In 1831, the French government sent political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville to America to study the ins and outs of the American prison system. Tocqueville ignored them completely and used the money to spend nine months traveling through nascent America writing about its religious, political and economic character instead.
Perhaps wary that I will go similarly off-piste, Claremont declined to provide me with the funds for a transatlantic trip to ‘research’ a post on the lessons we can learn from American democracy. Although I can only gaze at the American system from afar, the recent PCC election is a great excuse to look enviously at our Yankee brethren.
Campaign finance fosters national cohesion
One of the particular quirks in the American system is how campaign financing forces candidates to build large coalitions which unite millions of people behind a cause. Getting the vote out is only half the battle – without a well-financed campaign, you can’t even stay in the race. Where does that finance come from?
In Obama’s case, the answer is ordinary people. This forces candidates to really think about how they bring the public on board, rather than crafting policy messages. Without that public backing, a campaign literally can’t continue. Obama’s mandate isn’t just from his vote – it’s from millions of Americans who gave their hard earned money to back his campaign.
Intelligent use of celebrities
Celebrities are great storytellers – capable of speaking to our hopes, fears and dreams. Barack Obama’s use of Springsteen and Jay Z in his campaign told a story of two Americas – one of honest hardworking working-class values and another of hope and aspiration.
The use of celebrities in political campaigns is often rightly derided. Insofar as Gary Barlow and Michael Caine’s involvement in recent Conservative Party campaigns had any impact at all, it was negative. Barlow has been exposed as a tax-dodger and Michael Caine calling for the return of national service smacks of parochialism.
Use of technology to foster debate
Internet culture played a big part in the 2012 election, from Obama’s IAMA on Reddit and Tumblr ‘Live GIFfing’ to the debate over secessionism that erupted on the White House’s “We the People” petition website.
Often online campaigning is treated as an afterthought in Britain: “What are we going to write on our Facebook page and our Twitter?” However, when used thoughtfully, it can play a meaningful part in fostering the kind of national discourse that Tocqueville would have approved of.
By the time the next UK election comes around in 2015, how will technology be used as a campaign tool?
Innovation from the bottom-up
America is reaping the rewards of empowering local government – innovation flows from the bottom up, as well as the top down. Seven U.S states have developed a new class of corporation, called a “benefit corporation,” whose charters include a commitment to public good as well as generating profits.
By law, these companies are audited by a third party to ensure that they fulfill their mission. That mission could be anything from environmental research to tackling youth unemployment. Maybe it’s time to take vampire squid off the menu?