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Rosalind Campion portrait

Rosalind Campion

Counsellor for Global Issues

Part of UK in USA

12th October 2012 Washington DC, USA

Debate fever sweeps the country

At the last UK election, we borrowed from a US campaign staple and televised debates between the candidates for Prime Minister for the first time. And they generated a good amount of interest and engagement. But the excitement absolutely pales in comparison to what I experienced across the US following the first Obama/Romney Presidential debate in Denver last week.

At home in Washington DC, where everyone I ever encounter seems to be in some way involved in politics, policy, or engaged in related changing-the-world activities, this didn’t come as a surprise. My Embassy colleagues were obviously glued to the television, analyzing the implications of every sentence, look, or pause. But no more so than my taxi driver, my boxing instructor, my hairdresser or the staff in my favourite local salad bar. Like the Superbowl, there are certain things that the DC population don’t miss.

But I hadn’t realized the extent to which the debates really are like the Superbowl – an event that engages the nation. I was in Austin, Texas the day after the debate, speaking at a very fabulous South by Southwest Eco conference.  SXSW Eco took place over three days, and featured experts in the public, private and academic sectors, and an audience representing pretty much every walk of life, brought together by a shared commitment to finding solutions for a sustainable world.  It was pretty fun, but however, much as the audience were enthusiastic and focused on the event (particularly my panel I’m sure!), there was an undercurrent of distraction. Everyone had seen the previous night’s presidential debate, and everyone had an opinion. Break out discussions buzzed with the candidates’ performance. The next day, in New York (it was quite a week for travelling!) the same was true. I was intrigued at this massive level of political engagement, particularly as the voting turnout (57%) in the US is actually lower than in the UK (65%) where I did not experience this sort of mass post-debate political analysis.

Some clues came from the excellent Jill Lepore, at a New Yorker Festival talk on presidential campaigns I attended this weekend. She described an increasing cult of personality in election campaigns – “it’s easier to sell people than policies”. She spoke of a presidential candidate over a hundred years ago who was utterly bemused when asked the names of his children – it seemed entirely irrelevant. But since he gave their names, campaigns have evolved to sell the person. That’s why we hear speeches by candidates’ spouses about how wonderful they are, images of happy children waving practisedly next to their parents at rallies, and candidates speaking from the ‘ordinary’ house they grew up in. The message: I’m not just part of the ‘perfect’ American family, I’m also just like you.

In the UK of course, we have some interest in candidates’ personal lives (spouses and children generate some interest, and the papers are always alert to any potential ‘scandal’) but for the most part, judging from the press and conversations I’m exposed to in the UK, the general public seem to favour the Royals for their celebrity ruler fix. Maybe it’s because we elect a political party to lead the country, while Americans elect a specific person, so they have a vested interest in knowing him or her better, and in ascribing a celebrity persona to them. Not to mention the money spent on media – far more than in the UK. But I do wonder whether it’s also the lead time. American campaigns take months – they go through all sorts of stages and processes that keep the excitement going until it builds to a crescendo, while the UK has had a short but sweet 6 weeks. Until now – the next UK election has already been announced as 7th May 2015. It will be interesting to see what effect this might have on the UK population’s engagement with the candidates. Hopefully we’ll be drawing these huge audiences for debates – because whether you care more about the policies or the person, having an informed and engaged electorate is part of what makes democracy great.

About Rosalind Campion

Rosalind Campion was appointed Counsellor for Global Issues at the British Embassy in Washington DC in 2011. Her team works on policy issues including trade, business, energy, the environment, science,…

Rosalind Campion was appointed Counsellor for Global Issues at the British Embassy in Washington DC in 2011. Her team works on policy issues including trade, business, energy, the environment, science, innovation and transport.

Originally a corporate lawyer working in London on intellectual property issues, Roz was most recently with the Ministry of Justice, where she set up and ran the Sentencing Council, the national organisation responsible for ensuring a consistent approach to criminal sentencing by the UK’s judiciary.

She has previous experience working on foreign policy issues, including during her time at the Ministry of Justice, as well as through her work with the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency and as a lawyer working on international law cases for a top human rights litigation firm.

During her time in academia, Roz was responsible for the public international law programme at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, where she specialised in international trade and environment law.

She lives in Georgetown with her partner, Dr Layla McCay.

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