It’s campaign season in the United States and US President Barack Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney are edging closer to election day. Many Jamaicans are following the campaign and enjoying the spectacle. While we do so, there are some things we can take from the Americans.
1. “Democracy doesn’t have to be a blood sport.” – This was said by former US President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. Well, the truth is that US politics is often vicious, and campaigns can leave blood in the water. Given how close this election could be, it will be interesting to see if the Obama campaign can stick to the high ideal expressed by Clinton. The thing is though, he was speaking figuratively. Too often for us in Jamaica, those words could be taken literally. Yes, we’ve come a far way in curbing political violence, but we’re not there yet.
2. Lay it all out there. The candidates are subjected to a thorough vetting process. Between debates, media interviews, town hall meetings, it’s hard for candidates to dodge the issues and the tough questions. Too often our politicians manage to do just that. Between releasing manifestos on the very eve of the election, and restricting media interviews, too many politicians are able to slide into office without us having any clear idea of their positions on major issues, or without having those positions subjected to rigorous analysis and scrutiny.
3. Debates are good. The US Presidential candidates debate extensively at the primary stage and there are debates between the presidential nominees and even a vice-presidential debate. In fact, some people were complaining that the Republicans debated too much! Part of that of course, is
due to their wanting to make an impact in the different states. We don’t have that issue, and we are a whole lot smaller. Still, we could do more. It’s good that we do have political debates, but it would be nice to see us step it up. Three leadership debates, for example, would be a good start, with different formats for each. Also, the public should be able to see the candidates for party leadership debate. The argument that party leadership elections are an internal matter is clearly nonsense, as the parties then use the parliamentary structure to catapult the new leader into the position of Prime Minister, as we saw with both the PNP’s Portia Simpson-Miller and the JLP’s Andrew Holness.
4. Country first. Whatever problems you may have with the Americans (and the list is probably endless) one does get a deep sense of commitment to country from their candidates. Love of country and patriotism is one of the things the Americans do best. Too often, from our politicians, I get a clear sense of party first.
5. Campaign reform is hard. Big money has always wielded a heavy influence in politics, and the US’s efforts to limit that influence have had very mixed results. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try. But we should study their history closely. At the very least, we may be able to get an understanding of what doesn’t work.