Following the United States Presidential Election
Tue Sep 21 02:52:07 PDT 2004
Dear friends and colleagues who live in Europe,
I have concluded that in order to have a reasonable chance of knowing
"what is going on" in the US Presidential Election of 2004 (or any
other election) you have to satisfy at least two conditions:
(1) You have to really want to know. (No explanation needed!)
(2) You have to be present in, or very near, the United States. "Near"
does not mean distance alone: it could be sufficient to live at a US
military base or an American consular community.
I recently returned from a more than three week trip to Europe. A
colleague of mine, an American citizen of foreign birth, was there even
longer. During the trip I met Europeans who wanted to discuss the
election, American "ex-pats" who wanted to discuss the election, and
Americans there on short trips, like myself, and various other people
who wanted to discuss the election. Here are some facts:
No matter how hard I tried, I could not follow the election from Europe.
Other Americans who were there on a short visits (like myself) expressed
the frustrating fact that they could not follow the election.
A European-born American colleague, while staying in the country of
his birth and watching and reading news, could not follow the election,
although he really tried.
Some Europeans and ex-pats were of the opinion that they were following
the election, and could not be swayed from that opinion.
Here are my explanations.
Here are some more facts about the current campaign:
Decreased emphasis in news. Rather unsurprisingly,
European news sources give less weight to what is happening in the
United States than American news sources. (For example, if either
John Kerry's or George Bush's acceptance speeches were available, in their
entireties, on German television, they were not easy to find. I know
that people tried and failed.)
The complexity of the American Presidential election,
relative to all (or
most) other elections in the world, including local elections in the US.
This complexity is baffling to Europeans, who simply, for the most part,
don't understand it. I even read an explanation of our system in a German
newspaper, written by a German professor who was supposedly an expert, and
even he got it slightly wrong.
Incomplete sources of news.
There are sources of news available
in the United States that cannot be found (or are very hard to
find) in Europe.
All news sources have an agenda, even if they say they don't. In the
past, I used to believe that, though they had an agenda, they would only
promote it by not reporting news, but that what they did report was the
the truth. I now no longer believe that, and it is unthinkable to me
that any discerning person does. To counteract this built-in bias,
you have to read or listen to other (also biased) news sources. The
problem in Europe appears to be lack of full coverage, making it impossible
to balance your sources by sampling all sides.
I used to go to a certain coffee shop in Riverside and overhear
truckers talking about everything, including upcoming elections. It seems
that most of the "gossip" connections between the United States and Europe
are through relatively elite groups such as academics and media figures.
There is no connection between truckers' gossip in American and anyone's
gossip in Germany that I can discern. And there are far more truckers
A similar kind of input is obtained by going to political rallies and
seeing, feeling, the enthusiasm of the audience, as opposed to reading
about it. This type of input cannot be duplicated by any kind of reading
or listening to sources from Europe.
Most of what I say here applies to Western Europe only, and I exclude Great
Britain from some of these remarks, because I realize that that is a
different case; being English-speaking countries with traditions similar
to ours, where American news sources are more available. I'll reserve
comments about non-Western countries to those who've been there.
In conclusion, I would like to express my apologies to the Europeans,
non-Europeans, and American ex-pats whom I accused of not trying to follow
the campaign. When I was there, I tried as hard as possible to do so,
and could not, as did my European born colleague. So, it may be
impossible; in any case, it is very difficult.
The campaign is very intense, more so than most previous Presidential
campaigns in my lifetime.
The campaign themes go in "waves." The typical pattern is that a new
"wave" arises every few days, and then fades. But the pattern of fading
is different for each wave, and some keep recurring, while others sink
out of sight. In the first two weeks after getting back from Europe,
there were at least three new campaign themes. European news sources
either cannot or just do not keep up with this political weather.
Even American newsweeklies, such as TIME, are usually behind on new
developments, because of their publishing lead time.
A remarkable (to us Americans) fact is that many non-Americans believe
that if a major news outlet says something negative about a government
figure, it must be true, since else the government would not allow it to
be printed, or that government figure would sue for libel. This belief
shows a fundamental lack of understanding of freedom of political speech
in the United States. If a newspaper reports a damaging lie about me, I
can win a lawsuit. But if that same newspaper reports a damaging lie about
the President, or a major Presidential candidate, he can neither block the
dissemination of that lie nor win a lawsuit. This is because one of the
most important methods tyrants use to stay in power is to suppress criticism,
and so even our lawsuit-happy system protects those who tell lies about
highly placed government officials.
Thanks to our "Founding Fathers," who were very highly read in all things
political, and knew that republics usually fail, and thus did their best to
build a system that would be able to survive the fatal diseases to which
most republics succumb. They realized that if political speech were
restricted to telling the truth, someone would have to decide whether
what you said was true, and that decision would itself be politicized.