Denver, Colorado. The great American election has eluded me as successfully as the great American cuisine. I just cannot find it in the streets. What I have seen much of are the ads on TV. The evening newscasts are full of them, and perhaps to many Americans, these political ads constitute the sum total of democratic discourse in this highly depoliticized society.
It is 2 days before election, but apart from the politicians and their handlers, no one seems interested in what is going to happen on election day. Here, in Denver, every voter is given a chance to cast his ballot by mail. He may also come to the office of the election commission within the week before election day and cast his vote. Yet, even with these options, voter turn-out from year to year remains way below 50%. A small minority gets to decide the fate of the American nation.
Voter apathy is ironically highest during good times. The turn-out can be lower than 25% for no other reason than that everyone feels contented. The average American voter thinks of his ballot as a weapon to use only when he is angry or frustrated with the way things are. He votes when he wants to change the people who run government. He stays home and ignores elections when he has no reason to complain against government.
The Republicans are aware of this trait. They are worried that the sound state of the US economy may predispose voters to indiscriminately reward everybody with reelection including the Democrats. In a move that baffled political analysts, the Republican National Committee recently decided to launch a $10-million aggressive campaign to win unaffiliated voters by zeroing in on the moral failings of President Clinton. Without going into the details of the sex scandal, the TV ads admonish the voter to vote Republican and not reward Bill Clinton for lying.
Observers are skeptical that the ad will produce the desired result, but they say the Republicans have gone this far to discredit Clinton on the Lewinsky affair that they really have no choice but to use the issue no matter what the consequences. If the Republicans lose the midterm election, which everyone expects belongs to them, then it can only mean that the voting public was instead punishing them for exploiting what should have remained a private matter. If they gain a few more seats, then they would take this as a clear vote against Clinton.
But the Republicans may have badly misread public sentiment. I have not encountered any thoughtful American who is not more angry with the handling of the sex scandal than with the president himself. The president has committed a terrible lapse in judgment, they would say, but that is a matter between him and his wife. The consensus is that he has done a very good job as president, and, as far as many Americans are concerned, that is all that really matters.
This pragmatism is what informs the typical American voter’s attitude towards politics in general. He has no particular admiration for politicians. In fact, he distrusts them most of the time. However, he also expects them to take care of his needs as a citizen – to provide his kids with a good education, solid heath care, and protection against crime – if possible without having to raise taxes.
That is why political advertisements are heavy on such themes. Heroes are extolled for putting more money into schools, health care, and breast cancer research, whereas the villains are reviled for collecting more taxes and proposing more central government intervention in affairs best handled at the local level. But even these substantive issues can appear so esoteric and complex to the average voter that he would not really remember who is espousing them. Thus, it helps a lot to have a movie actor or celebrity for a friend.
In North Carolina last week, Charlton Heston appeared beside his friend Senator Lauch Faircloth and spoke lengthily about him. The media reported Heston’s visit and what he said about Faircloth but none of what Faircloth himself said. Also lending a helping hand to a needy friend was Robert Redford, a recent guest in Denver. He is supporting the moderate Democratic candidate for Governor Gail Schoettler against the highly-favored conservative Republican Bill Owens. In his talk before the press, Redford mentioned his personal reasons for supporting the candidacy of Schoettler, including the latter’s advocacy of environmental causes. The news reports played his soundbites but completely ignored what his candidate had to say.
Personal appearances by big name actors like these are media events that land in the early and late evening news. But they are not as common or as extensive as those we find in the Philippines. A politician’s main route to becoming a household name is still television. In this medium, looks are important and soundbites vital. In Texas, George Bush Jr. is the hands-down winner for governor primarily because of his name and fluency in Spanish. He is on his way to the top. His is about the only name being mentioned as possible Republican standard bearer for the 2000 presidential election.
In any event, if American elections were won by looks and soundbites, then it would definitely take a long time before anyone would beat reelectionist Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell of Colorado. The man is a chief of the Cheyenne tribe, is a former Olympic athlete, wears his long hair braided, attends Senate sessions in denims and native Indian garb, and rides a Harley-Davidson. He is a living icon of the rugged American West, and no one can beat an icon.
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