Waking up to the real differences between Britain and America

Their politics is grander than ours, but also far more prone to fantasy and extremism
  • @Simon_Kelner

I went to bed believing that politics was a bitterly fought struggle of ideas that was often corrosively divisive and woke up to hear that it was a healing force, something that could bring a nation together, a means by which those of opposing views could work together for the common good.

Americans may, in the main, look like us and talk like us, but there's nothing like a presidential election to remind us that our two countries are very different.

Leave aside the complexities – and occasional failures – of their democratic system. Or the fact that some voters go to the polls in deep snow and others in tropical sunshine. Or the way that extremist opinions can make it into the mainstream. What makes American politics distinct from ours is the grandiloquent language, the sweep of the oratory and the belief that, when all else fails, you can rely on... belief.

"We are not as divided as our politics suggests," Barack Obama said in his moment of triumph, a rather odd claim given that the previous months of campaigning had seen him and Mitt Romney pointing up the differences between the Democrat and the Republican view of the world. And in defeat, Romney was gracious to the victor and his family, and offered to pray for Obama to be "successful in guiding our nation". He added: "At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering."

This noble sentiment was echoed by Obama. "We are not as cynical as the pundits believe," he said. Really? And here's me thinking that politics in America is a dirty business, where high ideals meet low cunning. Of course, this consensus – forged in the bright glow of victory and in the relief that the battle is over – won't last for long, but judging by the ovation given both men when they talked of unity, it's what Americans want to hear now.

Whether they like it or not, they also hear a lot about God. As Alastair Campbell said about British politics, "we don't do God". America has no such restraint. Romney's concession speech was laden with faith-based epithets, including a call for guidance from "our pastors and priests and rabbis and counsellors of all kinds" (no mention of Imams), while Obama concluded his address by saying that with "God's grace we will continue or journey forward". The reliance on the language of the pulpit merely highlights the difficulty for politicians in finding a common thread with which to address all America. If you're trying to find policies that appeal to, say, the equivalent of Guatemala City and Hampstead Garden Suburb, it is advisable to place yourself and your constituency within the framework of a power that's bigger than government.

Neither would you hear British politicians proclaiming with such certainty that "we live in the greatest nation on earth". But in the land where showbusiness was invented, there isn't much of a dividend for modesty and understatement. America, eh? It's like another country.