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Outsider Ramblings on the US Election Process Overseas

A friend of mine, journalist Elisabeth Eaves, wrote this nice piece "Hunting for Republicans in Paris" for Slate. It's a glimpse into how the election is manifesting overseas, and how much of the organizing is coming from the Democratic camp, no doubt a lesson learned from 2000 when the overseas military vote (mostly Republican) made a difference in the outcome. As she writes,

Americans at home have called this election a crucial one. But it may be even more galvanizing for Americans overseas. After all, it's the first presidential election since the Vietnam era that will turn on foreign policy, and those living abroad feel the impact of U.S. foreign policy every day. They see the antiwar protests. They watch news channels that don't edit out the dead bodies. And they see a hatred for America on the rise.

Americans abroad opposed the war in Iraq. This goes without saying," said Connie Borde, a mother of six and the chairwoman of Democrats Abroad France. "The unilateral way in which it was conducted has made Americans abroad feel vulnerable, like we are hanging out here alone."

While this statement is hard to prove one way or another, this sentiment makes sense to me. Living here in Paris these past three years, I don't think I've ever seen (or heard of) my American cousins behave like this before: a mix of new found humility and activism, almost missionary-like in fervor and purpose. A positive unintended consequence, I think, in the midst of this geopolitical mess. Just this week, for instance, I got no less than three messages to attend a live broadcast of the US Vice Presidential debates (starting at 2am our time) hosted by various bars and restaurants in Paris. People staying up all night to watch a Veep debate is zealotry indeed! And Monday, as we were coming back from dinner on the Left Bank on the Metro, a transnational elfish looking woman, head buried deep in some spiral notebooks, immediately looked up at us as she heard my boyfriend mount his political rant, a ritual cleanse I've noticed him perform of late. Soon thereafter, she approached us in English, apologized for overhearing, and gave us her registration drive card with an empathetic plea to vote. We politely and regretfully said that this wasn't possible: being Canadian, like the rest of the planet, we were disenfranchised from the current election on the future global order. Better luck in a different world.



(Patrick Chappatte, Cartoons on World Affairs. Patrick's cartoons appear in the Geneva daily "Le Temps" and in the Sunday edition of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung. He also does a weekly cartoon for the International Herald Tribune.)

Now, I can hear the rebuttals already. "What do you mean global election? There is no such thing because there is no global government." Of course this is true. I'm being cheeky and hyperbolic. But it's also true that our current institutions are a poor match for the world we currently live in. The fact remains that this election will have a material impact on the rest of the world, especially people living overseas. We do feel the brunt of these foreign policies in direct and indirect ways. I can no longer travel as care-free and safely to the places I once could just five years ago. The degrees of freedom in terms of my personal business have narrowed considerably. And this lack of say, this powerlessness to exercise my right to make certain decision-makers accountable, really pisses me and many, many, many people off. Over the long term, this democratic deficit is clearly unsustainable. The bottom-up dynamic will break the political dam.

Taken from a long view, this is really not a Republican versus Democrat thing. Even large multinationals are feeling the negative consequences of the last four years, either through boycotts of American brands or through the bottom line. Quite simply, economic growth and markets favours stability and certainty. So you can make an argument (which I heard at Davos last year) that this administration is single-handedly unravelling 50 years of US multilateral leadership in building a global legal and economic order which multinationals need to conduct business around the world. Of course, this can be seen as a good or bad thing, depending on your view. Anti-globalization activists may cheer hurrah, while neoliberals would not. I personally think the neoliberal view is not sustainable nor reflective of how the world (or economics for that matter) really works. Thus my biggest concern is that we don't have a back-up plan for when and if the current system of wealth creation starts to hiccup and unravel. But that's another story.

Back to Eaves' story, part of the problem in living in such a large country like the United States, so isolated physically and psychologically from much of the world, is a lack of feedback loops across space and time. (This is a species-wide problem to some degree.) Put another way, it's hard for the average American to feel, up close and personal, the consequences of its leader's actions, and more generally the implications of what's happening beyond its boarders. While this has always been thus, as I was reminded recently sitting on the beaches of Normandy recalling how long it took the US to join both World War I and II, September 11th may have changed this dynamic; for this was one gigantic feedback loop, the logical consequence of policies dating back to the American-lead coup in Iran in 1953, the first and best definition of blowback. But even with 9/11, the difference between how the East Coast and West Coast have internalized this event is quite large. People in Manhattan were emotionally shaken to the core, while for residents of San Diego or Portland what transpired was inherently more intellectualized and abstract. Distance from the event does matter. Today, with body bags mounting, the war in Iraq might be a feedback loop of sorts. Or not: because a1000 dead is not the same as 50,000 dead, the death toll in Vietnam. The shock signal has to be louder, an amplification which Michael Moore's film tried to achieve.

The context of 2004 is different from 1972 and 1945. In our interdependent world, it's hard for any country to be isolationist. One could argue, then, that the pervasive and instantaneous global media means that Americans are no longer isolated. That they don't need to travel outside their boarders to know what's going on in the world. If only that were true. More information does not bring better understanding. Actually, it might be quite the opposite. As Brian Eno recently said at a talk he gave for ArtAngel at the Royal Institution in London a few weeks week, the UK and the US have a dangerously mediated environment. If you don't believe this, just for fun, start reading four different newspapers from four difference cultures -- pick Singapore, Brazil, India, and hey even Canada -- and you'll see what I mean. You'll read things you'd never hear in the US media, especially news items that should be there. As Russians would say, the biggest difference between the US and the former Soviet Union is that at least they knew that it was propaganda. Even well educated Americans and British are only dimly aware of just how much of the political agenda and discourse is being driven by a narrow set of informational and political parameters. For instance, immigration has been pounded upon relentlessly in British media, but for most people in the UK it's really not an issue, or at least not in the way that it's being framed. The same could be said for countless situations in recent media history, the poster child being the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which was a politically driven cause by a Washington elite that was entertaining to the average American but ultimately not a big, morally-threatening deal. One bumper sticker put it in perspective: "at least when Bill lied nobody died."


(Cartoonist Alen Lauzan Falcon, Santiago, Chile)

Whether it's the fact that Johnny Depp is hosting an election drive party at one of his clubs in Paris, or watching John Kerry's sister shuttle across the Atlantic more times than the Secretary of State, or hearing the great sucking sound coming from the blogsphere as the information vacuum left from mainstream media gets filled with other voices using different channels: these are important signs of the times, both symptoms of the problem and pointers to what's emerging as a solution. So despite my disenfranchisement and frustration (which we try to compensate for by getting otherwise apathetic Americans to vote), I feel that overall this kind of democratic verve from the City of Light is indeed enlightening, and perhaps a glimmer of hope for what's ahead.

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If the stress of disenfranchisement is too much for you, take heart. The statehood process is surprisingly simple and the former Canadians would probably wind up with nearly 60 electoral votes.

Posted by: Karl Gallagher on 6 Oct 04

What if countries had a Minister (/ Secretary) of Global Feedback? The mandate would be to represent those interests and opinions of the rest of the world, that were focused on or relevant to the country in question.

Almost every country now has some equivalent of a Minister of Foreign Affairs, who tends to consider projecting a country's voice outward. The symmetrical position - filtering and interpreting the voices inward - could help in "soft power" and diplomacy, but also in learning from best practices (and worst practices!) elsewhere.

Posted by: Hassan on 6 Oct 04

Good idea, Zaid. That's heading in the right direction. (Hey, I thought you were still away at Pioneers of Change summer school?) More ombudspersons, perhaps, would work within the current system. Start tapping into the large disapora networks, although these can distort politics terribly.

Lots more creative brainstorming needed here. Do you know anyone who has thought about this? And the devil would be in the details. Within the current nation state system, this would be informal feedback at best with few teeth.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 7 Oct 04

Since my reply doesn't show up in the TrackBack or the Technorati page, I'll have to do it here. Nicole-Anne raises some interesting points, and as a whole is a substansive post, but I do have some caveats for her.

Posted by: Jason Holliston on 7 Oct 04

Just for the record, I'm not the "Hassan" who made the post above :-)

Posted by: Zaid on 22 Oct 04



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