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Archie Bland: We love a political thriller – if it doesn't need subtitles
It's an election that ought to be a blockbuster. It stars an ailing incumbent with a beautiful wife, swept into office by a wave of popular enthusiasm but now brought low by economic crisis despite his foreign policy victories.
Even though his weakness presents a vast political opportunity, circumstance and skulduggery have forced the opposition to lurch between preferred candidates, none of them quite ticking all the boxes in a way that would bring them decisively to power. And so, as the race really begins in earnest, it's simply too close to call.
The vote in question, of course, will take place not in the US but in France. And it will, indeed, be fascinating. What happens across the English Channel will, also almost certainly, make more of a difference to the fate of our own nation in the turbulent years ahead than what happens across the Atlantic. But we British don't really care that much about thrillers that need subtitles. Sarkozy or Hollande: who really cares? Obama or Romney, on the other hand: that's a race we can sink our teeth into.
It seems like everyone's an expert on US politics. I have friends who can barely name our Chancellor who have somehow developed a detailed posture on gerrymandering in the Illinois 4th congressional district. Twitter, likewise, will be overrun today by British armchair experts offering their take on the result of last night's Iowa caucus.
We treat the quadrennial presidential polls like the World Cup and the Olympics, picking a side and cheering it on mostly for the fun of it. The official reason is that the leader of the free world matters in a way no other politician really can outside their domestic political landscape, and it's a perfectly plausible argument, as far as it goes. But we all know that this isn't the whole story.
Anglo-Saxon and English-speaking biases aside, US politics has a whiff of Hollywood that simply cannot be matched elsewhere; for the majority of soft-centred British social liberals, the Bush era provided a satisfying narrative of good against evil that still pertains today. The red-meat debates in American politics, about issues long expired here, give us plenty to get outraged about when the managerialism of our own discourse gets a little dull.
Will this election retain its hold on our imagination to the end? With the lustre gone from Obama's halo, and the relatively moderate Romney likely to take the Republican nomination, you'd think we might be ready to refocus closer to home. In fact, of course, our interest will be as intense as ever. We won't pay attention to the policies once the presidency is decided, of course.
But in the meantime, once England get knocked out of the European football championship, there is only one contact sport that we'll be watching.
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