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Gary Younge
Obsessed by personalities, they've forgotten what democracy is for

Watching the contenders for the Democratic party nomination at the Washington Hilton this weekend during the party's winter meeting was to see Bruni's formula applied with precision (though he might have added: "Have millionaire backers, be tall, married and able-bodied" - it is unlikely the wheelchair user FDR would have been elected in the era of mass television).

The candidates were each allowed seven minutes, 30 seconds of theme music, and 100 poster-waving fans, to lay out their stall for the new American century. Each one spoke of how the nation's historic mission as a beacon of liberty, justice and opportunity throughout the globe, had been traduced by the Bush administration. There was nothing bad enough you could say about the Iraq war, the budget deficit or the state of healthcare. There was also nothing concrete that most of the candidates would say about what they would do to fix them. With little of substance on offer, delivery was everything. Barack Obama, who delivered beautifully, called for an end to cynicism in American politics. That's a lot of work for just seven minutes.

Americans, such demanding consumers in every other aspect of their lives, curiously expect little from their political leaders. They hold the principle of democracy dear; but the purpose of democracy remains elusive. The notion that "the people shall govern" is the cornerstone of American political identity - even if the nonchalance with which they watched Bush steal the 2000 election revealed a disturbing reluctance to defend it. Yet the idea that elections should be the mechanism for effecting real change barely seems to register - which is why it was relatively easy for Bush to get away with robbery.

The weekend before November's midterms, for example, I walked up the Las Vegas Strip asking people if they thought the coming elections mattered. Roughly one in five either did not know the elections were taking place or had no intention of voting. Yet precisely 100% said they thought the elections mattered. This dislocation is not particular to the US. For all its inadequacies, America's political culture has proved far more responsive to opposition to the war or corruption than Britain's. But both the popular attachment to democratic ideals and the general ambivalence to democratic outcomes are more intense, making the discrepancy more pronounced.

Everybody knows that, if counted (a significant if), their vote will make a difference to who is actually elected. But few expect that whoever they elect will really make any difference to the issues they care about. And so voting takes on a ritualistic quality. Like Independence Day or Thanksgiving, it marks a date on the calendar not for changing America's politics, but for celebrating its promise.

Whether one participates or not seems less important than the fact of the event itself. The consensus view of November's elections is that voters turned their back on the war and the Bush agenda and opted instead for a new course in favour of bipartisanship and troop withdrawal. But the truth is that most of them turned their back on the elections. The fact that, at only 42%, this was the highest midterm turnout for 36 years is merely an indication of how entrenched this condition has become. The so-called Gingrich revolution of 1994 was won with just 38.8% of the vote. In the words of Gil Scott-Heron: "The first thing I want to say is: mandate, my ass."

The point here is not that there is no difference between the two main parties but that the difference is insufficient to make a significant impact on the lives of large numbers of Americans. The problem is not that people don't want or need change - the poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote - but that they have long since given up on the idea that voting is the way to get it.

The future of the country was supposed to hinge on the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. But somehow the issues of poverty, racism and infrastructural decay that were evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina nine months later just never came up. By the time the midterms arrived, little over a year later, Katrina had somehow become irrelevant again.

It's not difficult to see why. Elections are big business. Last year the parties spent $2bn on ads alone. Throw in the fees for thousands of lobbyists, consultants and fundraisers and the electoral-industrial complex starts to develop a momentum of its own. Hillary Clinton, who faced only token opposition in a Senate race she won by 30 points, still lavished $27,000 on valet parking and $13,000 on flowers. The people who provide this money have healthcare, housing and decent schools for their kids. They pay the pipers and name the tune.

The mainstream media dances dutifully. Reporters somehow never encounter non-voters, instead constructing a country hotly debating the issues and weighing up the candidates. Obsessed by polls and personalities, they have a surreal fixation about who is up and who is down, with little indication of why we should care. They have barely digested the results of one election before they move on to devour the next. The morning after the midterms, with the fate of the Senate in the balance, CNN already had a banner along the bottom of its screen that read "America votes 2008". New York magazine hit the stands with a picture of Hillary Clinton on the cover and the words: "And now the real race begins".

And so in the Washington Hilton the permanent campaign that transforms American politics into a never-ending soap opera continues. Four years ago a rank outsider, Howard Dean, made his name at this event with an anti-war speech that transformed the dynamics of the campaign. This year he wielded the gavel as the leader of the Democratic National Committee and everybody is against the war.

It's almost two years until the presidential elections. We can only hope that between now and then progressive movements will again see the candidates' opportunism as their opportunity and bring their influence to bear on whoever decides to run. In the meantime, with little of substance to debate, the media are reduced to discussing strategy and style. Can the Democrats reclaim the west? Should they abandon the south? When will Obama's star fade? Are Hillary's positives greater than her negatives? Is America ready to elect a Mormon, a black man or a white woman? Enjoying the race, and ignoring what lies beyond the finish line.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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