off the candidate to the party and showing them that everything is ready for the general election.



This years conventions were held in Cleveland, Ohio, (Republican Convention) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, (Democratic Convention). The Republican National Committee had tried to inject a feeling of rock and roll into the proceeding by placing their mascot, an elephant, onto the silhouette of an electric guitar, referencing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nearby. This might have worked, if the Governor of Ohio, John Kasich, hadn't been one of the defeated challengers in the Republican primary and decided not to attend the Convention. Meaning that every news story that first day was about that decision. Not the start that the National Committee would really want to see. But something that often happens when the Convention isn't really sure about how committed the winning nominee is to the party's platform.



The Democrats had on the other hand gone with the tried and tested formula,you hold anything in Philadelphia, you use the Liberty Bell as your logo. And there it was, replacing the “0” in “2016”. No over the top drama here the first day. The winning nominee for the Democrats being a woman who many within that party have dreamed of having on this stage for a long, long time.



The conventions then proceed as usual, a working weeks worth of speeches, exhortations, rabble rousing, Bill Clinton talking about cartoons, Melania Trump talking about fashion and how she loves her Multi, Multi, Millionaire husband, Meryl Streep squealing like a teenage girl at a One Direction concert at the prospect of a female president. Everything is heightened, every emotion is extreme. America is after all one of the few nations in the world truly founded on an idea, a concept. Its not just that there is an American Dream, but that America is the dream and all of these people feel that it has been lost somewhere, like Richard Nixon dropped it down the back of the couch one day and nobody's been able to find it since.



There is no cynicism to the party faithful that flock to the conventions. They really do believe that they are the only ones who can save the American dream. They turn a blind eye to the failings of their nominees (because all politicians have failings) and the whole thing becomes a beatification, the nominee raised to sainthood, the standard bearer of their party. The opposing parties candidate now is seen in the opposite way. Like an enemy to the true fulfillment of the dream, at best a sadly deluded personage who should really have stayed at home.



There are many who believe that this election could be incredibly close, despite the Republican candidates tendency to indulge in silly posts on Twitter that help his campaign very little. People in the U.K. and that includes many who have become entitled to have an opinion by watching You Tube videos, wonder how that can be. The Democratic candidate comes across as a much more sensible bet, surely she's going to walk it. Why isn't she doing a victory lap already?



The fact it is, as the primaries are conducted on a state level so, to a degree is the general. Each state has a series of votes attached to it. In the same way as the primaries decide how the delegates will vote at the National Convention, these decide how the Electoral College will vote.



In the days before instantaneous communication, the Presidential election was decided by delegates to an Electoral College sent from their state to vote in Washington D.C. for the candidate their state had voted for. States with larger populations got more delegates than states with smaller populations. It was considered the only way to hold the election on the same day everywhere and get reliable results. Now although things have changed in terms of communication, the Electoral College still exists. This means a simple majority of votes in the country will do, you have to win states across the board.



This is where things could potentially get a lot closer. The Democrats have for many years easily taken the East and West Coasts. This means they take the largest state in terms of electoral college votes, California and also New York. They succeed in large cities and urban areas, but the American system is set up so that smaller rural states can't be ignored and have a say. And as the Republicans just as invariably take the second largest electoral college state of Texas. It forces candidates to have to listen to everyone in the country not just their natural voters.



The states in the centre of the country are often referred to as “Flyover States” because the Democrats have tended to ignore their issues while flying from their power bases on the East and West Coasts. These states have not always been fertile ground for the Democratic party and many that once had industrial cities within them blame the Democratic candidate for her agreement with her husband's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which they feel destroyed manufacturing in America's heartland. They don't want food to be cheaper for inner city children because they have farms that need a fair price to survive. They also feel that all the money they pay in taxes to the Federal government goes predominantly on inner city areas with social problems that they don't have. They own guns for hunting, but feel vilified for possessing them by the anti gun lobby when they feel the real gun problem in the U.S. is with unregistered gun owners in the inner cities.



So this is the strangeness I find, we sit now on our computers and make decisions about candidates and politicians across the world based on our own ideologies defined by our own lives. I may listen to the Republican candidate and find much of what he says repugnant but I can't deny the fact that many in the heartland of America, couldn't care less about what he says about those issues so long as he brings prosperity back to them. There is an area known as the Rust Belt, it is made up of former manufacturing towns whose jobs have trickled away, Detroit, for instance, once provided much of America with its cars, now many worry that it could become a ghost town. There are many who hold the Democratic candidate at least partially responsible for this state of affairs. Many also feel that although the current President has done a lot for the big cities he has done little for rural areas and states which are majority rural.



So maybe this, I feel, is what I'm learning, the Internet has a great potential to inform us, to teach us, to show us the future and inform us of the past. It also, however robs us of our experience of the world around us. We no longer try to find out what the people around us think because so many of our friends are now like minded individuals who live on the internet making us feel like everyone in the world thinks the same as we do.



I am here in the midst of this country, trying to understand its many different ways and cultural peculiarities. I'm not sure which way I would actually vote in the long run. I know that for many this year, its going to come down to which of the candidates is despised least. The lesser of two evils. I am learning that sometimes the Internet allows us to get flippant about issues that many people take incredibly seriously and which affect many lives.



I have no judgment to pass on anyone. I can be as guilty of this as anyone can be. I just wonder whether the next time we find some video of a politician speaking in another country about things that we can't hope to truly experience, we seek to learn more, not put the video on our Facebook feed and say “I'll just leave this here...Mic Drop”, no matter how amusing the man's orange hair-do is.



Thanks for reading.