Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Silly Season

In my hometown of Knysna on the Indian Ocean coast, 500 kms east of Cape Town, we refer to the month around Christmas as “the silly season”.  That’s because the town is inundated with visitors, mainly from the Johannesburg area, but also from other parts of the country.  It is, of course, the summer vacation for school kids and university students.  That means that many families take their annual holiday at the coast.

View of Knysna lagoon

For Knysna residents, it is a time of plenty.  Shops and restaurants and other tourist-related enterprises make most of their annual income at this time.  So the influx is crucial to the local economy.  It is also a time of aggravation.  Unlike other times of the year, wandering into the village whenever convenient to shop or have a cup of coffee no longer works.  There are queues of people everywhere, and one can only get into the restaurant of choice with a reservation.  Locals often stock up on supplies in advance to avoid the mayhem.  There are even frustrating traffic jams that often snake along the lagoon road for several kilometres.
Knysna lagoon
Knysna waterfront
Minneapolis is my other home town, and I’ve been in town most of the time since early April.  It is also the silly season here.  And everywhere else in the United States.  It is election time!
For those of us who were brought up outside the USA, no matter how much we like and admire it, the election process seems weird – to put it mildly.  Nowhere else, as far as I know, does election season begin as soon as the new politicians are sworn in – with perhaps the exception of Senators. 
For the members of the House, election time is less than two years away.  So it is immediately time to start raising cash to fund the next TV campaign, to hire marketing geniuses, and staff.  

And it is no different for first-term presidents.  The next election is less than three years away, with the other party starting almost immediately to find a candidate. 

Ever since I have been in this country, I have been puzzled by its attitude towards Cuba.  It seems that this little country wields a hugely disproportionate influence on politics in Washington.  The USA’s attitudes have changed with respect to many other countries that are far more extreme that Cuba – and more important.  Yet Cuba raises hackles, rhetoric, and tempers.

It is only recently that I figured out why this is.  At least that is my story.  Florida is a swing state.  It has many voters of Cuban heritage, who generally – like many expats – have a strong dislike of their former homeland.  No President, particularly a first-termer, can afford to alienate the Cuban-Floridian voters too much.  So nothing changes.  Nobody is willing to do the commonsense thing and normalize relations.

Page 1 of the US Constitution
I have an admission to make.  Although I am an admirer of the Constitution, I do not believe God etched it on a tablet and left it for the Framers to find.  I think the almost religious reverence with which many Americans treat the Constitution has got in the way of progress.  And democracy. 
Of course, you know I am going to mention the Electoral College.  Many non-Americans look with puzzlement at an electoral system in which the President can be elected with fewer popular votes than his or her opponent - in a country that advertizes itself as the most democratic on the planet.  I’ve read a lot about the genesis and evolution (if I am allowed to use that word) of the Electoral College, and my take is that it came about because the Framers didn’t really trust voters to elect the best President.  So they gave states the opportunity to appoint (and sometime elect) those who would eventually decide who would be president.  They hoped (at least I think they hoped) that states would appoint men of substance, education, and wisdom, who would know better than the average Joe on the farm which candidate would do the best job in Washington.  

Of course, the Framers did not actually say anything about how states should determine who would be members of the electoral college.  This meant that states evolved how this occurred.  Today the idea of winner takes all is common, and to me is a cause of all sorts of political problems.  Have you noticed how many times the candidates for the presidency have visited the three most populous states – California, New York, and Texas?  Hardly ever, because those states are already sewn up.  All the attention is focused on the swing states.

Here is a little quiz before I move on to my next point.  If the Electoral College vote is tied, which has happened, do you know what the next step is in the election process?  A hint!  It is even less democratic than the Electoral College process.

Okay, okay.  I know you are groaning about this foreigner whinging about the system.  But I have a few more observations, so bear with me.

I appreciate and understand the appeal of the checks and balances built into the US Constitution.  And acknowledge the benefits that accrue.  On the other hand, a system that is in balance doesn’t move.  So when change is needed, the system makes that very difficult indeed.  I think the USA today is in need of real change – and I have met few people who disagree with that no matter their political leanings.  But I fear the system will prevent that from happening.

The length of the election process detracts from the reason why we elect people.  If politicians are constantly preparing for re-election, their attention is distracted from legislation and governance.  Although I know it will never happen in the USA, there are real benefits to the parliamentary system.  Elections are short – usually 6 to 8 weeks – so we wouldn’t have to put up with listening to interminable, regurgitated rubbish from the candidates on every TV channel, punctuated with attack ads.  And it is more flexible and able to react to changing circumstances more readily.

Finally – “at last!”, I hear you say – campaigns have morphed from an opportunity for voters to listen to half-way decent discussions of issues into events that have to compete with reality shows like Survivor. With the exception of public television, TV channels focus on contention, not substance, so they can keep viewership high and advertizing revenues up.  They make up statistics and scenarios that are meaningless, but which are given great import (you must take a look at this cartoon to put this in perspective -  Perhaps the next presidential contest will include mud-wrestling or a single gladiatorial contest to determine the winner.  That should increase the size of the viewing audience.
Michelle Obama vs Mitt Romney 2016?
Fighting for the Presidency 2020
CNN Stadium, Washington D.C. 2020
As a lover of the USA and one of its citizens, I am immensely saddened by what I see as a slow slide into mediocrity, by an increasing acceptance of legislation that undermines our freedoms, and an inertia in Washington to make the tough decisions that are necessary to restore the world’s confidence in the country.  Sad, sad, sad.

Someone once said that a cynic is someone who sees the world as it is, not as it should be.  So call me a cynic!
Stan - Thursday


  1. I love the pictures of your vacationland, sans vacationers. I agree very much about your assessment of our political positions. I fear mediocrity because so few dare to be great.

  2. I think the mud-wrestling started last Tuesday night, Stan. As for silly season, around my place it's always zilly season.

  3. "interminable, regurgitated rubbish" amazing that you are able to describe the circus that has become our electoral process in such accurate and still polite terms. If I were you, I would escape at the first possible opportunity to that beautiful place where summer is coming and take the long lines of tourists over the attack ads any day.