Wednesday, 9 January 2008

US Primaries

On a par with the interminable length of X-Factor, Pop Idol and Big Brother we now have to endure weeks of US primaries.

It can all seem a bit of a mystery to those of us outside the US. That's not helped with each state doing its own thing; caucus or election, open (anyone can participate) or closed (only for registered Democrats and Republicans). But as so often with US politics the intention is a sound one and tries to address perceived historical weaknesses in other systems.

Until the 1830’s presidential candidates were informally chosen amongst the elected representatives in Washington. Around this time, with the growth of strong party organisations this was replaced with national conventions. But by the end of the century corruption and ‘boss-ism’ had become so powerful within the parties that the present system of popular votes was seen as a remedy.

But that was in an age before mass communications, when in a geographically huge country a protracted rolling road show was really the only way for potential candidates to campaign. That’s no longer the case with modern media - and the months' of campaigning is not only tedious and therefore devalued, it also skews the political process.

By quickly turning into a beauty parade, the primaries inevitably favour the bland and filter out the radical at an early stage. They also give undue importance to certain parts of the country, like Iowa and New Hampshire, socially, economic and ethnically unrepresentative of the country, simply because they have the first primaries.

But less we get too smug in the UK – our system is hardly inclusive, transparent or representative. Look at our own candidates for political leadership: One bloke who is in office but has had no popular mandate and two old-Etonians.

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