A couple of months back in Madison, Wisconsin, an elderly socialist senator — whom no one beyond his immediate family had even heard of two months earlier — shuffled on stage at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and surveyed the 10,000 people who had travelled from miles around to hear him speak for about 20 minutes.
Looking unkempt, with wisps of white hair clinging gamely to his forehead, he adjusted his glasses, steadied himself behind the lectern and launched into an amiable, rambling speech about the widening gap between rich and poor, the need for a living wage and strengthening social security.
This wasn’t “I have a dream” or “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” stuff.
But that didn’t matter. His audience hung on every stuttering word, cheered every pause and waved their hand-made “Bernie 2016” banners until he’d left the stage.
Right across America, 2016 fever is in full swing, even though the election is over a year away. Every weekend hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk affiliated to both the Democrats and Republicans turn out for mass rallies, spend their weekends making placards, hold garage sales to raise money and drive sometimes hundreds of kilometres to voice their support. Many of them make regular donations, mostly just five bucks here, or a bunch of raffle tickets there.
These aren’t political junkies or activists, and they don’t spend every waking hour surfing news websites to digest the latest nuggets from the campaign trail. But they are motivated to devote themselves to getting their chosen candidate into the White House for four years.
During the 2012 election, they cared to the tune of just under $6 billion, the total raised by both parties, or roughly $20 for every man, woman and child in the US.
What would the turnout be if Bill Shorten hired The Gabba for an election rally next year? How many little old ladies would labour into the night stitching together rosettes for a Scott Morrison campaign stop?
Admittedly Malcolm Turnbull inspires more confidence, but how many little old ladies in rural Queensland or western Sydney would sacrifice a perfectly good evening in front of The Block to hand-paint a “We love Malcolm!” placard?
It’s no accident that three of the Republican contenders — Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — aren’t even politicians. They’ve never been elected to anything in their lives. And it helps that the GOP frontrunner is himself a reality-TV star. Trump has insulted and shouted his way into the limelight, and predictions of his eventual political death seem a little exaggerated.
A red-faced, snarling billionaire who wants to build a wall to keep the Mexican rapists out and deport 11 million Hispanics who’ve only ever called American home would be a laughingstock in any other country. But he’s not. He fills arenas with blue-collar citizens who think only he can Make American Great Again.
A bit different to the Labor Party leadership battle between Shorten and Anthony Albanese. A televised debate between those two would rightly be consigned to the Sky Business Channel and be watched by about 32 of their closest acolytes.
Then there’s our version of Sarah Palin: Jacqui Lambie — normal mum, prone to gaffes, standing up for traditional values and disdained by “proper” politicians who’d kill for her profile. But whereas Palin became a superstar Tea Party phenomenon, worshiped by the libertarian ladies who lunch, Lambie would be lucky to fill Burnie Town Hall in Tassie.
Even our first female prime minister provoked an overwhelming and deafening … ambivalence.
Admittedly she was hamstrung because she talks like Kath & Kim’s more bogan sister just before a procedure to have her sinuses flushed. On the world stage she affected a dreary half-speed monotone with all the passion and flare of a metronome.
Contrast that with the euphoria that would accompany a Hilary Clinton election win among a decent wedge of the electorate. In fact, also contrast it with the despair and self-flagellation that would also greet a Clinton victory among another decent-sized wedge of voters.
People care about her — they violently love her or violently hate her.
Did anyone really love or hate Gillard? They might have warmed to her a bit, or been a bit annoyed, but that was as far as it went.
Compare her to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who is herself no great orator, but who commands respect for her grasp of economics, skill in driving through change and the way she was elected with a radical agenda that was duly implemented. Not to mention single-handedly saving Europe along the way.
Even slimy old Silvio Berlusconi, on trial for tax offences and sex with an underage hooker (overturned on appeal), still drew crowds of baying supporters outside the courtroom.
And then there was the disaster that was the Mad Monk. Would he really have stood a chance of being made leader of any other party in the known universe?
Was there ever anyone less prepared for the top job, despite years in opposition baying for it?
Perhaps we bear some of the blame, as we elected these people in the first place. Well, no, we shouldn’t. How can we vote in a parliamentary visionary when there are none?
Veteran political correspondent Laurie Oakes got it right just before the last election:
“The sad truth is we have a couple of political pygmies heading the two major parties in this election. Both have small ambitions for the country. Both are afraid to lead. Both think they can con their way into The Lodge.”
It’s worth asking where the next Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke or even Kevin Rudd will come from.
All had a clearly thought-through agenda for change coupled with the charisma to connect to the electorate and make it happen, although Rudd made the minor miscalculation that it was only the people who had elected him that mattered.
So when Turnbull calls the election next year, don’t expect tickertape parades at town centres near you, or to feel inexplicably drawn to attend a mass rally at a football stadium and be swept up by the unfettered hype and patriotism. Instead, come to terms with the fact that one pygmy will beat another pygmy.
The following day you’ll either be a bit pissed off or a bit relieved, depending on who won. You won’t have worn any rosettes or stood in line for a selfie with a local candidate you probably couldn’t even name anyway.
It’s just as well we legally have to vote because otherwise, why would we bother?