Thursday, 10 March 2016

Underneath the Big Top

I don’t think it’s a coincidence I’ve spent most of my TV viewing over the past few months watching the entire seven series of West Wing, as it has certainly made me think about the whole way we as countries go about the process of choosing our leaders. It was fascinating to watch on from the sidelines through one re-election campaign for Jed Bartlett, then another campaign as the changing of the guard loomed during the last year of his presidency.

As both Democrat and Republican candidates waged internal campaigns for pre-selection, then a war against each other as the clock ticked down to election day, I can’t help but see the parallels with the current circus playing out right across every US State as the months roll on towards November. And of course at this point in the proceedings, Donald Trump has positioned himself firmly as the ringmaster, seemingly in charge, in his own mind at least, calling the shots, cracking his whip, setting the scene and stirring things into an excited frenzy as the action revolves around him.

I’ve never really understood the US political system, and remember a friend of mine taking some time to come to grips with it after relocating to the States. Bringing his wife to Australia on a visit, she was equally bewildered as he attempted to explain how the Australian party system worked. It didn’t make sense to her. It was foreign.

More than any textbook explanation could have achieved, I think West Wing actually educated me by opening a window into how the US government operates, simply through excellent scriptwriting, casting and acting. Though a fictitious representation of the machinations of the White House, I could imagine what I was seeing was a glimpse of what might happen on a daily basis. Wheeling and dealing behind closed doors, meetings held openly and in secret, tension in the situation room, the fielding of pressure from as wide a net as your own family to the colleagues you trust, those you don’t trust, lobbyists, the Opposition, natural disasters both at home and around the world, responding to threats of war in any given country at a moment’s notice, economic rises and falls, racial, religious and ethnic issues, health and education deficiencies, you name it, somehow it all comes to the attention of the President somewhere along the line.

Then throw into the mix of trying to run the country, an election campaign. Not Australian style, but a long drawn out behemoth which takes on a life of its own at a frenetic pace as candidates crisscross the country simply to win pre-selection within their own party. Then after that circus has finally come to its natural conclusion, the organ grinder cranks up the music again for the next foray north, south, east and west as the two presidential candidates promise the world and slug it out in order to win the hearts and minds of the population at large.

Convincing people you are their best hope to lead the country is one thing, convincing them to actually get off the couch and go and vote is another entirely. There’s something to be said I think for Australia’s compulsory voting. Every prime minister or president across the globe must hate election time. I know I would. What a monumental distraction. I wonder how anyone gets any work done in their actual elected roles while juggling alongside the clowns and lions and constant barrage of noise.

The 2008 US presidential campaign gained a whole lot more interest than usual, not only amongst grass roots voters, but here and around the world as well. Barack Obama burst on to the scene, the first African American to become president. A sense of hope seemed to permeate the lead up to the election and the inauguration two months later. Whether he has lived up to that hope will be revealed in time, but this year’s campaign has gained notoriety of another kind, for its sideshow quality rather than showcasing anything of substance.

Ringmaster Trump has systematically provided the Republican party and supporters with such a vast array of fodder through his abominable behaviour, you’d think everyone would be heartily sick of him by now and he’d have been dispatched back to the boardroom from whence he came.

When his campaign began it felt to me like he was regarded as not much more than entertainment value, but the groundswell of support he has generated even though he has both feet firmly planted in his mouth most of the time while abusing and antagonizing all and sundry, has been nothing short of astonishing. He’s made it impossible for his running mates, and I say mates in its loosest sense, to run any sort of intelligent campaign, reducing the whole proceedings to its lowest common denominator of mud slinging insults and personal attack. I guess money and the power it wields speaks a lot louder than common sense.

With the windup of my West Wing marathon, I feel like I’ve said goodbye to some good friends. Josh, Donna, Toby, CJ, Sam, Leo, Margaret and Carol, Charlie, President Bartlett and others, we went through eight years together in the space of four months. If Ronald Reagan can become president, Arnie Schwarzenegger become a governor, Clint Eastwood and Jerry Springer become mayors, Shirley Temple an ambassador, and Sonny Bono a Republican representative, then I reckon Martin Sheen would be just as likely to succeed in being nominated in the current climate. Then again, maybe he feels like he’s already served eight years as president, so why do it all over again.

And of course it’s not only the US who has the ability to stage such pandemonium that the players become caricatures, the butt of late night talk show hosts and the laughing stock of the rest of the world. Our own major parties have a knack of notoriously operating in cycles where the upward trend inevitably degenerates as the infighting takes over, and the leadership of either party changes as candidates walk in and out of the revolving door.

All I want is a bunch of leaders who will actually lead, whose primary focus is good governance, people who I believe are capable of carrying out what they were elected to do. Unfortunately, as one of the most distrusted professions, if not the most, the likelihood of sitting back and feeling like we have the right people at the helm of the ship is somewhat slim.

So the next few months are going to be interesting viewing as we watch the political aspirations both at home and in the US as campaigns roll on and elections come closer, opponents jockey for position and bragging rights, and the man in the street who this is all supposed to benefit, is left with his head spinning.

How do we choose? Who will win out? After all, the business of government is not about power. It’s all about service. Something that easily gets lost along the way.

I’d hate to see the loudest drown out all sense of reason. As Lucy once said in a Peanuts strip…

If you can’t be right, be wrong at the top of your voice.