US voting day: The TV event of the year

The campaigning is over, the pollsters have hung up their clipboards – and now it's time for the voters of America to have their say. Michael Bywater takes his seat.

Roll up! Roll up! Take your seats for the spectacle of the century! There'll be clowns, there'll be cheerleaders, there'll be dancing in the streets! Balloons, flags, fireworks, shouting, weeping, father set against son, brother against sister! Families divided! Duelling banjos in the badlands! This is the one to make Celebrity Big Brother look like just another TV show! Forget Nothing But the Truth, forget American Idol. This is the one. This is the night when the world's greatest power puts on the world's greatest show of participatory democracy and turns it into the world's greatest reality-TV spectacular.

And everything you need for America's Big Night is right here in these pages. All you need to do is follow my example and set up the spreadsheet to feed in those exit polls, lay in the supplies of Coke and Jack Daniel's, fill the built-in La-Z-Boy cooler with cans of Duff – oh yeah! – Beer (you did order a La-Z-Boy chair, black leather, built-in fridge and massager, didn't you? It is being delivered this afternoon, isn't it?), the hot dogs and chilli relish and corn relish and tomato relish and the nacho chips? And don't forget to set up the necessary multiple time zones on your iPhone – Pacific, Mountain, Central, Eastern – because you'll need them, or else how are you going to work out that the earliest they can call the election will be 9.01pm, but 9.01pm where? I'll help you out: it's Eastern, so, y'know, they could be calling the election at just gone six in the evening in California and what are you going to do then? Suppose you think, "They can't call it until nine" and you go out for a pizza or even, jeez, a goddamn whizz, but you're thinking Los Angeles and the reality is North Haverhill, NH... where does that leave you? It leaves you missing it, that's where. Rewind doesn't count. Sky+ doesn't count. Your TiVo won't help you tonight.

It's got to be LIVE.

Because this isn't just politics. This is television. This is real reality TV... and it's got to be live, or you're out of it. Game over, man. Don't bother coming round no more, because you're toast.

Today, we are all viewers, and if we are not viewers we are idiots. I don't mean Russell Brand-type idiots, but Periclean idiots, the Greek idiotes, the, literally, selfish. In his eulogy of 431BC for the first fallen of the Peloponnesian war, Pericles remarked that those idiotes were not unambitious but "useless".

Almost 2,500 years later, the internet and television have brought us almost full circle. We can't return to the participatory democracy of Athens, because there are just too many of us. But the shortcomings of representative democracy, and certainly of our own primitive first-past-the-post voting system, become increasingly clear. We, here, have an unelected head of state in all but title. They, there, have George W Bush.

But does watching the American elections on television change anything at all? Aren't we still idiots, gazing at the screen, not only failing to do anything but having no right to do anything anyway? Pop the can of Duff – Duffman! Oh yeah! – and slather up another chilli dog while the media circus rolls on, sit there with our mouths chumbling away, occasionally stirring to flip the remote or scratch some part of us best not considered... is this any way to participate in democracy?

I think it is, and I think so from two starting points. The first is that today's television, running far into the night, will, as always, be blather. There'll be a lot of verbal blather – set-piece speeches, ruminant psephologists, opinionistas making bricks without straw and "now back to the studio" – and a lot of non-verbal blather: the balloons and pompoms and fireworks and good ol' boys filmed looking glum or jubilant according to how things are going.

But politics is blather. Blather is a form of discourse and it's no more meaningless than a Periclean oration; it's just that when Thucydides wanted to record Pericles's speech, the words were all he could get down. In 1837, when Dickens came to make up the elections at Eatanswill, he was less constrained in his satire and more adept at the telling visual detail: "'You have come down here to see an election, eh? Spirited contest, my dear sir, very much so indeed. We have opened all the public-houses in the place. It has left our opponent nothing but the beer-shops – masterly policy, my dear sir, eh?' The little man smiled complacently, and took a large pinch of snuff."

The complacent smile, the pinch of snuff... these are as much details of the discourse as the words spoken; in a post-literate age (not an illiterate one, just one where written words have been dethroned), the visual details are all the more important, and the rhetoric of balloons and stumbles and wardrobe advisers is no more or less legitimate than the carefully constructed rhetoric of prosopopeia and erotema, of schemes and tropes, adopted by our forebears.

To watch the ballyhoo on television is to be no less engaged than our ancestors listening attentively to a formal speech in the Roman forum. And it's blather, ballyhoo and discourse that get things done in politics. The modern world is made of words – and of balloons and pompoms and gaffes – to a degree our ancestors would have found astonishing. Sometimes the words are false and empty and the economy collapses; but that very same economy, certainly in the UK, has done very nicely until recently on words alone. We make words. We buy and sell words. My only real economic insight came when asking a Chicago pork-belly futures trader to explain it all, and he said: "The thing you have to understand is that it's not about pork bellies. There are no pork bellies. We make money by talking about pork bellies." ... And there you have it.

But that's not to say that talking about pork bellies is empty language. It might be that language – visual or verbal – is more powerful than we think. The 17,000 Athenians of the fifth century BC packed into their state-funded seats to watch the Oresteia of Aeschylus weren't just watching a dramatic trilogy (punctuated by a meat tea, and followed by a coarse satyr play and, if their luck held, a crafty leg-over); they were taking part in a vast debate about the nature of man, of our place in civilisation and nature, of fate and gods versus reasoned argument – of, in short, how we should live.

Tonight, we'll be doing the same. And with the same components. Just as I spend some of my time teaching tragedy to undergraduates who have done me no harm, so I spend another part of it thinking about how stories work for a production company in the reality-television business – "innovative populism", as we like to think of it. And, just like Greek tragedy, reality TV plays with hubris and hamartia, with faulty self-images and mistakes that prove catastrophic, with retribution and the turning of the tide and the terrible moment when the protagonists know the jig's up.

There's no more real reality TV than the election today of the world's most powerful man. And it is a televisual reality: how does this man sound? How does this woman look? How enthused are others, so that we can know how enthused to be ourselves? It's exciting that Obama is – literally, in his case – an African-American, but would he be where he is if he looked like Busta Rhymes or Dr Dre? And given that all three of them are unquestionably rather handsome black men, why? How much of Tina Fey's demanding to "phone a friend" was rewritten back on to Palin? How much of the pitbull with lipstick is reinscribed on to McCain? Why has nobody taken exception to Biden's gaffes ("God love you, what am I talking about?")?

These are all questions raised, not by an old-fashioned election among political gentleman of the rhetor class, trading persuasive speech in mahoganied clubrooms, but, rather, by the preoccupations of the TV show. We may try to persuade ourselves that this trivialises important matters. But we'd be wrong. Politics has become a multimedia business, but the more it (as the blowhards would have it) panders to the popular taste, the more it finds itself having to deal with things at the very heart of our experience and our hopes.

The oddest thing about this election is that what we might think is the important story element – the final annihilation of George W Bush – is a foregone conclusion. We are watching it – we will all be watching it – not to see a pathetic and uncomprehending man brought low (no tragedy there), but to see the outcome of a story about redemption, about transformation, about hope and change and fear and optimism. Which will triumph? How will it turn out? If I could think of a reality-TV story half as good, I'd not be writing this. I'd be on my private island, feet up in my La-Z-Boy, listening to the Duff – oh yeah! – chilling and waiting for the polls to open.

Make it through the night: How to stay awake

Stock up on sleep

If you didn't get plenty of sleep last night, dive under your desk for a power nap to ensure you're well rested before the action kicks off. Or hit the sofa after dinner – but set an alarm, because going beyond the 20-minute mark will put you into slumber mode all night.

Go easy on the caffeine

You don't want to be dribbling on your cushions, but neither do you want to be buzzing around like a wind-up toy, so consume caffeine in moderation. It will give you the high you're looking for, but an ill-timed "caffeine crash" could mean missing the big news.

Supermarket sweep

It's tempting to stock up on Haribo and popcorn to keep yourself awake, but a square meal will keep you ticking over longer. Approach it like an endurance runner – with bananas and plenty of water. A few glasses of wine will spice up the boring bits, but go easy; plonk will increase your fatigue.

Beat the boredom

Get some friends round and keep each other awake with searing insights into the foreign policy credentials of Sarah Palin (or her outfit). Slump solo in front of the TV and there's a chance you'll drift off just as a swing-state result comes in.

Keep moving

Whether you live in a palatial manor or a shoebox flat, don't sit on the sofa all night. Dancing will do the trick, or a bit of gentle yoga. Or, by way of adieu to Dubya, try a few rounds of golf on the Nintendo Wii. But save some energy for yelping and cheering when your candidate wins – or commiserations and sobbing if they don't.

Rosie Mcarthur