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Maha Atal ’08: A load of hot air

A view from across the pond reveals the superficiality of U.S. political discourse

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

At a party last weekend, I spoke to a student who described himself as a staunch political conservative. I like to think I have a pretty clear general picture of conservative ideals, but my assumptions were blown away as this self-proclaimed right-winger told me he was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, had opposed the war in Iraq from day one and believed in socialized medicine.

I explained to him that I too was socially liberal, but that I believed in cautious government spending, and thought we should maintain a presence in Iraq long enough to ensure its stability. He looked at me in horror. “But I thought you said you were left of center.”

I thought I was, but I’m not in America anymore. Here in Britain, American definitions of left and right don’t apply.

My conversation partner, despite voicing what I see as fairly progressive views, was a hardcore Tory. His left-wing friends, meanwhile, were advocating levels of welfare state policy I’d never heard suggested on serious terms, and a pacifist foreign policy that would seem positively wimpy in the States.

These students took me to see a favorite member of Parliament give a lecture. I listened in shock as former Labour representative Clare Short explained how global warming will bring the apocalypse by 2030, how U.S. policy in the Mideast is a modern form of imperialism and how the British Parliament would be better off if both major parties self-destructed. I was the only one surprised. By my standards as an American liberal, Short is a radical; for the British students in the audience, she’s the definition of the mainstream political left.

Discussing American politics is difficult here. Most of the time, British students complain that both our parties are centrist-conservative and basically the same. I’ve heard that before, from people like Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan; the difference is that here, such opinions seem to be the mainstream.

Americans complain about how extremist and partisan our system has become. Listening to voices in Britain that would never even make it to the American political stage, I began to wonder if ours is only extreme in style. While there may be a lot of name-calling in American politics, the variety of opinions expressed is much narrower than in Europe.

Come to think of it, how much major policy do our political candidates even voice? I’m doing my best to keep up on election-related madness by reading news online. Maybe I’m reading the wrong papers, but two-thirds of the articles I read in the past few weeks are full of nothing but Obama-mania. I understand the craze: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., oozes charisma. He can talk anybody into believing in him. But, as David Brooks of the New York Times pointed out recently, where are his policies? His proposals for education or the economy are always stock responses that evade the question, avoiding controversy by focusing on abstract ideals like “hope” and “opportunity.” The same is true for many American politicians.

There’s little talk of “values-voting” here in Britain. Not that you won’t find religious conservatives or liberal activists; but these cultural identifications don’t govern campaigns here the way they do in the States. Voters here make decisions on the basis of a candidate’s ideals, but those ideals are linked more closely to policy and less closely to personality than in the United States.

Instead of discussing a candidates’ “character” in the abstract, British voters discuss where he stands in relation to his party’s tradition. Political parties and the system of British government constitute a value-system that overrides religious and class cultures. Where we distrust government as a threat to value systems, the British embrace government as the supreme value-system, a safeguard against the havoc religion or class can cause. While American politicians are busy trying to tap into extra-governmental value systems to avoid identifying with “the government,” British politicians do the opposite.

An MP lecturing here last week, for example, was booed by the audience for explaining his policy views in terms of class culture. I can’t help but think his snide remarks against elitism and his self-portrayal as the “defender of the people” would have earned him applause from an American audience.

I’m nowhere near advocating the kind of politics they have here in Britain, because I’m not a socialist. But I am wondering what happened to the substance of politics in America, and how we got stuck with campaigns based entirely on criticizing candidates’ personalities rather than their policy ideas.

As Americans go to vote today, I wonder if, without losing sight of our culture, we could learn a thing or two from the British approach. If we focused more on policy over personality, we would have leaders who are bold in practice, rather than just in rhetoric, and a political culture that is as passionate in discussing these policies as it is in throwing insults.

Maha Atal ’08 hurls personal belongings at her opponents.

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