As an American who lives in London, I'm often asked what I miss the most about the US. My response always comes quickly and simply: US sports on television. Yes, there is widespread coverage of American sports in the UK and there are ways to watch just about any game you'd like but you have to plan around it. The Super Bowl is on in London, and if you're willing to stay awake until 3:00 AM on a Monday you can watch it, but gone is the ability to sit down and flip easily between 10 different American sporting events on a casual weekend.
However, as the 2012 election season grips all corners of the US in a fascinating carnival of strategy, pageantry, and partisanship; I realise I miss something else. Just as viewing sports is not the same in London, neither is the US political race. We can see it, but we have to watch it at 3:00 AM. Not literally of course, but that's a bit what it feels like. All the ingredients are there: the sound bites, the gaffes, the coverage of the debates. There is coverage, to be sure. The internet gives access to Fox News clips, the New York Times, and John Stewart's latest jokes on the Daily Show. Following several journalists and politicians on Twitter gives breaking announcements as they happen. But it is not a terribly convenient thing to follow in-depth. It's much like trying to watch at 3:00 AM: there are other things you'd rather be doing and you get tired more quickly.
The US political race, particularly for President, is the greatest show on earth. It has a magical combination of open politics and sheer entertainment. It is a sometimes flawed model, it is often ridiculous, but it is unbridled democracy coupled with pure media freedom coupled with that quirkiness of US popular culture. It serves as a microcosm of what makes America American, virtues and warts. There is nothing else quite like it.
I am a bit of a political junkie. Before I moved to London I lived in Washington, DC for the previous 12 years. In Washington, politics was a daily fact of life, both professional and personal. Debating with friends and colleagues, listening to political news, and the latest on The Colbert Report were tough to avoid, even if you wanted to.
So how has this political junkie fared in London? I am much less absorbed in all politics, including US. In writing this post, I could not even name the candidate who had said he did not care about unemployment rates without Googling it. London is different. It has, of course its own politics and those of the EU, which have a much more direct impact on everyday life. That makes US politics a diversion. It makes news, and people follow it, but there are other things going on. While the US Presidential election may be the best show on earth, questions to the Prime Minister is decidedly must see television.
US politics becomes background noise, covered in daily updates and focusing primarily on the sound bytes and squabbles seen and played over and over again in the US. Rick Perry wants to cut three federal agencies but cannot remember which ones. President Obama's campaign makes it sound easy to be a stay-at-home Mom. Mitt Romney is an etch-a-sketch. Seeking out even these sound bytes becomes more difficult to fit into the daily routine, let alone following the true substance.
What happens when you reduce American politics to the daily updates? You lose something. It looks more foolish. It seems more vindictive. Watching a three-ring circus without a ringmaster is a very different experience, and if you missed half of the show getting popcorn, it would be a very bizarre spectacle indeed. The policy platforms, often obscured even inside of the US, disappear almost completely. They are all spelled out online, but that is a lot like getting up at 3:00 AM to watch for most of us. Gone are the strategies, gamesmanship, and substance.
There is no solution to this, and there does not need to be. There are many flaws in US politics, but this is not one of them. Nor is it a lack of curiosity and interest on the part of Brits. It is just the way things are. But the next time my friends from the UK mock American politics, or fail to understand the intricacies of Mitt Romney's jobs strategy, I will ask myself when was the last time I stayed up until 3:00 AM to watch the Rugby World Cup?