"We don't really have two parties in America," growled US novelist Gore Vidal recently, "we have one with two right wings. That's why these elections really don't matter."
The silver-haired Vidal, who is actually a cousin to US presidential hopeful Al Gore, is at his best when tossing off these cynical political epigrams. He could care less if his opinions are rubbished by his Pecksniff opponents; it's enough that he plucks one true chord with the thinking public.
Many Americans would bristle at the suggestion that US politics are a sideshow to the real action that occurs in boardrooms across the nation - that presidents and parties are stooges for the same corporate interests. They would point to issues such as medicare, abortion, gun control, the death penalty or oil drilling in a pristine Alaskan wilderness and argue that the gap between Republicans and Democrats is substantial, that elections offer a real choice.
And they would be essentially right. But if we compare US politics to what passes for the same in Slovakia, one can't help but notice that elections over here go far closer to the core of things, with every trip to the polls offering a choice between dawn and dusk, as far as democracy goes.
Think back to the May 1999 election of Rudolf Schuster as Slovak President. If you think that George W. Bush has a chequered past - drunk driving seems the worst of it - he's not a patch on Schuster, who was a high ranking communist official before he remembered that he loved Jesus and liberty too. And if we notice that Al Gore looks as comfortable on stage as a pig on skates, and deserves a prominent seat in the pantheon of political bores, we can't help seeing Schuster as far worse - a self-pitying old man who has done his country no great credit during his tenure.
The point is that America, where democracy has been in rehearsal for over 200 years, can afford to care about the personality of its presidents, while Slovaks are forced to elect anything with a heartbeat, as long as it isn't Mečiar. American elections are often about how people behave towards each other - whether they use drugs, carry guns, cut down their forests, abort their babies or spend each other's money on war - while Slovak ballots are cast for or against international isolation, the rule of law and freedom from kidnapping by state bodies. Vidal was right - American politics don't matter in the way that Slovak politics do - but it's a cinch that most Slovaks would prefer a boring election about minor issues to the draining political convulsion that grips their nation every four years.
Another signal difference between the two nations is that America, global boss by acclamation, can afford not to care a hoot about anyone else. It's surely significant that it doesn't matter to US voters if their president can't find France on the map, or that the only foreign country he's visited is Mexico. One is also struck by how careful people are not to make a fuss about Bush's dyslexia, delicacy that would be laudable were the man not running for president. Doesn't it matter to anyone that their next leader simply may not know very much about anything except Texas and baseball?
In comparison, Slovak politicians are almost unhealthily conscious of other countries' affairs and how their nation is perceived abroad. It's the price of being such a small country, perhaps, but given that it requires politicians be at least somewhat knowledgable, it's less a burden than an asset. Could Sonny Bono get himself elected in Slovakia? Jesse Ventura? Pat Robertson? Mind you, Ján Slota might find it tough winning a senate seat in, say, California. Hasta la vista, ty rasista.
No, despite the excitement over the Florida deadlock, American politics is a serene business that won't get anyone's heart racing, perhaps a reason that so few voters participate in the process. Slovakia, on the other hand, puts one in mind of the Chinese curse - 'May you live in interesting times'.
Interesting the times are, but we could do with a few boring elections in which the issues don't matter so desperately much.
13. Nov 2000 at 0:00