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Monday, March 17, 2008

An Australian View: "Why US Is The Great Democracy"

By David Burchell

A few years ago I joined some colleagues on an academic conference jaunt to a large private university in the American northeast. The approved conference itinerary was to take us directly from our swish Chicago hotel to the campus gates, in the hygienic manner of the modern business traveller.

For reasons too complicated to retell, on the return trip we found ourselves becalmed in a village in the backwaters of rural Indiana, in the old American heartland. The streets we strolled down were lined with wooden bungalows, and there was a flagstaff with the Stars and Stripes in every other front yard. We ate in rural diners by the highway with orange-tinted windows, stained wooden cubicles and waitresses with chequered aprons.

Much like Columbus, we had voyaged in search of streets paved with gold, and instead we had accidentally discovered America.

It's a pity more Australian observers don't discover heartland America in this fashion, especially in this historic election year. Because we have more to learn from the rambunctious drama of American democracy than we are prepared to admit.

Many Australians believe they know all about America. On business trips they sidle through the galleries of New York, or amble down the boulevards of Los Angeles, and imagine that they have gained some essential insight into the American character. Back home they watch American TV and movies, and teach themselves that American society is gaudy, individualistic and lacking in decorum.

On the whole, though, most Australians' knowledge of American politics remains limited to a series of crude, child-like stereotypes of the type another generation may have attributed to deepest, darkest Africa.

It's true we have lately become fascinated by the Democratic Party's nominating process. At least to the extent that it reduces itself to the neat identity politics equation of White Woman versus Black Man.

Yet this vantage point obscures much of the substance of the contest. If Barack Obama is a historic figure, it's on account of his determination not to be the nation's first black president but rather an American migrant of mixed heritage who just happens to have a year-round suntan.

And while Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly a woman, her rancorous, grievance-based style of campaigning seems to belong to feminism's paleolithic era. If Clinton's campaign narrative were a movie, it would be called Thelma and Louise Go to Washington.

Look behind the identity politics drama, however, and the 2008 contest reveals a democratic culture which -- for all its excesses, irregularities and antiquities -- is still living, and even vibrant. Unlike the sad parody of democracy to which we once world-leading democrats often seem reduced.

One of our favourite fictions about the US is that its citizens, disillusioned by a lack of choice, don't bother to vote. And yet Americans vote, up hill and down dale, for everything and everybody that moves. For school boards, for precinct committees, for police chiefs, for judges, for district attorneys.

Like Australians, they vote because it's necessary to keep the wheels of organisation turning. But there's another reason. Somewhere underneath those layers of post 1960s cynicism, many of them still believe in their hearts that the act of voting is the consummation of the spiritual equality of Americans. How many of us could say that?

In the early 1800s, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville -- who never settled for the business traveller itinerary, or confused a gallery tour with a social insight -- investigated the American predilection for local political association.

As a citizen of a frontier society, Tocqueville observed, an American "learns from birth that he must rely upon himself to combat the ills and obstacles of life".

Yet this didn't simply cause Americans to become hardy individualists: it also enforced upon them the importance of friends, neighbours and local community. And so it impelled them outwards as well as inwards, bonding in local associations to form clubs, organise festivities, or provide mutual aid.

Received wisdom has it that the old American impulse towards local association and community has withered. Television, the internet, the suburbs, even mass prosperity are all variously blamed with sending Americans back into the loungeroom.

The events of this election year have cast doubts on that fashionably gloomy hypothesis. Given at last some candidates who are attempting to address some of the complexities of mainstream opinion, Americans have been flooding out of their homes into voting halls and caucusing centres.

By nomination time, the better part of a hundred million Americans will have involved themselves, not infrequently standing in queues in the winter wind for several hours. Or they will have gathered in draughty community halls to be lobbied and harangued in the archaic yet quintessentially democratic caucus system.

Last week in New Republic magazine a young Texan journalist gave a worm's-eye view of his experiences in the Precinct 426 caucus in the city of East Austin. It reads like a chapter out of Tocqueville, suitably updated and digitised.

There are more than 8000 precinct conventions in Texas. They will elect some few dozen of the 4000 delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August. They are, in other words, the merest tip of the electoral iceberg.

Yet this year, when the Precinct 426 chair arrived with her sheaf of manila folders, more than 250 people were lined up outside the doors of the local elementary school. Most had never caucused before; some were old enough that they remembered voting for John F.Kennedy.

But there they all were, white, black and Hispanic, college-educated and high-school graduates alike, forming lines and making impromptu, hesitant speeches.

Australia's party system still echoes with the dying call of the old European class wars. Too many ALP branches are private clubs dedicated to the production of endless resolutions deploring everything (or expressing woolly solidarity with phoney liberation movements). And many Liberal party meetings, so rumour has it, resemble masonic lodges dedicated to the interests of local small business people.

No wonder most Australians (other than property developers and union functionaries) avoid the parties like the plague.

We could do much worse than to institutionalise our political parties, as the Americans have done. Give every citizen a voice in the selection of candidates, so long as they're willing to register in the name of one of the parties for the purpose. Encourage them to manifest themselves physically in the proceedings, and to make those impromptu, hesitant speeches.

The ends of democracy are vital. But as Tocqueville understood, the processes of democracy have profound significance, too. We ought not only to be enfranchised by our democracy: we should feel dignified by it as citizens, as Precinct 426's members did. I'd wager most Australians don't feel that way.

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