Tuesday, August 9, 2016

OMG, did you hear what Trump said yesterday?

Why, exactly, do people spend so much time talking about the US election?

There is an argument that this election is particularly important, that the contrast between the candidates is large, and that the consequences for the US will be important. It's natural, therefore, that people should care.

There is definitely an element of truth to this. The only question is magnitude - how much does this actually explain? In the case of Americans, it's hard to say for sure.

So let's try a related question - why do foreigners spend so much time talking about the US election?

Being back in the old country, conversation over here turns to the subject of Trump with about the same regularity as it did in America. Which is to say, frequently. I have heard far more conversations about Trump than about Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Prime Minister.

It's hard to argue that the consequences for Australia of the election are particularly far-reaching. Defense links will continue. Trade links will continue. It is certainly hard to argue that the consequences are farther reaching, in the short term, than the actions of Australia's own government.

This is the placebo test. If you take out the factor you think  is really important and get pretty much the same result, it suggests that the factor wasn't as important as you thought  it was.

So why do Australians care about American elections? Well, for the same reason that Australians listen to American music more than Australian music (see here if you don't believe me). Because it's mostly just entertainment, and the US is the cultural hegemon.

In other words, a substantial amount of the interest in politics seems to fill the role of gossip. Nobody knows their neighbours much any more, so we need to find some common ground of people to share titillating stories about what someone-or-other said the other day.

And for this purpose, anyone will do the trick. More importantly, co-ordinating on the same set of gossip topics is useful for facilitating conversation with strangers from lots of places. It's the reason why local politics made way for state politics, and state politics mostly made way for federal politics. Partly this is because of the shift in power, but partly it's just a usefully agreed-on topic to talk about.

And in the case of foreigners, it also fills another useful aspect of gossip - feeling superior to the subject being discussed. Gossip is the revenge of the powerless against the powerful, taking vicarious pleasure in their misfortunes and mishaps. Is it thus surprising that countries which are smaller and subordinate enjoy mocking the leaders of Leviathan, especially those of a conservative bent?

I think that this is one of the aspects of democratic systems that  helps explain why it's been useful to keep the form of democracy even as substantive power gets transferred to the judiciary and the bureaucracy. The Romans knew that you needed bread and circuses to keep the people occupied and in check.

Trump may or may not be a circus you enjoy per se, but that never really mattered, as long as he kept you engaged. Like all gossip, only the unusually honest will admit that they like it as gossip. Mostly it has to get dressed up in more important excuses to not feel tawdry.

The fate of the country depends on it, after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment