Why do we engage with US politics more than our own?

 
 

Last year, US politics monopolised the international news cycle, but this is not a new trend. Ause Abdelhaq discusses our fixation.


ON February 2nd hundreds gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Ballsbridge to protest Donald Trump’s travel ban on nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries. The dissent was palpable and, in the context of Irish political opinion, somewhat surprising.

In Ireland, we like to complain about politics, politicians, and even political discussion. But we never actually do anything about it. We are a passive political people, content to allow our representatives paddle around in the Dáil, determining our fortunes, so long as they don’t do anything too extreme.

Our party system is a thinly-veiled sham; the reality is that most people probably don’t know the policy differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, or who currently leads Labour, or what in God’s name Renua actually is. Control of the Dáil transfers back-and-forth between two political dynasties in an almost farcical matter, consistently proving the point that no matter what you do as a politician in Ireland, people will forget about it within a decade.

As far as this country is concerned, politics is nothing more than a machine, working away diligently in the background, always adequate but never truly satisfying. There are moments that catch our attention: the huge push for marriage equality two years ago, or the clash against water charges. However, generally, we are happy living in a populist utopia where the will of the people eventually comes to rule.

Taking into account this complete lack of interest at home, why did we concern ourselves with the politics happening abroad? Why did we care enough to march in our hundreds and our thousands against Donald Trump when we so regularly cannot muster the interest to notice what happens on our doorsteps?

In the run-up to the US Election there wasn’t a person in the country who couldn’t tell you something about Trump and his war with Clinton. We learned about political lobbying, Supreme Court eligibility, the Electoral College and even the size of The Donald’s hands. Our interest in American politics surged, while our interest in Irish politics remained as passive as ever.

There are multiple reasons why this happened. Primarily, the effect which the American war on Iraq has had (see: ISIS), or the global impact of the 2008 US financial crisis. There’s a lot more at stake with US elections.

However, the mass interest doesn’t just extend to life-altering decisions. In fact, plenty of people who were at the protests against Trump would similarly protest against the defunding of Planned Parenthood, systemic racism, or the selection of Betsy De Vos as Education Secretary. In terms of domestic policy, our concern is much higher for the United States than for Ireland.

Ideologies are hard to come by in Ireland. The political will of our parties tends to move with the political will of the people. Our policies are population-driven rather than party-driven. Go back thirty years and tell Dr Garret Fitzgerald that in 2015, Fine Gael would argue vehemently for the right to marriage equality – he wouldn’t believe you.

In the context of the Catholic state that existed back then, the concept would have been political suicide. Nevertheless, as soon as the majority of the population demanded it the party changed its tune.

The advantage of having a population-driven political philosophy is clear: it allows us to move forward without much conflict. However, it breeds passiveness. Very few people actually pay attention to what happens in the Dáil – to the point where it could be almost empty during a debate and few notice (side note: this has actually happened).

American politics is the opposite: the political will of the people is determined by what their ideology espouses. Should Paul Ryan defund NASA, citing “fake science”, there would be hordes of Republican commentators agreeing with a scary level of enthusiasm – just look at what happened with the EPA.

As such, similar to viewing television shows like Big Brother, we watch because we want to see the tipping point; the moment where the ridiculousness finally becomes apparent to the people it affects, and they rebel. In a way, we were all daring Trump to win, merely because we wanted a second season of The Politics Show, a cacophony of outrageous opinions where the cynical comedian can thrive.

Harsh as it may seem, the U.S. Election was an entertaining broadcast, a Hunger Games-type battle where the only real loser was humanity. And so, it continues; consider the newfound interest in French and Dutch politics.

Politics is quickly becoming sensationalist; the issues which are at play and the lives which will be affected are merely pawns in the game, and there’s no bigger chessboard than the United States. The higher the stakes, the bigger the risk, the more attractive the show. It is hard to see how the monotonous world of Irish politics can then compete in comparison.

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