Elections from afar: misunderstanding

Although the campaigns have been raging for what seems like forever, the 2016 American presidential election is finally drawing near. In these last weeks leading up to November 8, the UK will be speaking with Americans at the RUG about why this year’s election matters to them and what it’s like to witness the madness from across the ocean.
By Traci White

Question: What do you feel that Dutch people don’t understand about the elections in particular, but also America in general?

Early in Trump’s rise, I was surprised by how many Dutch people thought he was going to get a lot of backing from the business community since he was such a prominent businessman.

In my mind, Trump’s businesses are famous for bankruptcies and semi-legal scams, but it has become apparent that that is not entirely true outside or inside the US. I think the thing about the US in general that has been met with the most shock is just how systemically heterogeneous it is. For example, the idea that Groningen and Delfzijl might have wildly different rules about voting in a national election seems crazy to the Dutch, but I think that’s the norm in the US. This comes up recently since there have been ties in the Supreme Court, and now there are federal level laws that are truly supposed to be interpreted differently in different parts of the country because of unresolved disagreements in lower level courts.

I think the most commonly given difference is the way elections are held and determined.

American elections tend to be very, very concentrated on sensation and the person in question, while Dutch elections are quite nuchter (sober?) and focuses a lot more on the content of the argument. I guess it’s more of a cultural thing, and the contrast is very enjoyable to see.

I think it’s hard to grasp just how big and diverse the United States is.

And how alienated we can be from each other in a society that big. As a city-dwelling cosmopolitan liberal who’s spent many years in Europe, I have more in common with similar people in the Netherlands than I do with most Americans.

That’s a tough question.

I think people in the Netherlands (and all over Europe) are paying close attention to the US election, and understand relatively well what is going on. They can also grasp why someone like Trump is so popular in the US at the moment, since similar politicians (from Wilders to Le Pen) are doing very well in European elections. Perhaps the way that issues related to race are affecting the campaign are the most difficult to grasp, since I think the debate about racism is very different in the US and Europe. While racism is a tremendous problem on both sides of the Atlantic, Americans seem much more willing to accept it as a problem (look at Clinton’s performance during the debate for example), even if this doesn’t lead to much progress.

It’s sort of like the trial by jury system.

This idea of your peers making judgments instead of knowledgeable, trained experts is much like the idea of individuals being voted into office instead of parties. In the Netherlands, it matters who is on the list, but the election is definitely not only about the names on that list. I think it is difficult for non-Americans to fully appreciate the fundamental, historically-conditioned distrust of government that Americans feel.

In general, people don’t appreciate how irrelevant the political parties have become at the national level.

[Thomas] Frank’s ‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’ is a nice read about the Republicans. I think the declining role of the parties is also the reason why personalities have become more important in American politics, but I see the same trend in the Netherlands and in Europe. And people underestimate Trump, who is clever and practical (non-ideological) about seeking issues where he can score. In general, the Dutch are not badly informed, but lots of people cannot resist finding comfort in banal nationalist stereotypes – about the US, but also about the UK, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Russia, etc. The US is a big place and some of us have been involved in very few lynchings, don’t have personal arsenals, and know that Denmark is not the capital of Brussels. And Europeans have always been surprised to see that there are several parties on the ballot.

The near impossibility of ballot access for third-party presidential candidates is rarely discussed in the media or elsewhere.

Individuals can run as independent candidates, but there are different rules in each of the 50 States to have their names printed on the ballots. These candidates outside of the Democratic and Republican parties need to collect over 800,000 signatures to have their names appear on ballots in every State. In the 2016 election, there are three independent candidates: Jill Stein for the Greens, Gary Johnson for the Libertarians, and Evan McMullin who is mostly backed by anti-Trump Republicans.

Many Americans see a vote for a third-party candidate as a vote for the other side (i.e. a Democrat may see a vote for Jill Stein as a vote for Trump or a Republican might see a vote for Evan McMullin as a vote for Clinton). In reality, a vote for Trump is a vote for Trump and a vote for Clinton is a vote for Clinton and a vote for Stein, Johnson, or McMullin is a vote for Stein, Johnson, or McMullin. Period.

During this election, I keep asking myself: who are all these people saying they will vote for Trump?

I’m from Louisiana so I actually know a few individuals who support him but still, I assumed only a small minority of Americans overall would vote for Trump. I am shocked and disturbed by his continuing popularity. It reminds me that my America is only a small slice of the whole America.

I think it’s hard to wrap one’s head around how vast the country is. During the 2008 election, I was in San Francisco. I knew Obama would win California handily and I assumed that most people in northern California would vote for him. But a friend explained to me that no way would people from her little hometown in northern California vote for Obama. She said it all came down to one issue for them: gun control. They want to keep their guns and for that reason alone will vote Republican every single time. This made me realize how big and diverse the state of California alone is. Each region has its own political profile. And the number of regions in the whole country is staggering. I think this helps explain why, while I may not have come across many of them, there are clearly pockets of Trump supporters spread out all across the country. Hopefully not enough to win him the election though. Go Clinton!



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