All right, Americans. Now that the 2016 presidential campaign is seriously beginning, with Hillary Clinton announcing her candidacy to "be America's champion" for the Democratic nomination, it's time to tell you what your election process really looks like to the outside world. Two words: utterly bonkers.
To foreigners looking in, the road to the White House is bizarre, emotional, humiliating, and completely overwhelming. And let's not forget weird: where else in the world could a candidate casually announce her intention to run the country via social media, with a video that doesn't even feature her face until over halfway through? Can you imagine Putin popping up on Facebook to post "4 More Years #LOL"? (Although he does have a surprisingly boring Twitter.)
American politics in general has its own mystifying, dysfunctional charm at the best of times — who else has one government shut-down and seems to be avoiding another by the skin of its teeth? But elections bring out something special in you. And by special, I mean BATSH*T CRAZY.
The Sarah Palins! The soap-box coyote yowling! The down-and-dirty, knees-and-teeth fight to the finish! But while it might seem completely normal to you American voters (even the bit where you have to be threatened by P. Diddy to actually visit a polling place), the rest of the world thinks your process of picking your next leader is fascinating. And hilarious. Please keep doing what you're doing. I have the popcorn ready.
1. Random, middle-of-nowhere states suddenly become weirdly important.
I'm sure Iowa is lovely. It looks agricultural and quiet and full of down-home Americans who probably bake apple pie on Sundays. Which makes its sudden and bizarre importance at the start of election campaigns look completely inexplicable to the rest of the world. Suddenly our international news section is filled with Local Store Owner In Des Moines Has Thoughts On Immigration, Likes Cherries. I mean, what?!
We all get the principle behind caucuses. You're testing what works with the "real America." We get it. But considering that the bits of America that get the most international traction are New York, California and Twin Peaks, it all seems a bit like a Christopher Guest mockumentary.
2. Just securing your candidacy is basically The Hunger Games.
You do realize that your electioral campaigns, from start to finish, last two years, right? From the outside world's perspective, that means that everything America talks about for 24 months is about who's going to lead it next. Not who's leading it now, not whether parts of it have suddenly fallen into the sea. You take occasional breaks to discuss Kim Kardashian's butt and then get back to polling numbers.
In other countries, candidates are selected by their party. I'm not saying this is a better or worse system, but your way does make your presidential race look like the Hunger Games: just battling for the nomination looks insane, let alone actually winning. Has a candidate ever won the presidential nomination and gone "Well, that's about as far as I can go, I'm out"? Because I would absolutely understand.
3. Any race quickly becomes a battle over personalities.
The way you talk about your candidates is kind of amazing. Once the field has been narrowed to two (by this point probably very long-suffering) candidates, it becomes all about their personalities: what they like, if they'd be cool or aggressive, whether they're a "bitch" (thank you, Tina Fey, for making that a good thing), if they do their grocery shopping online, if they had a nanny or a divorce or an experience with drugs once.
And let's not even talk about whether they believe in God or not. (That bit, to a person from a secular country, is completely bizarre.) To the outside world, this whole emphasis on personality looks puzzling — but that's what you guys like. Somebody who thinks and talks like you, only with much more political clout.
4. Everything about your media.
Know why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were so beloved outside of America as well as inside? They made calm, on-point sense of your ridiculous media cycle. And that goes triple during election season, when hysteria seems to grip everybody, from the normal partisan pitchfork-shakers (hi, Fox News) to more supposedly neutral venues like CNN.
I'm seriously not looking forward to your next election cycle without them: without any kind of guiding light through the two years of madness, it's just going to be a bunch of "experts" and YouGov polls shrieking and throwing things at one another.
5. Candidates have do highly undignified things.
Look, I know this isn't an American thing: all over the world, politicians trying to get elected will do all manner of ridiculous stuff on their kissing-babies tours to convince people that they're likeable. It's just that in America those things look really bloody weird.
You guys have made your politicians castrate hogs, wander around hardware stores asking about mosquito control, visit a 1,259-pound pig called Freight Train, and go on gigantic bar crawls across America. Does Freight Train vote? What is the point of all this?
6. Nothing is off limits.
The muck-raking on candidates in the U.S. is a fine art. In other countries, we're still catching up. In fact, the term muck-raker was popularized in 1906 by an American President himself — Theodore Roosevelt, who thought it was a great thing for exposing corruption and bringing about reform, but shouldn't be allowed to take over the press. Don't think you guys got that memo.
Digging up dirt on candidates seems to be half the point of an American election. Even making it up seems to be legit (birth certificate truthers, anybody?) There are entire websites devoted to revealing Mitt Romney's mistreatment of his dog, Dennis Kunicich's encounter with a UFO and other character-driven titbits. It's kind of dizzying: I know more about these people than I do about my mother.
7. The sincerity ... combined with name-calling.
The sheer emotive power of Obama's original Hope campaign in 2008 was felt like a tsunami, even outside America. U.S. politics is never dry. You invest your hearts in the candidates, in an open, even violent way that can get a bit unseemly for people like the Brits, who express political anger with a sarcastic remark in the House of Lords.
That emotiveness gets you into trouble, too. Can anybody forget how the normally level-headed academic Samantha Power, completely swept up in the Obama campaign in 2008, called Hillary Clinton a "monster"? Obama and Mitt Romney basically calling each other rude names in 2012? It gets down and dirty over there.
8. Your scandals are huge and hilarious.
Do you know what the biggest election scandal in the UK last week was? A candidate is being investigated for giving out free sausage rolls. Nobody does scandal like the Americans; nobody even tries. I mean, George W. Bush stealing an election out from under Al Gore's nose? Dick Cheney accidentally shooting an aide? Come on.
Even on the regional level your scandals seem lurid. What other country in the world would have a Congressman brought down by sexting with the satire-perfect name Anthony Weiner? Anywhere else, it would be too ridiculous to be true. In America, it's Tuesday.
9. You like your candidates mighty sassy.
We're sorry, America, but the rest of the world is never going to forget Sarah Palin. Or understand her, for that matter. But in the context of American politics, the choice of the inexperienced Alaskan with the peculiar winks kind of made sense, didn't it? It appealed to the voters who distrusted anything that sounded like compromise to the left, and hey, she definitely had personality.
Charisma seems to be absolutely crucial for you guys. It's not just about solid policy or competent governing. While in Britain people have elected a Prime Minister who's habitually drawn in the newspapers as a fish in a condom — so little personal spark does he possess — you guys need pizzazz, an element of flash, a president sassy enough to give an off-the-cuff retort in his State Of The Union address.
And — guess what — he winked too! What is it with you lot and your winks? Somebody better tell Hillary to bring her sass-game; she's going to need it.