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Rean Opperman
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US politics: Why South Africans should care

29 November 2011, 08:54

It seems to be the general consensus among most South Africans that US politics is a foreign concept (well, they have that half-right, at least) that doesn't interest them in the slightest. Some state it quite explicitly: "I don't know, and I don't care."  Granted, upon first impression, US politics is just that...US politics. Issues in a nation that is quite literally on the other side of the globe.  But what most people seem to miss is that almost every political decision and outcome in the United States has a far-reaching ripple effect: on the world as a whole, and on South Africa itself.

Of special interest is the foreign policy of the White House. You'll find that Democrats and Republicans have vastly different foreign policies. The one we're most (but certainly not exclusively) concerned with is their policy on Africa. How do they respond to instability in the African continent? What do they have in mind in terms of debt relief and aid packages for impoverished countries?  At the end of the day, all of these issues have an effect on South Africa. And closer to home: how do they view the recent kindling of South Africa's strong ties with China? How will it affect trade between the United States and South Africa, if it affects it at all?

Another very deciding factor is US relations with countries in the Middle-East. Apart from stability and peace in the region (and subsequently the rest of the world), one has to consider how various policies and actions can affect straight-forward things like oil prices, embargoes, and the like.  Still think it has nothing to do with us?  How about fuel prices?  We certainly feel that on a daily basis, and it's quite directly tied to whatever's happening in the oil-providing regions at any given moment.

Moving away from foreign policy, one can just as well take a good look at the US economic policy. How does the US administration's economic plan affect the spending habits of the American people? How does it affect American job creation and sustainability - which, by the way, in turn affects their spending habits? Now, you may well ask how their spending habits affect South Africa. To give one example: if the average American can't afford to buy items that are imported from South Africa, or items that are made from materials imported from South Africa, it hurts the South African market. This, in turn, hurts the companies that export, their employees, and subsequently their spending habits.  See how this becomes an endless circle?

The moral of the story is quite simple: things that may seem far away and removed from our everyday lives do in fact affect us directly, in one way or another.

But from another angle, we can also learn quite a bit from US politics. They have a long-established democracy and a very complex political system.  Granted, they have a presidential system instead of a parliamentary system (South Africa has a bicameral parliamentary system, meaning the parliament consists of two houses; in our case, the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces), but some concepts and practices are uniform across all government systems, and quite usable in different governments.

My personal favourite would be the "filibuster", which literally means "talking out a bill".  When a controversial bill is being debated in the House, a member of the House can in some cases request to have the floor with no time limit, and tie the proceedings up for hours with a random speech.  This can be interspaced with questions, points of order, responses and the like, and can disrupt the House schedule (and subsequently, the voting process) considerably.  While this may seem like a devious tactic, something like this would've come in handy during our very own parliamentary debate on the Protection of State Information bill.  Yes, some can argue that it would be a case of postponing the inevitable, but it gives opposition parties valuable time to pursue other legal avenues.

This is indeed a good time to be interested in US politics.  President Obama has, as of 27 November, an approval rating of 44%.  Considering that he started his presidential term with an approval rating of about 65%, this should make for interesting campaigning during the next year (the US presidential election takes place during November 2012).  I'm not going into the whole election process in detail, but let's just cover the basics. Each party will have candidates battling for the party's one candidacy.  In other words, who the party puts on the ballot in November. In order to decide who gets the party candidacy, state caucuses and primaries are held between January and June in the election year.  Depending on the election laws of the specific state, registered voters can vote for a candidate during their state's primary or caucus (there's a slight difference between a primary and a caucus that we won't go into now).  Each state has a predetermined number of delegates, and whoever wins the primary/caucus will have those delegates vote for them in the National Convention, that takes place in June/July.  The Republicans and Democrats each have their own National Convention, where (by the use of delegates), a final party candidate is chosen and announced.  These "final" candidates then appear on the ballot in November.

Sounds a bit confusing, I know.  But then, I did mention they have a very complex political system.  There are a few things to consider for the upcoming US elections:

1) President Obama is the incumbent president.  History shows that the incumbent has an advantage in most elections.

2) One should have a very close look at the Republican candidates, and how they fare in the primaries.  In 2008, the Republicans made a blunder by nominating John McCain to run against Obama.  It would be interesting to see who clinches the nomination this time.  One can only hope it's not Donald Trump (I wish I was kidding - he hasn't explicitly ruled out running for President yet).

3) And finally, but most importantly - we should have a look at especially the foreign and economic policies of the candidates, and consider how they will affect us.

Let's see how it pans out during the next year.  The primaries/caucuses begin on January 3rd with the Iowa caucus, and ends on June 26th with the Utah primary.

When I initially planned this article, it wasn't my intention to go into a breakdown of the US election system (as I have done in almost the entire second half of this article), but I realised that in order to fully understand the point, some background would be beneficial.  If you've read this far, thank you for bearing with me.

If you're interested in seeing how the US election process goes this coming year, but don't want to follow the primaries and caucuses that closely, I'll be providing summarising updates on my Twitter feed during the primaries and conventions.

Follow me on Twitter: @ReanOpperman

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