(By Deutsche Welle) Many Americans abroad have already postmarked their ballots for the presidential election. In Germany, Democrats and Republicans are debating the issues in a political culture that’s often far outside the American context.
On a windy Saturday afternoon in Cologne, John Huggins and his 19-year-old son Jonas stand in front of the subway station at the entrance to the Schildergasse shopping district near Neumarkt, braving both tempestuous September weather and suspicious passer-bys in the hope of drawing out the few American citizens from an anonymous sea of weekend consumers.
It is less than a month away from the US presidential election, one that media analysts and political operatives in America have billed as the most important in a generation – just like the 2008 election. Huggins and Jonas both carry signs advertizing VotefromAbroad.org, a website founded by Democrats Abroad which helps Americans register for their absentee ballots. Their goal is to get out the vote more than 4,000 miles from the US mainland.
Huggins, an American expatriate from South Carolina who works as a chemist, says he has voted in virtually all of the presidential elections in the quarter-century since he moved to Central Europe. But the 2008 campaign of then-senator Barack Obama inspired him to take to the streets of Cologne, the bustling cultural heart of the Rhineland, in search of Americans who had not yet applied for their absentee ballots.
“I’m actually very happy because most of the people we meet are first-time voters, young people that don’t know the system and need our assistance to apply for their absentee ballots, and so I think [that] I’m doing something good,” Huggins says.
The presidential campaign in the US has been framed largely as a referendum on a beleaguered incumbent, whose calls for hope and change have hit the hard political and economic realities of a world in upheaval. But Huggins remains an enthusiastic supporter of Obama. The expatriate chemist believes the president brought a positive change of attitude after the Bush administration. And Huggins views the Affordable Care Act, the president’s health care reform law known to some as Obamacare, as an achievement that has to be defended at all costs.
The trans-Atlantic son and the soul-singing patriot
For Jonas, who has just started studying political science at the Free University of Berlin, the election represents a choice between two competing visions for the world. A dual-citizen son of a trans-Atlantic marriage, he is particularly interested in American foreign policy and believes that President Obama has proven an adept diplomat, and will do a better job bringing together Americans and Europeans than Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
“The American election is a really important one, and it has of course a large effect on the whole world,” Jonas says. “You see that if there’s George W. Bush or if there’s President Obama. It really makes a very big difference in international diplomacy and how international crises are solved.”
Huggins and Jonas estimate they usually catch around 10 people during their four hour get-out-the-vote drive in Cologne. With the election rapidly approaching, they manage to help a handful of Americans who have not yet started the process of applying for their ballots.
Deborah Woodson has lived in Germany for 15 years. Originally from North Carolina, she sings gospel and soul music in Cologne. Huggins runs through the absentee process with her, explaining the form she needs to fill out and the documentation she needs, while encouraging her to apply for her ballot as soon as possible.
Woodson says she’ll be casting her ballot for President Obama. The soul singer believes the president’s life-story and policies better represent the middle class than those of Governor Romney.
“With 9/11, I all of a sudden became very patriotic after that, and then with Americans voting for Barack Obama as president, I really just have a love for my country, which I was losing with the Bush administration being in there for so long and messing up America and the whole world,” Woodson says.
The Euro-American divide
Huggins says that through his personal experience, he has the impression that most absentee American voters living in Germany tend to vote Democrat. It’s an impression also shared by Scott Stapleton, a 31-year-old aerospace engineer from Michigan.
Although he and his wife have already cast their absentee ballots, he stops to chat with Huggins and Jonas while pushing a baby stroller down Schildergasse. A Republican who voted for Senator John McCain in 2008, he plans on voting for Governor Romney in this election. Stapleton believes in Romney’s emphasis on private-sector solutions to economic problems. And as a Mormon, he also identifies with the governor’s religious confession.
“I see the growing government presence as sort of a negative thing,” Stapleton says. “I’d like to see less government involvement instead of more.”
Stapleton lived in Germany for nearly two years when he was 19, and he has come back to work at the University of Aachen, located in the same state – North Rhine-Westphalia – as Cologne. The aerospace engineer says that trying to explain his beliefs to people in Germany can be frustrating, because they often do not understand the other side of the American political story.
“If you look at a socialistic-capitalistic scale, Germany and the US are in different places, and then Republican leanings are even further away,” Stapleton says. “And so it’s only natural that most Germans would side with Democrats, if not thinking that Democrats are a little too conservative.”
‘The Great Debate’
On the same Tuesday evening in October that Governor Romney and President Obama held their second presidential debate in New York, Americans and Germans filed into former West Berlin’s old city hall – Rathaus Schöneberg – to hear Democrats and Republicans thrash out the presidential election’s hot-button issues.
Rathaus Schöneberg is the building where President John F. Kennedy famously expressed his solidarity with West Berlin’s citizens and the dream of a united Europe, during the height of Cold War tensions in 1963. While the US does not suffer from the extreme form of polarization that built a concrete wall through the center of Berlin in 1961, the American electorate in 2012 has increasingly divided itself into two – at times seemingly irreconcilable – “red” and “blue” camps.
In “The Great Debate,” organized by the Initiative Berlin-USA e.V., a panel of two Republicans and two Democrats debate everything from the state of the economy, to campaign finance and Obama’s health care reform law. The applause and groans clearly indicate that the audience is more sympathetic to the arguments of the Democratic debaters – Kathleen Burnett and John McQueen, the current chair of Democrats Abroad Munich and former chair of Democrats Abroad Germany, respectively.
It’s a reality that marketing consultant Ned Wiley has become accustomed to in Germany. He represented the Republican side of the debate with Phillip Zeni, the national communications director of Republicans Abroad Germany. For Wiley, the debate is more about simply representing the Republican perspective than trying to convince people of his views. He hopes that his presentation will cause some people to question their support for Obama in a city and country where he remains wildly popular.
“I liken it to playing football,” says Wiley. “This was an away match. Even though I’m home here in Berlin, this was politically playing away and they applaud more when the other team does something.”
For Keith Altman, the debate feels scripted, a rehash of the same talking-points that the two campaigns have been using for months and which the two parties have been espousing for nearly a generation. And Altman says the partisanship has reached a level where the debate isn’t necessarily helpful anymore.
“We’ve gotten to a point not just in the debate, but in American society more broadly speaking, that it’s a really heated debate and it’s not always constructive,” says Altman, a New Yorker who worked in finance before moving to Berlin a year ago with his German wife.
“A debate just for the sake of it, that lacks real insight or thoughtfulness or care so to speak, is counterproductive.”