Thursday, November 04, 2004

I think I noticed something while watching the Spanish media coverage of these elections: Spaniards' view of everything American is based on images they've seen. This isn't true only of Spaniards, of course, it's true of everybody. I think it's very obvious in the case of Spaniards toward things American, though.

Not many Spaniards have been to the United States and those that have have normally seen New York and Disney World and not much else. However, they've been so bombarded by images, both from Hollywood and the television news, that they think they understand what's going on even though they've never actually read very much about it. They imagine that their images, which are often dramatic, striking, sexual, violent--those are the kind of images that get distributed widely--are an accurate reflection of the real thing. Actually, of course, all these images (and they've got thousands of American images in their heads, everthing from James Dean in the leather jacket to the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center) are very exaggerated or even wildly fictional, because they're either news--by definition, things that show up in the news are unusual or even extraordinary--or Hollywood product--by definition false.

I noticed that on every Spanish TV channel--Big T and I flipped back and forth between TV1, TV3, and Antena 3--all the genius intellectual people they brought on to analyze the election results kept doing it, over and over, by calling images to mind, whether that of the naked Vietnamese girl or Harry Truman holding up the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline or George Bush listening to the Secret Service guy and then continuing to read the story on 9-11. They referred, over and over, to "Bush trying to project the image of a folksy good ol' boy" or "Kerry's image is perhaps too European".

There was very little discussion of anything like a real issue that people might be voting on. Not much discussion of tax cuts or the budget deficit (and how small it is) or military preparation or education reform or prescription drugs or tort reform or Social Security. See, those are difficult and complex subjects and there aren't any arresting images of them. Therefore, I conclude that Spanish journalists tend to provide their readers and viewers with information about a lot of things they've seen, but not much about what they've read or what they've heard.

One other new insight, such as it is, is that over here they've come up with several formulae through which to interpret America. "The American Dream" is probably the most common. Everything that happens over here is interpreted through that prism--i.e. "The Americans are aggressive because they believe that one must work hard and look out for oneself in order to be successful and achieve the American Dream...". Another one is "the American Way of Life". They're not quite sure what that is, but they think it involves plenty of vulgar materialism and overeating. A third is the Western movie. They think that we actually have the same sort of frontier ideals that they supposedly had in the Old West and that are exemplified in John Wayne movies. This prism is usually used to explain any military action that the US might take.

These are among the most common frames of reference that were used during election coverage over here.

Things they made a big deal of because they're different in Spain:

Different systems of voting depending on where you are. They made this seem to be incredibly complex, but they didn't make the point that each individual has to deal with only one of the possible types, or that there are plenty of people from both parties or the poll watchers who will help them out if they don't understand, or that if you can't figure out such a simple thing as a ballot you might not be real smart.

Campaigning the day before the election. Can't do this in Spain.

The Electoral College and how weird it is. Let me explain it like this: Systems tend to simplify as they develop, because people familiar with the system will figure out how to improve it. This happens with languages, which become simpler in their grammar as they evolve, and with any form of technology, which becomes more efficient as time goes on. It also happens with the political system countries have.

Look, we're the oldest democracy in the world and so a lot of our practices are left over from 1788 and the original Constitution. That is, the original system the Founders set up was unnecesarily complex in a lot of ways by our standards today. But in America it's very difficult to amend the Constitution, and a damned good thing that is too, so we don't do it very often. Therefore we're stuck with all these old leftovers, relics of a system set up two centuries ago, that have been streamlined out in newer systems.

The Electoral College is something that's pretty much functioned for the last 200 years, so nobody's really ever worked up the energy to change it, as if you could. (The samll states wouldn't stand for it and they're powerful enuogh to block it.) Every time they tried something that really didn't work, like slavery and prohibition and trying to run a real government without an income tax, enough energy was gathered up to change it and actually amend the Constitution.

Voting on a working day. Here it's always on Sunday.

The lack of what they call here party discipline--the fact that a senator or representative can vote against his party if he wants. That's why they can't figure out voters splitting their tickets, either, since you can't do that here. Here you vote for the political party, not the candidate. Also, they don't understand that we vote for all kinds of different offices on the same ballot. Here there are only four kinds of election: municipal council, regional parliament, national parliament, and European Parliament, and they're generally held at different times.

Initiative and referendum. They're fascinated by this. The idea that the people can actually propose a law and then vote it into existence, thereby going around the legislative branch, does not register here. The one about prohibiting bear hunting using donuts for bait in Maine really caught their fancy over here. They sure thought that was funny.

They just do not get that this is not one election, it's 13,000 different elections happening simultaneously.

There's some lacking of comprehension regarding the virtues of the two-party system. I would say that its advantage is that it incorporates smaller, fractional, one-issue political interest groups into larger organizations that must take positions on every issue. It therefore prevents power from falling into the hands of small radical fringe groups. I guess most of the people criticizing this aspect of American politics are people who belong to radical fringe groups over here.

There's also a lack of understanding regarding that the two parties are actually coalitions of different interest groups. The Republicans are not a monolithic whole. There's the pro-business wing, the hawkish wing, the happy-with-things-as-they-are wing, and the social conservative wing, among others. Most of these groups sympathize more than one another than with the groups that form part of the Democrats. The Democrats are a coalition too. There's the labor wing, the civil servants-teachers wing, the minority-interests wing, the feminist pro-abortion wing, the university ideological left wing, the Hollywood wing, and so on.

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