It’s the ideas, stupid: is the US election campaign turning serious?

Can Mitt Romney convince Americans that his vision for their government is coherent and sustainable? EPA

Instead of charismatic nominee-leaders, the political values “we believe in” have led the Republican and Democratic national conventions over the weeks just past.

Mitt Romney gave his workmanlike, clean-cut performance on a stage proclaiming “We believe in America”. (How profound!)

Barack Obama’s speech sought to overtrump with a refrain of “we believe” energising its closing section.

These are wholly different war-cries from Obama’s 2008 campaign for “change we can believe in,” though. Both were closer to John McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 theme of “straight talk”.

The 2012 USA presidential campaign demands we rethink received assumptions about the banal trajectory of contemporary political parties. In this round, serious critical argument has taken the spotlight away from the hackneyed personal attacks. At first blush, that looks like a successful result of Obama’s 2008 speech on race – but perhaps that success has taken the pressure off him to offer an equally powerful performance now.

In this year’s conventions, each party set out its beliefs, and competed to project them as the consensus beliefs of the United States. Romney and the Republicans staked a claim for small government and the centrality of free enterprise; Obama and the Democrats argued for the economic wisdom of social security and a strong civil society.

Others have analysed those themes at length already, but it is easy to overlook how clear the divisions appeared this time around. Over the last few weeks, these two parties have been fiercely setting out their respective philosophies, each of whose principles and details have moved a long way apart from the other’s since they last tried to define them.

One of the truly impressive features of these conventions has been the extent to which both parties have succeeded in pushing their redefinitions through. Their election platforms have been realigned very rapidly, and yet they seem remarkably coherent. One might have expected greater ineptitude on both sides, especially in a campaign that ranks partisan passions ahead of political professionalism.

True to the Hollywood ethos that underpins these conventions, much public attention has focused on their talent lists. And a general consensus of online commentary seems to hold that the Democrats have outshone the Republicans this year because their cast turned on a stronger show.

Former President Bill Clinton gave a lengthy and substantial speech at the Democratic National Convention. EPA/Robert Sullivan

Especially Bill Clinton. Clinton’s speech often drifted far and roamed wide – journalists received a 3,136 word pre-delivery speech script, but the actual performance was 5,895. Numerous pundits complained that it ran to 48 minutes – but we should recall their Australian counterparts complained bitterly when Rob Oakeshott took 17 minutes to explain who he preferred to govern this country.

Clinton’s was no egoistic ramble, though. Assuming one shares any of his values, it was extremely charismatic advocacy, refuting the Republicans’ lead arguments one by one. For a convention audience trained over decades to enjoy vacuity and boosterism, this was a highly substantive speech. It surely set out political arguments more logical and political values more clear-cut than any previous address he has given to a Democratic National Convention.

John McWhorter, now one of America’s leading political linguists, makes the point that idiosyncratic panache was every bit as valuable for Clinton’s performance as its logic:

His Southern accent only helped send the speech over the plate, lending an air of warmth and sincerity that was key in getting him elected 20 years ago. Many assume that a Southern accent signals stupidity, but in our era, vernacular cadences are an aural emollient to American ears. A twang reads “real.” In 2012, he who exhibits a command of facts in the accent of a country-western singer becomes the closest thing we have to a philosopher king.

Of course, there was still plenty of banality to go around. Romney struck a tinny note in his speech, never quite making his face and hands say what the script told his mouth to, but it was a more energetic and charismatic speech than most people expected from him. His job is not to remake understandings of what political rhetoric can achieve.

Which is unlike his opponent: a striking aspect of these conventions was that Obama also remained stuck at the level of cheap lines and derivative statements of belief. Of his 39 speaking minutes, an editor could blithely cut the first half-hour and still find excerpts to capture all its substance. That is essentially what worldwide news coverage did over the next 24 hours.

Again, many others have already remarked on the president’s underwhelming effort. What they have made of it is itself suggestive. I have been impressed by the creativity of commentators willing to impute hidden tactical agendas.

Conspiracy or not, given that the two major parties were sticking their necks out for their belief systems, it is remarkable how unremarkably the two leaders performed.

It suggests that a turn towards ideas, towards the beliefs that motivate a party, is inherently at odds with the celebrity-driven “you are the message” approach that has dominated professional politics and political journalism in the USA since the rise of Reagan.