If we don't learn from the US, it'll end in tears

RUSSELL HARDING
Last updated 09:00 19/11/2012

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Russell Harding

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Last week a black man in a blue suit made me cry. With nothing but spoken words, Barack Obama forced wet tears to well up out of my eyes and roll down dry, cynical cheeks.

Millions around the globe watched the American president give a superb re-election speech. Thankfully no cameras were rolling in my living room. While it was 2am in Chicago, it was 7.30pm on my couch. I will remember.

Obama's speech was incisive and inclusive. It was succinct. He touched on big problems that are crippling not only America, but crippling the world and democracy in general. But he made these problems feel small. By the time he was finished, anything seemed possible.

It was a speech where Obama not only told you he was listening; he made you feel like he was listening. At last. He has heard us. He's heard the frustrations.

It felt real. It was inspiring. He told us not to be cynical. I let the tears fall.

By the time Obama left the stage, I was on my feet and busy rifling through cupboards looking for an American flag to wave. Americans should feel proud. Heck folks, I did.

"While each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we will rise and fall together as one nation."

As Jon Stewart of the Daily Show said, Obama was "not just re-elected but seemingly . . . given fresh batteries". Where had that guy been during the election?

Meanwhile, back in New Zealand, the words of our own prime minister echo around our proud nation. Bats...? Pigs...? Or perhaps bulls...? An observational study on the intelligence of David Beckham raced around the world's media and entered into our parliamentary debating chamber.

Throw in a "you're munted, mate, you're never gonna make it, you've got that gay red top on there," and John Key's words are causing their own tears.

As "Arch of Mt Wellington" said after an opinion piece on John Key's recent utterances: "Memo to PM: Don't bother goofing off for my sake. I don't need a mate, a buddy or a chum. I need a CEO. I'll bet there's a stack of work on your desk, in your office. And none of it has anything to do with soccer players."

Although now there probably is a PR file on his crowded desk - "Goldenballs, Gays and other Gaffes - A Strategy Forward". At least employment is being created for someone. I'm not sure how gainful it is.

Needing inspiration, I turned to Obama again. I re-listened to his victory speech and others he has given over the last four years. The man has a way.

Unfortunately, a fresh layer of cynicism descended. Many of the most inspirational lines from last week's speech were used in some form by Obama back in 2008. Including the line about not listening to the cynics.

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There was new steel in his voice and rhetoric, but much of the meaning of the words is the same. The problems he indentifies then, remain today. My tears may be in vain.

In New Zealand we should be interested in American politics. Sooner or later their political trends find a way to our shores. If you can't lead, at least learn when you follow.

The cost to stand for election should seriously scare us. With literally billions of dollars spent by both sides in the presidential race, democracy may soon fold to the highest bidder, if it hasn't already.

Expect to see an increasing use of polls. The success of "drilling into data" in the American election will no doubt see an increased level of sophistication in New Zealand's next elections. Heaven help us. Ads and surveys will make watching the television or answering the telephone during campaigns even more fraught with danger than it is today.

The Left/Right political divide continues to get more fractious and silly. Despite "debt ceilings" above them and "fiscal cliffs" in front, Democrats and Republicans still appear unable to work together. At least MMP has inbuilt inertia circuit-breakers.

Tea Party logic is also bound to reach our shores. Sarah Palin is now saying policy questions by journalists are nothing more than "gotcha" attacks. Watch the debate descend to new depths of banality if that line gets traction. But hey, we've long known "explaining is losing", right?

And despite all the money spent, all the pleading that every vote counted, voter turnout is still terrible - 126 million Americans may have voted, but 93 million declined. Apparently Hawaii had the lowest turnout with only 43 per cent of eligible voters bothering.

How about paying each person who votes $20?

Which reminds me - isn't there something about a Labour leader giving a speech this weekend? I'll have my hanky in hand just in case, but I doubt David Shearer's speech will go live across the country. In any case, I may be all cried out.

- Nelson

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