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The View From a Few Miles Up The Road

Reflecting on Europeans' and Canadians' comments that they, too, should get a vote in U.S. elections.

by Jonathan Sterne

In the run‑up to this fall's election, in casual discussions with Europeans (and a few Canadians), I heard one sentence more often than any other: "Everyone should be eligible to vote in American elections."

The idea is simple: since much of the world is affected by the outcomes of U.S. elections and by U.S. economic and foreign policies, perhaps they ought to have a say in who's at the wheel. Though meant flippantly, it's an intriguing proposition to consider. World participation in U.S. elections would likely lead to a more pacifist foreign policy, and also probably some interesting restrictions on U.S. corporations' global operations. It's anyone's guess what would happen with internal social policy, though. Theoretically, socialized medicine and better funding for schools (especially language learning) would be easier sells. Flag burning and other patriotic campaign ploys wouldn't work so well, but the anti-abortion and anti‑Affirmative Action lobbies would likely do just as well with an international constituency. Never mind the vexing question of how people in countries without free elections could participate freely in an American election. Plus, if hanging chads and the mysterious workings of voting machines were a problem before, wait until they¹re in effect internationally. My university doesn¹t even trust the results of the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) from some countries. And Canadians are a trusting lot.

The European fantasy is probably fueled by visions of Bush in a cowboy hat. But to simply assert that the rest of the world is more progressive than Americans on all fronts is also partake of fantasy. The reality is considerably more complex and contradictory. For all the blue state/red state talk, elections are won by relatively small margins in many cases and the American winner‑take all electoral system (and the two-party strangehold on politics) often gives the sense of greater consensus within states and electoral districts than there really is.

So if the European fantasy won't work, neither will the American one. There is a lot of talk about a new mandate, a sea‑change or major shift of power between parties as in 1992 or 1994. I took pleasure in seeing Republican Rick Santorum unseated in my own former state of residence, Pennsylvania. But my main expectation for the next two years is legislative gridlock. A Republican administration that can get no significant damage done is the next best thing to actually kicking the Republicans out of the executive. Even then, the Democrats have a long way to go before they prove themselves to be something other than the lesser of two evils.

Jonathan Sterne lives in Montreal, teaches at McGill University, and is a member of the Bad Subject Production Team