A cold wind blowing through New Hampshire

What could be better for a politics nerd than spending a few days in the cold and snow of New Hampshire following wannabe Presidents of the United States?

That is how I passed the last few days in the run up to the Democratic and Republican Party primaries which are taking place tomorrow.

There’s a saying that while, ‘the people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents’.  For a small state (45th out of 50 in the US) it has a big role to play in influencing which candidate will represent their party in the electoral contest for the White House.

New Hampshire holds the first primary vote (as opposed to caucus, which takes place in Iowa a week earlier) – and as such is known as a major testing ground for the candidates.

It is therefore a great place to view American politics up close. All the candidates – Democrat and Republican – rush around the state pressing the flesh, kissing babies and trying desperately to ooze empathy and understanding in a monumental effort to impress upon locals that they are the best man or woman for the job.

In my forty eight hours in New Hampshire I got the full immersive experience seeing three Republican candidates (John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie) at small town hall meetings, and also attending a major Democratic gathering which hosted speeches by both Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

At this time, New Hampshire is crammed – seemingly at every corner – with campaign posters, activists, journalists, and political obsessives like myself who have come to witness the action.

For me, the experience was telling in what it said about both about American democracy , American society, and the candidates themselves.

In no particular order these are my observations:

    • A carnival of American democracy.

Those aspiring for the office of leader of the most powerful nation on earth have to face the voters in small and intimate settings and make their case to be the candidate. I saw John Kasich – Governor of Ohio in a draughty barn take questions for almost an hour on issues ranging from funding for schools, to internet access in rural areas, as well as American involvement in Syria. People had turned up (no invitations necessary) despite the falling snow from throughout New Hampshire as well as neighbouring states, to ask their questions and get a measure of the candidate. This speaks to a facet of American society that is sometimes missed from overseas. America is a society founded on what was in the 18th century the revolutionary idea that leaders are there to serve the people, not the other way around. This streak of accountability still runs deep, and the primaries are a powerful demonstration that this mindset is alive and well. It is uplifting to see this democratic spirit in meeting rooms and community centers of 21st century small town New Hampshire, and is a testament to one of the great strengths of the USA.

  • The meekness of the media

That spirit of holding potential leaders accountable may be observed by ordinary people but it does not seem to extend to the media. Despite the wall to wall attention on TV, there was an almost deferential regard for the candidates. Watching Jake Tapper – one of CNN’s main heavyweight hosts – interviewing Donald Trump was akin to witnessing someone being beaten with a feather. Tapper asked Trump gently about a statement he’d made calling for a return to waterboarding and methods ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’ for suspected Islamist militants – despite such actions being war crimes under US law. The mogul responded with a potted answer about changing the law once he was President, while confirming that he was ‘fine’ with ‘beyond waterboarding’. That answer seemingly satisfied Tapper who then moved to more urgent matters such as the mathematics of the forthcoming electoral battle in New Hampshire. There was no follow up, rather Trump was allowed to run rhetorically riot unchallenged. Tapper’s flaccid interviewing is par for the course with the mainstream cable and network news outlets. They seem more concerned with losing access to the ‘stars’ like Trump than the pursuit of journalistic inquiry (as happened to Fox after Megan Kelly had the temerity to question Trump’s offensive comments about women).

  •  The Republican divide – between right and hard right 

The USA is deeply split not only between left and right, but also within those respective camps, reflecting a deep sense that something has gone wrong with the political system and the society it is meant to serve. On the Republican side, there is a battle between the hard right insurgents and those of the more moderate ‘establishment’. I attended a rally for Ted Cruz – the banner holder for the evangelical and ‘tea party’ wings of the party. In the packed gym of an elementary school, he spent just as much time railing against the Republican establishment as he did against President Obama.  The mood of the audience was angry, booing mentions of Washington DC and calling for Democratic Party opponents to be, ‘put in jail’. There was a sense from these people – overwhelmingly white, less well-off and from outside the main cities – that the America they knew had been taken from them by sell-out politicians from the left and right, and that they had to fight (electorally) to get it back.

 

  • The Democrats – a battle between the head and the heart

That sense of disillusionment is also alive among Democrats, although not as deeply or angrily felt among Republicans. At a major Democratic Party event held in the city of Manchester, Hillary and Bernie Sander’s supporters sat on opposite sides of an indoor stadium chanting and waving banners for their respective champions. Sander’s followers – overwhelmingly youthful – spoke of him in breathless terms normally reserved by teenagers boy bands. For them Bernie was the real deal, who spoke in simple, uncompromising terms about what was needed to make the country right in the face of growing economic inequality, foreign adventurism and more. No matter that he’s unelectable as President, for them, he is authentic particularly in comparison to Hilary.  When asked what they would do if she became candidate , a group of college students said they would probably choose not to vote. There is no doubt that seeing Hilary in action is also to witness her vulnerability. Her speech hit all the right buttons, but even its apparent passion seem manufactured and market tested. With her experience, polish and power she should have swatted Bernie to one side by now, but instead she is in the trenches of a hard fought political battle – and this is even before she has to face the real opposition of the Republican candidate for President.

  •  The only sure thing is uncertainty

There is a sense in talking to people who have witnessed many Presidential contests that this one is somewhat different. There is a real battle underway about the future of the country – not just about policy but also about its very essence. Moving between Republican and Democratic supporters is to enter different cultural universes, where attitudes – on homosexuality, guns, religion and a host of other issues – sit in direct opposition to each other. Political commentators have been predicating the fall of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders since they first appeared as candidates – and yet these two opposites continue to flourish. The opinion polls which once could be depended upon to provide some guide to what will happen have been confounded by the unpredictability of the voters.

Witnessing the fight for New Hampshire primary is an education in the both the positives and negatives of American electoral contests. It is also an eye-opener on the raw divisions in American society. And while every election is important, this one is highly significant given the uncertainty about the state of the country and where it is heading. So in anticipation of the vote tomorrow and of the others to come, I am fastening my seat belt for the rough and eventful ride in the coming year

The Podcast Gold Rush

golden-microphoneFool’s gold or a golden age? These are the two divergent views on podcasts that are being voiced as on-line audio garners more and more attention.

As explained in a previous blog I sit firmly with the ‘golden age’ viewpoint. Podcasts represent the greatest opportunity for accessible high quality audio since BBC Radio began broadcasting from a makeshift studio in central London ninety five years ago.

That may be a slight exaggeration, but the development of smartphones, growing access to the internet, and the innovations of digital recording technology are unleashing a new bonanza of audio production.

But firstly to address the detractors. Jessi Hempel from Wired sees the podcast phenomenon as overblown with an uncertain future. ‘Like those blogs of yesteryear,’ she writes, ‘the promise feels huge. But as that brief era also taught us, the golden age doesn’t last.’

She cites an estimate of 180,000 active podcasts, suggesting that many of them are like the prospectors of the Wild West who ended up with handfuls of gravel as opposed to the riches of their dreams. She also contends that most people still haven’t figured out ‘how to listen to them yet’, and that podcasts are hard to share given the lack of user-friendly platforms that would make on-line audio simple to produce and be heard. As a result Hempel says, ‘only 17% (my italics) of Americans have ever listened to a podcast’.

Only 17%! That amounts to 55 million people – a figure that would make most radio executives weep with joy. In addition that number which dates from last year is an increase of 16 million or 5% from 2014 – a rate of growth that is the stuff of fantasy for those same executives.

This phenomenal expansion is being driven by a combination of new technology and innovative content.

Podcasts cater to a wide variety of listeners’ interests as well as allowing access cut to the convenience of the consumer. Content can be disseminated in whole programs or alternatively smaller bite size segments (The Moth). They can be heard in weekly episodes or binged upon marathon sessions (Serial).

Digital technology also means that there is a far more ‘democratic’ environment for program makers to produce and broadcast their wares. Where once studios, a radio frequency and sound technicians were required, now there is only need for a computer, an internet connection and a basic understanding of user-friendly software.

New technology also means that listeners need only a mobile phone or computer to hear the podcasts.

And where America is currently leading in popularizing on-line audio the rest of the world is likely to follow. According to recent research global access to smartphone technology is exploding with 7.1 billion in 2014, compared to approximately 7.5 billion a year later. Most of those new phones are being taken up by people in the developing world with the greatest growth in the Asia/Pacific Region and Africa.

All of this goes to highlight the vast untapped riches of podcasts, not only in the US and other developed countries but around the world.

Savvy investors, broadcasters and media networks are waking up to the possibilities – commercial and otherwise – of this new audio landscape.

Just this week The Economist reported that ‘an industry to support podcasting is developing’.  It cited a number of examples of new media companies devoted to hosting and monetizing on-line audio.

But the podcasting ‘industry’ is in its infant stages and as such it is destined for big shake-ups.  Writing in Nieman Lab two months ago, Joshua Benton laid out his assessment for the future of this newly popular medium which he summed up as, ‘exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents’.

Benton foresees many of the current podcasts falling by the wayside leaving a more modest number of polished productions, along with a few commercial ‘platforms’ upon which the audio can be made and uploaded.

Amid all the uncertainty of this nascent medium, one of the few certainties seems to be that as it develops, many podcasts that exist today will face into obscurity.

Those quality podcasts that remain and stand out, then have a chance of hitting the rich seam of large audiences. They will also create usher a new era of inventiveness and creativity for audio. That will prove equally true of commercial and public service productions for listeners from Los Angeles to Lagos.

So for any doubters – the gold age is for real and there are riches to be won for those pioneers who venture into this new and exciting territory.

Trying to remember the departed not the disease

Over a decade after my mother’s death I consider the lingering effects of the illness that plagued her life

Mum1

My Mum’s handbag normally contained a few perennial items: balloons, sunglasses and wine gums (candies). She kept the balloons to give out to her grandchildren, great-nephews and nieces along with other kids she encountered; the sunglasses were an accessory she never did without even in the depths of winter, and the wine gums were the occasional treat she allowed herself.

Mum was idiosyncratic, and vaguely eccentric. She possessed the cut glass accent of an English Duchess – the result of childhood elocution lessons, and favoured long flowing skirts (particularly in summer) accompanied with beaded necklaces and glittering rings.

She died at the age of 62, fourteen years after my father who she always adored. The memories of her from childhood and adulthood are crystal clear, and yet at the same time they are clouded. They are blurred by the illness that she suffered for most of her life, and which also cast a long shadow over all our family.

In 1977 Mum was hurt in a house fire, which inflicted serious burns on her body and also wounded her deep within. In the wake of the accident she developed depression and then manic depression – latterly renamed bipolar disorder.

My childhood was punctuated by her periods of dark depression when she would retreat into her bedroom, emerging only occasionally as a teary-eyed and wisp-like presence. By contrast during her manic times, she was a tornado of activity, mowing the lawn at dawn, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and speaking at lightning speed as her mouth attempted to keep pace with her overactive mind.

For my Dad, my brother, sister and myself, it was generally disorientating, sometimes frightening and occasionally funny – such as the manic phase when she went on a shopping spree for Edwardian carriage clocks, which we then had to return to local antique shops.

My Mum’s illness was also our family secret. We didn’t discuss it outside the house, lending it the air of something dark and shameful.

There came a time when my Mum began to talk about it, and we took our cue from her. But mental illness is hard to discuss not only because it is painful and a social stigma persists, but also because it is so hard to explain. For those who have not experienced it at first hand, it is impossible to convey how confusing it is, not just for the sufferer but also for those caught in the immediate vicinity. The boundaries of normality become twisted and distorted, in behavior, routine and family dynamics.

For me, it was like an incendiary device going off in the heart of our family. My mother bore the brunt of the blast from her illness, but its effects spread like a destructive shock wave through us all. Family life was always held hostage by the whims of the disease. One day for no apparent reason she could be transformed from a happy smiling and dependable parent, into a mass of anxiety, fatigue and tears needing gentle care.

From my long years of observation I can only liken mental illness to cancer of the soul. That mutant force fought a relentless battle with my Mum for her essence and character. She battled the illness, trying not to let it win, and dictate how she should act, and who she would be. There were times of peace when it was kept at bay thanks to a delicate balance of medications and good fortune. But there were other long periods when the illness overcame her, wreaking its chaos upon us all.

In recalling my Mum, almost eleven years to the day since her death, I find the memories of her illness intruding upon my thoughts about the person she was, and the times we had together. We argued and bickered as a mother and child do. But there were many good times, when I got to fully enjoy her lively and loving presence.

I remember wandering through Regents Park, with her and my then girlfriend – now wife – drinking tea and gossiping as she took photos of the musicians playing on the bandstand. I recall the gentle hugs she gave and her affectionate reprimand to me not to hug her back ‘like a sack of potatoes’, and I remember her inexhaustible energy for walking in all weather and all places including through central London and the Egyptian desert.

But the problem is that I have to fight hard to get to those good memories, navigating a path between the pain, confusion and fear that the disease brought. It was like an ingrained stain that spread beyond her and that is still very hard to remove.

Bi-polar was her nemesis – and ours – to the very end, over a decade ago. She became physically unwell with a difficult to diagnose condition. But she was also in the midst of a severe manic phase, when her mind moved seamlessly between real and imagined thoughts. The doctors missed what was there, and she died. Such tragic occurrences aren’t uncommon in people with mental illnesses.

Today like every day I remember my Mum with love, but I also continue to hate her illness with a vengeance for what it robbed from her and our all family.

To know more and/or to donate go to:

Bipolar UK

The Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance (USA)

London Calling

London phoneboxes2I have just returned from the annual family pilgrimage to London which involved too much time spent navigating the traffic jams and not enough time with friends and relations.

Unusually, this trip came a full year since the last jaunt to London. I am normally able to drop in a short visit thanks to work. But a whole twelve months away felt like a long time, especially as London seems to be changing at the speed of light.

Once upon a time the city could be depended upon for certain things, such as dilapidated public transport, dirty streets, mediocre food, and a sense that Londoners were enduring rather than enjoying the city.

But how things have changed. It was a shock to arrive into the brand new Heathrow Terminal 2, which not only functions well, but proved to be a pleasure to travel through with its light airy interior and inventive artistic installation – resembling an engorged metal snake. The Tube also – while not exactly a joy to experience in summer – (when will the invention of air conditioning reach the Underground?) – was clean, well lit, and efficient.

At every turn there seemed to be something new. King’s Cross where I once lived has become a haven for day trippers as opposed to tripping junkies. Where runaways, prostitutes and drunks used to fill the space in front of the station, crowds now bustle around a piazza filled with organic food stalls.

The south of the River Thames – a place that some Londoners preferred to forget existed – has become a magnet for cultural venues and business. Wandering from London Bridge Station to the Design Museum near Tower Bridge shows off both renovated Victorian warehouses and gleaming new office buildings.

Londoners themselves have been transformed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of newcomers. In the space of a couple of hours I encountered a museum guide from France, a butcher from Slovakia, a barista from Poland, and a mini-cab driver from Somalia – all had arrived in the city within the past few years, and all now called the city home.

A walk down any random street was akin to a stroll through corridors of the United Nations. London is a meeting place for work and play for millions of people from every corner of the globe.  But of course as with every success story there is a downside. The city’s population is estimated at 8.6 million; the highest number in its history. That means public services are stretched to bursting point. Travelling on a packed Tube train at rush hour requires a contortionist’s dexterity combined with a Bedouin’s tolerance for heat.

House prices have also reached stratospheric levels leaving many people literally stuck out in the cold. The city needs to build swathes of properties to house those not earning multi-digit salaries. But the current government seems more inclined to accommodate the needs of well-heeled foreign visitors seeking a bolt-hole, rather than finding space for those truly in need.

Nevertheless, the city is undergoing a renaissance based on its business friendly, creative and tolerant mindset. It is a beautiful and irresistible mish mash of architectural styles, languages, and cultures.

Of course even as some things change, so others remain stubbornly the same. The area where we were staying is thoroughly gentrified with gourmet butchers, organic cafes, and yoga studios. But the pub at the end of the high street, stands as a monument to that proud British tradition of noisy chat, irreverence and utter inebriation. And come Saturday night, the raucous drunks staggering between crushed beer cans and packets of chips served as a reminder that while London may be a world city, it still retains some old habits and traditions that make it forever……London.

Happy Birthday?

In a matter of days I will hit a half century. I am not referring to cricket scores but rather to age.

50 years old, which once (not so long ago) seemed to exist in the distant mists of time, has now descended upon me with a sudden thump.

Up until a just a few days ago, I dismissed this milestone as insignificant, amounting to just another number and a business opportunity for Hallmark.

But as the day has neared like a rapidly approaching chasm in the path of a runaway train, so I have found myself mulling over its meaning. I have been dredging my mind for memories of past (mis)adventures and speculating on future exploits.

One of the prevailing feelings in the midst of this introspection is injustice, of having been cheated – that while my birth certificate says fifty my emotional body clock is stuck somewhere in my mid-20’s. I feel like Tom Hanks in the film ‘Big’ – only with less maturity.

Never has the saying that ‘youth is wasted on the young’ felt more appropriate. It seems grossly unfair that the early years of our lives go by as if in slow motion. But as time passes, so the clock speeds up, to the point where weeks fly by like days, and years pass in the space of months.

It would be much fairer if ageing operated the other way around. Time should bound along at a canter during the early decades so that youthful mistakes, hangovers, heartbreak, and the inevitable embarrassments are quickly forgotten.

Similarly, the later years should amble by, allowing sufficient time to appreciate the achievements won, the lessons learnt, and the tastes acquired before everything draws to a very slow and satisfying close.

As it is, getting older is filled with unfair contradictions. I have a wealth of experience, but can’t remember the details. I can afford and appreciate fine food, but according to my doctor I am not meant to eat it. I can also enjoy great wine and whisky, but the merest sniff of alcohol carries the possibility of a hangover to follow.

And as I age, so I am forced to spend more (of the rapidly passing and diminishing) time carrying out running repairs on my fraying bodily fabric. Exercise which was once effortless and recreational is now an ache-filled necessity to ward off the encroaching years and added weight.

The other problem with fifty is that in chronological terms it is stranded in no-mans land. I am no longer filled with youthful vigour, yet at the same time I have not yet acquired the Obi-Wan Kenobi-like wisdom of those who have seen it all. Middle-age perfectly captures what it is to be fifty – not at the extremes or the cutting edge but rather in the somewhat featureless center.

This may sound like my birthday has all the makings of mid-life crisis, but I will not be rushing out to buy a Harley Davidson or getting “FOREVER YOUNG’ tattooed across my chest.

Firstly, crises involve a lot of effort, and at this stage of my life I have neither the energy nor the time to waste in trying to re-capture my long departed youth. Secondly, at the end of the day, even with the whining, aches, indigestion, and sprouting grey hairs there are a number of advantages to reaching fifty.

Despite decades of rank irresponsibility, some experience has been gained along the way, making the here and now more than OK. Professionally, I have become useful for something other than prison or filling man-holes, and personally I have gathered just enough maturity to have miraculously acquired the most fantastic family possible.

The truth is that the view from the perch of fifty is pretty fine. I have a lot to look back on, while also (hopefully) having a decent number of years to experience what lies ahead. At the same time, I still have the capability to enjoy life’s offerings while also (after childcare, bills, holidays, and house repairs) possessing – just about – the means to do so.

So while fifty is just another number (alongside 600 months, 18,262 days and 438,288 hours – but who’s counting?), it is also a landmark to be considered, borne and possibly even enjoyed.

Thus on July 25th I shall be raising a glass of fine wine or single malt whisky, neither too early nor too late in the day, and toasting the past while looking to the future.

L’Chaim – To Life!

Holding tight and letting go: what a child’s first time at sleep-away camp means for a Dad

campfire_kids3There’s been a long interlude between my last blog and this one. I can attempt to blame work travel, of which there has been a fair amount, or more honestly own up to a bout of inertia.

But I have been propelled into action to write by an aching heart caused by the advent of summer.

This is ironic given that the weather is glorious (apart from when it’s too humid to venture outdoors), holidays are on the horizon, and it’s the perfect season for two of my favorite activities: drinking cold beer and standing over a smoky BBQ.

The reason for my longing is the fact that Livvy – our elder daughter – is away for the first time at summer camp. She is currently in North Carolina swimming, playing sports, camping, grilling marshmallows over nighttime bonfires and seemingly having the time of her life. She headed off two weeks ago to a camp we had carefully selected as offering a down to earth fun experience, with a good sprinkling of liberal-minded Jewish values and practices thrown in.

The camp runs for over three weeks during which time, she is not allowed to call us, and we are not allowed to ring her. Phones and emails are off limits for the campers, and our knowledge of what Livvy is up to is limited to seeing daily pictures of her on the camp website.

If the width of her smile on the photos is anything to go by, then she seems to be a picture of happiness and well-being. Given the absence of letters from her (apart from a sole 40 word long note), I can only assume that she is having such a good time that she has temporarily forgotten her parents!

By contrast, I have written to her at least every other day, and we have sent two care packages with all the essentials such as new socks, stick on tattoos and Minion goggles (one of life’s essentials for any fan of ‘Despicable Me’).

When the subject of going to sleep away camp came up last year, Lysette and I reacted with similar shock and horror to the idea that our eldest (yet still young) daughter would head off hundreds of miles from home for almost a month.

In Israel and the UK, the idea of sending off a 9 year old who had only spent a night or two away from home, to the care of (trained) strangers, verged on child cruelty. But in the US – particularly among Jews – going away to sleep-away camp is a rite of passage. Added to which Livvy embraced the idea with little doubt and great enthusiasm, leaving us with the sense that to deny her this important chapter of her childhood would be surrendering to our own inhibitions.

Some of Livvy’s contemporaries have gone off for seven weeks, but the prospect of having her away for such a length of time, is too much for my close-to-home English/Israeli influenced sensibilities. As it is, I have found myself gazing longingly at her picture, and relocating to her bedroom in the middle of the night.

But despite missing her and worrying about what she is up to, I also understand the importance and value of her time at camp. She is establishing her independence, making far-away friends, learning new skills both social and practical – all without us present. She is also having a Jewish experience that is fun, positive and endlessly rich.

Edie – Livvy’s younger sister – has closely studied the pictures emanating from camp and informed us that next year, she too wants to go. I find myself greeting her pronouncement with a mixture of trepidation and pride.  I dislike the idea of not having my daughters close by, but at the same time I am admiring of their willingness to strike out on their own.

It seems only a very short while ago that Livvy and Edie were gurgling infants, who couldn’t do anything for themselves, and would cry the second we were out of sight. But time has flown by at an incredible pace, and seemingly in an instant they have been transformed into capable individuals with a strong sense of themselves and what they want.

I am only just beginning to understand that parenting is not only about guiding your children hand in hand, but also letting them stray from you to make discoveries for themselves. In that respect it’s not just my nine year old daughter who is gaining important insights from her time away at camp.

I can’t wait for Livvy to come home (7 days, 3 hours and counting!). At the same time I want the experience to stretch out for her, knowing that it will likely become engraved in her character forever.

Washington DC – Dysfunction in Democracy

Parliaments are the engine rooms of democracies. They are where the (often dirty) work of government gets done. What they look like, and how they function says a great deal about the society in which they operate.

Admittance not guaranteed to all

Admittance not guaranteed to all

Last week, after more than two years in the US I finally made it to Congress to see America’s federal legislature in action. The building sitting atop Capitol Hill looks out grandly upon Washington, stamping its dominant presence upon the national monuments and government offices set out below.

The building was made to impress. Beyond the inevitable security barriers, body scanners and X-ray machines, it’s all neo-Greco-Roman pillars and marble, complemented by classical 19th century European-style interior design. Carefully positioned statues reflect the diverse origins and achievements of the United States, including busts of a Native American chief and an astronaut.

Along shiny, broad corridors are the two chambers that make up Congress; the upper house – the Senate, and the lower House of Representatives.

The Senate chamber which was mostly empty when I visited has a clubby ambience, which is fitting given that it has just one hundred members representing over 320 million American citizens. The grand (and mostly elderly) men and women huddle in groups of two or three, chatting when not delivering speeches from their schoolroom-like wooden desks. The House of Representatives akin to the teenagers table at a family gathering; younger, busier and noisier – with legislators slyly check their phones while chatting volubly with colleagues.

The public galleries were a mix of those who came to be impressed, and those who came to press a cause. There were tourists, grandparents with grandchildren, middle-aged couples, college students and others. There were also lobbyists – many on this particular day coming from AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) which was holding its annual conference in DC. Alongside AIPAC there were others pressing their own causes, including a delegation from the civil aviation industry.

In the US lobbying is seen as – technically at least – an important element within the country’s democracy. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees it as a right. But many ordinary Americans now see the various lobby groups as having tainted their democracy with too much influence and too much money. Recent figures by a non-profit organization called the Center for Responsive Politics show that spending by lobby groups in Congress has doubled since 2000 reaching a total of $3.23billion last year! The same database shows that John Boehner, the Republic Speaker of the Senate received over $17m in campaign contributions in 2014, with substantial amounts coming from groups representing the securities and investment industry, real estate, retirees, oil and gas, and mining.

The US Congress as well as the offices of other elected officials are awash with cash from lobbyists, big and small. All this money has a distorting and corrupting influence upon the workings of the legislature. Senators and Congressmen are dancing to the tune of the donors rather than the voters. This was most sharply illustrated in April 2013, when there were efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers and ban assault weapons in the wake of the slaughter by a crazed gunman of twenty children and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Despite polling data showing a majority of Americans favoured these measures, it failed to pass in the Senate, after the National Rifle Association brought its weighty political bludgeon to bear upon wavering Senators, ensuring they followed its diktats – or face the consequences.

All this has translated into disgust and disillusionment by many voters for their elected representatives. In the Congressional mid-terms four months ago, only 36% turned out to cast their ballot, the lowest figure in over seventy years.

Congress - in need of repair

Congress – in need of repair

Apathy is flourishing at the expense of democracy. Ordinary Americans feel disconnected from the mechanics of government. They see politicians as a breed apart, more interested in preserving their own comfortable seats and satisfying their donors, rather than looking to more modest needs of the average citizen.

The Constitution begins with words ‘We the People’ emphasizing the primacy of the populace in the American system.  The founders of the country sought to build a society that protected against the influence of the privileged few, and put government – as much as possible – in the hands of the citizenry. There is thus a sense of tragic irony to the current situation, where the people feel excluded from the engine room of their democracy.

After wandering the halls of Congress I left to admire the grandeur of the building from outside. But in viewing the obscured Dome currently undergoing building work, it was clear that the faults in America’s legislature go far beyond the fabric of the structure.