The Canberra Times

American elections can be at the same time important and trivial, not to mention funny, 

When Australians think of the first Tuesday in November, the image that springs to mind is horses, champagne and the bets we claim we nearly made.

This year the Melbourne Cup will be sharing its day with another big race that is becoming a fixture on the Australian calendar: the US presidential elections.

As much out of habit as choice, large numbers of Australians will first watch the Melbourne Cup and then within the next 24 hours, tune in to find out who has won the US elections.

Australians regularly follow the US elections partly because they are potentially very important, in other words because of US power.

It's also partly because they are often so spectacular that people can't help but be drawn in by the soap opera nature of the contests.

Over the years intense coverage has made many Australians very familiar with the structure of the contest — primaries, conventions, debates, and November election day — and this familiarity then leads to more interest and deeper coverage.

This story is very similar in a number of other countries.

Given that an audience is guaranteed, it seems to me that the job of the Australian media and commentators is to provide context to questions such as: Why do American political conventions resemble toddlers' birthday parties (with an excess of balloons, fun hats and people behaving like they have drunk too much red cordial)? Does who you choose as your running mate really matter?

And are the promises made in presidential debates important?

Giving context to such questions helps us appreciate that this often odd and over-the-top election process matters profoundly to a large number of Americans who every four years believe wholeheartedly that the future of their country is literally at stake.

The short answers to these three questions are: finding excitable partisans in a country of 310 million people isn't that hard (and some of them will even laugh at Dick Cheney's jokes); your choice of running mate does matter but in unpredictable ways; and what is said in the debates creates an important record for journalists to judge future presidents by.

Analysis can easily be lost under mountains of attack ads and endless false controversies. Almost exactly four years ago one of these false controversies was: ''Is Obama really like Paris Hilton?''

Yes, many people spent a week of their lives hearing and caring about this ''debate'' in 2008. So, like watching television in general, there are certainly ways to watch elections more smartly, with a lot of the most interesting material not being on TV.

Even during the most superficial presidential elections (like the 1988 contest or the dull and duller race of 2000) important issues are discussed. More positively, often fascinating figures come to your attention and by following someone such as Bill Clinton, John McCain or Barack Obama you have the opportunity to deepen your understanding of not only American politics but human nature.

On the other hand, like many people, my following of these characters is often a simple case of pure voyeurism. A simple reason for the popularity of US election coverage is that the US elections offer great stories.

They throw up fascinating characters to follow and watch. I have read endless amounts about George W. Bush's drinking habits, the McCains' marital fights, Sarah Palin's knowledge — or should that be lack of knowledge — of global geography and Obama's Australian girlfriend from his life in New York city in his 20s.

Although I would argue these are engaging stories, their importance is highly questionable. However, given the vanity of much American politics the stories of such potential (and actual) world leaders struggling to live up to their own ambitions is fascinating and hard to resist.

Mention of Sarah Palin brings me to my final point about watching US elections: this pastime allows us to laugh at Americans.

This is tremendously healthy (if at times bordering on gallows humour when instead of being passed over like Palin was, a Bush jnr actually goes on to get elected). The US has a history of overreacting to criticism and at times, too quickly calling it anti-Americanism.

Generally, though, it simply ignores criticism, allowing the less powerful to have a harmless laugh at its expense.

So, like many things in life, American politics can be really important, very trivial and sometimes simply funny.