Re: On Watching America from Britain

by Charles C. W. Cooke

In response to my earlier post, a reader writes:

As an American undergraduate in Britain I’ve now, for the past couple years, had little choice but to spend large chunks of my year “watching America from Britain.” 

Which is why I was a bit surprised by how much you downplayed the fundamental lack of understanding among British news media (and, ipso facto, the British public at large) as to how American government and politics work.

The BBC does a good job of covering the horse race, but makes virtually no effort to explain primaries, the federal system, the constitution, and, especially detrimental for British viewers, the difference between the party system in the US and UK. Not ideologically, that is understood (to a point) but organizationally. This, in my experience, has a profound effect on the outlook of Britons.

Even among Oxford historians and PPEists, who are, in theory, spending some part of their course studying American government, I am still met, as a republican, with “what do you think of Sarah Palin?” or “crazy republican du jour.” As if, say, Christine O’Donnell were a major force in the party. Because they are used to British parties where no one, not even the most junior back bencher, can claim the party mantle without total support of what Americans would call “the establishment” one is left to wonder why the British follow primaries at all when they very rarely understand what they are or how they work.

None of this is helped by the strong impression that the BBCs political neutrality stops at the waters edge.

My conclusion so far is that it’s essentially for entertainment. My friends seem to follow American politics in the British press in precisely the same way they read about American celebrities in the Daily Mail: either to bask in the glamour of Obama, or laugh at the antics of those hill billies on the right.

The only exception I can see is in the Telegraph, where people like Daniel Hannan have done the Lord’s work preaching the Gospel according Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams.

Perhaps being raised in the UK you disagree, but I nonetheless find British treatment of American politics to be a continual source of annoyance, rather than enlightenment. Without any treatment of the fundamentals, the horse race remains just so much melodrama devoid of context. All this despite, as you noted, the volume of coverage.

Having been raised in the UK, I don’t disagree with this at all. In fact, I think that it is spot on. As I wrote earlier, “One ugly consequence . . . is that the British generally hold strong opinions about American politics, without the deeper framework around which to hang the swathes of information that they have been fed.” The most pronounced result of this is to conclude that the president is in fact a prime minister with his own airplane, and thus can anything that he wishes to do. There is never any mention of Congress, or of the constitutional limitations on presidential power. (Although, in time, perhaps the British will be spared having to learn about these.)

It is optimistic to expect a country largely apathetic to its own political details to pay much attention to the chapter and verse of another’s — however much of it they are fed. The question thus becomes whether or not it is a positive thing to be provided with such coverage, even if the viewers don’t really know what to make of it. On balance, my answer is that I’d prefer flawed, even melodramatic coverage of the United States to none at all. Alistair Cooke, how we need you now!

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