Trying to Explain American Politics to French People

Once every twenty years (now that France has the quinquennat), the French and American presidential elections coincide. There is no better opportunity to compare (and make fun of) the different systems and styles of campaigning, especially for the American students studying at Sciences Po this semester, and the 2A French students who will be spending 3A in the States. Congrats! You get to experience the crazy twice!

In all seriousness, being abroad has given me a completely new perspective on the American political system. The distance has allowed me to take a step back and say, “Wow, no wonder people think Americans are insane.” Actually, I’ve never heard anyone say that, but I’m sure they must think it. Especially given the current state of things. While I can’t say that I’ve had an extremely high number of conversations with fellow Sciences Pistes or other French people about American politics, what interactions I have had regarding this subject have probably left me more confused than the person I was talking to about why we do things the way we do, and what we talk about in the public sphere. Before launching into my (hopefully!) amusing recount of my attempts to explain the political life in the US of A, I need to give just this one disclaimer: politics is politics, and politics is partisan. I have no agenda in writing this, but I do have opinions, which have informed how I’ve talked about politics while being here. So, if partisanship slips out, sorry.

« The Republican party’s primary is still going on? There still isn’t a nominee? »

73420970.jpgYes, there still isn’t a nominee. I can offer two explanations.
1) Americans are still fighting the battle over federalism. What does that mean? That means that we still can’t decide whether we want states to have most of the governing power, or if we want the federal government to have it. Having multiple elections over multiple months allows each state its time to shine. And the longer the primary lasts, the more important the later elections are, which means we avoid the frontloading we usually get with Iowa and New Hampshire.
2) Mitt Romney isn’t inspiring, so we keep looking for alternatives. Romney is not well liked by the RNC leadership, and he doesn’t have a whole bunch of charisma. The party activists will rally around whomever winds up winning, but those tricky undecided voters… It’s hard to build a campaign against “Mr. Hope-and-Change” if the head of your ticket is about as interesting as plywood.

« Your TV news is really partisan »

Darn tootin’ it is. Why? Mostly because it sells. Sensationalism, celebrity, and drama make up the life’s blood of the current state of American media. Politics with a side of antagonism is more interesting than plain news. Additionally, if you lean in a certain political direction, you are more likely to watch the news that confirms your views. It doesn’t help with we have channels that need to fill all 24-hours. And you also have to recognize that both sides of the spectrum contribute to this opinion-news-frenzy. Pit Keith Olbermann against Bill O’Reilly and you’ll see what I mean. But in explaining this phenomenon in a culture with news debate shows that are more about discussing ideas that proving the other person wrong, you see where you’d find that disconnect.

 » That religion and politics thing. »

Enough said. “In God we trust” versus “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Trying to explain the role of religion in American politics in the Land of Laïcité obviously poses some challenges. What can I say, we’re confused? No, I actually think it’s gotten to be a more important issue since the rise of the Christian Right in 1980s.
I understand that politics (more so voting) is about expressing personal interests and values. obama-church.jpgBut, it’s the dominance of one religious interpretation over all others that I think is confusing, especially since Americans always tout the Bill of Rights (we also tend to forget that France wrote La Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen before we adopted the Bill of Rights). The First Amendment doesn’t only ensure freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, but also the separation of Church and State. Somehow they don’t seem to be all that separate in the political discourse. A professor from last semester threw up his hands and laughed describing President Obama reading an excerpt from the Bible at the 9/11 ten-year anniversary memorial. “Je ne pouvais pas le croire,” he said. I just shrugged, because I wasn’t entirely sure what to say, and I don’t think the other Americans in the class knew what to say either. It’s hard to explain because the American public has mostly accepted a moderate form of politics sprinkled with religion. I’ve heard a lot of people just dismiss it saying, “It’s weird” “it’s because of McCarthyism” “it doesn’t make sense.” Imagine trying to explain something that doesn’t make sense to people who don’t understand the situation in the first place. More blank stares and one-shoulder shrugs than I’ve ever gotten in my life.

“So you’re debating over contraception?”

Sandra_Fluke2.jpgYes, France. We’re debating over contraception. You might have had the pill covered by sécurité sociale since 1974, but it’s still an important debate for a country facing major domestic and international political questions. My host mom saved an article for me from Direct Matin one morning, and handed it to me saying, “C’est rigolo.” I skimmed the article and I realized it wasn’t all that rigolo. It was a very short feature about the Rush Limbaugh / Sandra Fluke incident. I’m glad she got a good laugh from it, but I’m not sure she’d be laughing if she weren’t French, or didn’t have to worry about discourse of that nature coming to her country. It wasn’t even the topic of debate that I found lacking in humor, it was the language used.

My conclusion is ultimately that to understand American politics, you must do as Americans do. Laugh and shake your head. Accept that it’s not all that logical. Actually, “understanding” is just knowing what’s going on and how you feel about it. I’d also suggest forgetting your own paradigm. American religion / politics will never make sense if you try and make it work through the lens of laïcité. Just like a welfare state that doesn’t only provide assurance against social risks for those who need it most, could present problems for a country that wants everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? It just doesn’t work. I feel almost as if we view our political system and political actors as a teacher views a particularly unruly child. He or she might do hilarious or shocking things that make us laugh. But then the kid will say or do something so alarming that you become quite concerned for the next generation.