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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 October, 2004, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Facing up to the US electorate

By Justin Webb
BBC correspondent, Washington

In theory, the upcoming US election should give the world a lesson in democracy. In practice, it may highlight the cracks in democracy itself.

John Kerry (centre) returns from a goose hunting trip in Ohio
John Kerry must woo voters in the swing state of Ohio
A joke doing the rounds on the campaign trail goes like this: John Kerry is challenged by a reporter. "You are not a man of the people, you don't speak like ordinary folk," he says. Mr Kerry draws himself up to his full height and replies: "Au contraire."

The candidate's minders, aware of this joke, have been challenging its premise at every possible opportunity.

That is why they came up with the hunting trip.

Hunters in America seem to me to be rather unsporting. Instead of donning scarlet and trotting about with a glass of sherry in one hand and a horn in the other, they dress up in military style fatigues and creep about in the undergrowth.

The downside of this is that the animals have little chance of getting away. The upside if you are an alpha male of the species homo sapiens, is that you will not look ridiculous.

So it was that John Kerry's campaign team arranged for photographers to see their man - who does look rather good in battle gear - on an early morning hunting trip in the key state of Ohio.

The common touch

It all went sparklingly well. Some birds were shot, and the candidate spent the rest of the day making speeches before boarding his campaign plane and settling down to play classical guitar music.

John Kerry plays the guitar while attending a rally in Jefferson City, Missouri (August 2004)
Once a bass player in a rock band more than 40 years ago, John Kerry still loves a guitar opportunity

What? Press the panic button. Slam the first-class cabin door.

On no account could those pictures be used. Just as you have positioned him as an ordinary Joe - and got up far too early in the morning to do it - he blows it with a burst of effete plucking.

George Bush's father lost the 1992 election because he went to a supermarket and plainly had not the slightest idea of what people did in supermarkets.

The younger George Bush has learned that lesson and so has the Kerry team, even if the man himself occasionally lapses - like a semi-reformed alcoholic - back to his guitar and his vie en rose.

Switched off

We talk endlessly of the importance of image in American politics as if it were something to be considered alongside policy or character or political coherence.

But on the final weekend of campaigning comes evidence that image is all that matters.

Halloween masks of John Kerry (l) and George Bush (r) unveiled at a press preview in New York
Image is top of the political agenda

The wonderfully off-message Cato Institute - a libertarian think-tank - has chosen this moment to come out with a compendium of American political ignorance.

And, oh dear, it does suggest that the class has not been concentrating during this last year of electioneering.

To put it bluntly, even this year - the year when America is supposedly more energised and more switched on to politics than any other in recent times - large numbers of Americans have not the foggiest idea what it is all about.

As the Cato Institute puts it: "A relatively stable level of extreme ignorance has persisted for decades, even in the face of massive increases in educational attainment and the quality and quantity of information available."

Americans seem convinced that their fellow voters are a bunch of charlatans

An example: the Bush administration's most important domestic reform has been a new system giving low-cost prescription drugs to elderly people.

It has been hugely publicised and is hugely controversial. Some say it costs too much, others say it does not go far enough.

Yet nearly 70% of Americans - a clear majority - have never heard of it.

Paranoia

People do know things about politicians, but they are not necessarily the things you see in the party manifestos.

For instance, in 1992, 80% of Americans could correctly name the first President Bush's pet dog Millie, but only 15% knew that both President Bush and the challenger, Bill Clinton, favoured the death penalty.

Billie beat Millie in 1992 but if Millie had actually been on the ticket who knows what would have happened.

There is one big difference this year, a difference I have found really striking on visits to the key states in recent days.

As well as being ignorant about their system of government and the true choices on offer, Americans seem convinced that their fellow voters are a bunch of charlatans; that the final outcome may well not be fair.

I stood outside an early polling station in Boulder, Colorado, the other day and everyone I talked to thought there was a significant chance of fraud affecting the result.

It was a level of social suspicion worthy of Russians at their most paranoid.

The US does have lessons to teach the world when it comes to democracy; lessons pertaining to freedom of speech and freedom of expression and openness.

But there is another lesson that might be added to the list: democracy is one heck of a mess.

Freedom might well be on the march from Kabul to Kansas City but the procession is not orderly, and the marchers do not always know where they are going, or why.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 30 October 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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