From an outpost of the American Empire

Since Tuesday I’ve spent hours every day refreshing pages. The New York Times, for the potential progressive meltdown. FiveThirtyEight, for its smug vindication. And of course the BBC, which is ‘projecting’ the final outcome of the US presidential election just as everyone else does.

British politicos’ infatuation with American politics is well documented. Other than the homeland, it is the country we cover most on our podcast, and plenty of political nerds here follow events stateside compulsively. Washington can’t fart without London sniffing.

The United States remains the biggest bully in the playground, so perhaps our focus is reasonable. With 330 million people it is the biggest ‘Anglo’ country – to use a contested term – as well as the West’s foremost military power and cultural voice. It is Top Nation, to quote a phrase.

Calling America an empire is nonetheless provocative. Americans tend not to like it, preferring to view their history as a rejection of empire. The country’s statesmen explicitly used the end of the Second World War to relegate Europe’s old powers from the imperial leagues to the second division, and celebrated the Soviet Union’s collapse on similar grounds.

At the same time the country has been conquering – sorry, ‘pioneering’ – for most of its history. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t afraid to use the e-word when outlining his ambitions for his newly-born country, and his countrymen didn’t stop when they reached the Pacific coast.

Depending on who you ask, America’s current wobbles are evidence that the country is declining, peaking, or will remain first for some time. If you read historical accounts of British supremacy in the 1800s it’s easy to conclude that being the world power means worrying that it won’t last long, so I’m not sure the trend is telling.

How a Briton feels about America’s much-predicted decline tells you a lot about their politics, lefties tending towards scepticism while their opponents are more supportive. By comparison, nobody in London much cares about what’s happening in Paris unless there’s a gunman involved.

Given the German and French press are running similarly coverage of the American elections, perhaps most Europeans just know who’s in charge. Yet the habit of referring to Americans as “our cousins” is not shared throughout the continent, which largely lacks the entwined histories of Britain and America. Whether the affection is reciprocated remains an ongoing debate, if anyone is still paying attention.

What is indisputable is that the relentless coverage of American politics by the British media looks a tad undignified given how few of us can vote in their elections. Remainers might ask how sovereign we expect to be as we lick Washington’s boots. It’s a good question.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact

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