Liam Hehir: Our obsession with American politics

Liam Hehir: Our obsession with American politics

Many New Zealanders take a strong interest in US politics, with the death of Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg being the latest example. Liam Hehir wonders if it very wise for New Zealanders to get so worked up about it.

 

Many politically engaged New Zealanders are now furiously invested in the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a long-serving associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Online, you will find New Zealand’s pundits and commentators arguing over who her replacement should be. Drill a bit deeper and you will find even more heated arguments about how the Americans should go about the process of selection. 

I would be willing to bet that only a small number of the New Zealanders so keenly interested in the appointment of an American judge could name a single member of our own Supreme Court. The percentage of those who could name more than one of them would be much lower still. If any of them claim the ability to sustain argument about who should be appointed then, you would have to assume, they are fibbing. 

The obsession of New Zealand commentators with US domestic politics seems quite strange on its face. 

It is true that America is the sole superpower (for the time being at least). It is equally true that American courts play a bigger role in politics there than they do here. The US Supreme Court is somewhat more like Iran’s Guardian Council than the judiciaries of countries like New Zealand. 

The controversies in which American courts are involved, however, relate mostly to the internal politics of that country.  

Which is not to say that people should not be concerned with the political drift of the United States. At the same time, we should also be concerned about what is happening in the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping. If Trump tried to assassinate Joe Biden, for example, then we would talk about little else. 

But something like that just happened in Russia and it barely made the news here.  

New Zealanders marched in their thousands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matters protests. They were cheered on by liberals even though this broke the lockdown rules, risked the transmission of covid-19 and set a terrible precedent that would be seized on by others. Last year, however, only 60 people turned up to protest the routine arming of police in this country. 

The answer, of course, comes down to culture and entertainment. All the biggest movies we enjoy are made in the United States. Most of the television programs we watch is American. So too with popular music. And as those things become more politicised, the more preoccupied we become with the controversies with which they are engaged. 

I used to think that following American politics was a bit like being a wrestling fan. There are designated “heels” – bad guys – who are called Republicans. There are designated “faces” – good guys – who are called Democrats. Sometimes a heel will execute a “turn” and become a face. Mitt Romney voting for Trump’s impeachment was a bit like that time the Undertaker stopped Jake “the Snake” Roberts from taking a steel chair to Macho Man Randy Savage’s manager Miss Elizabeth. 

This made a certain amount of sense because it helped explain why Donald Trump became president. An early investor in Wrestlemania, he is a member of the WWE Hallf of Fame. No wonder he surprised us all four years ago. 

But as I watch people working themselves up over the Supreme Court, I have come to see that the analogy doesn’t really hold. After all, most wrestling fans are aware of the artifice involved in their entertainment. Aside from little kids, few people who enjoy wrestling think it is a genuine athletic contest and they’re just along for the ride. 

This is not the case with American politics and its fervent followers in the Antipodes. Wrestling don’t end their friendships over feuds between WWE Superstars. Kiwis obsessed with American politics are much more like the fervent consumers of reality TV (another medium in which the president thrives, incidentally). See here, for example.  

And it is not so surprising that we would come to see American politics in this way. After all, we have always been pioneers in the reality TV format. Treasure Island existed before Survivor, Flatmates pre-dated Big Brother and True Bliss preceded Hear’Say. 

You should not begrudge people their entertainments, of course, but those so emotionally invested might do well to recognise that our interest in such things is entirely passive. We have no ability to influence what happens – directly or indirectly – because Americans do not have the same cringeworthy need for external validation as New Zealanders have. What we say about the goings on in that country will not be the subject of “you’ll never guess who’s noticing us” stories over there.   

All of which is to say that people would do well to resist being riled up as a result of their American political trainspotting hobby. It never pays to worry too much about things you can’t control.  

 

Liam Hehir lives in the small Manawatu village of Rongotea. He has been a conservative columnist since 2013. He is a practising Catholic and sympathises with the aims of the National Party, for which he formerly volunteered in a variety of low-level roles.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.