"Many Australians believe they know all about
. On business trips they sidle through the galleries of America New York, or amble down the boulevards of , 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. Los Angeles
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
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
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. US
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?
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.
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 Republicmagazine a young Texan journalist gave a worm's-eye view of his experiences in the Precinct 426 caucus in the city of . It reads like a chapter out of Tocqueville, suitably updated and digitised. East Austin
There are more than 8000 precinct conventions in
. 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. Texas
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.
'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. Australia
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."
March 17, 2008
Democracy and Dignity
David Burchell shares some provocative thoughts about America, democracy, dignity and us. Being reminded of anything that Tocqueville had to say - anything at all - never goes astray either.