“Say you were going to vote in the United States elections today. If you would vote for Barack Obama, raise your hand.”
Hands shot up across the lecture hall instantly, facing me almost expectantly, forming a new, tightly-packed audience. Under the sea of pink palms, the students’ expressions looked confident, challenging, even smug. When asked who would vote for Mitt Romney, only one student raised her hand, her lone arm hovering like a stalk of corn in an empty field.
My audience was a group of around 70 university-aged students, convened to hear me and another Fulbright ETA, Rebecca Marion, speak about the US elections. The class took place in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, on the campus of the Université Catholique de Louvain. UCL is a French-speaking university located about 30 kilometers southeast of Brussels, in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of the country.
I was not surprised at the overwhelming show of support for Obama, but I did wonder, how much did these students know about Obama’s policies, or about Romney’s, for that matter? To what extent would their hypothetical vote be an informed one? Belgium has the world’s oldest existing compulsory voting system for citizens above 18, and some Belgians I have spoken with express that as a result, people may vote knowing nearly nothing about the candidates–which is of course equally possible in the United States. To what extent was this phenomenon at work in our mock election?
On the night of the US elections, I met with other Fulbright Belgium scholars to watch the election results. One of my fellow Fulbrighters told me that he prefers not to disclose who he voted for, when asked by Belgians. I asked him why. “I feel like they are just expecting me to say “Obama”, so they can switch to the next conversation topic,” he said, imitating the eager expression of anticipation on his imaginary Belgian interlocutors’ faces. “But you should see me arguing with my friends back home,” he added, “I am blue all the way.” My friend seemed to be saying that without a shared cultural context, a proclamation of support for Obama would be so meaningless that it would lead to oversimplification, rather than to understanding.
During our conversation, I recalled the results of my mock in-class election. How many of those Obama-supporting students might fit the position of the Belgian interrogator in my friend’s narrative? And consequently, what might it mean to state one’s support for Obama as a US citizen abroad? In some ways, it may simply be taking on the role of the “good American” (or at least the lesser-of-two-evils American, depending on where in the world the conversation takes place) in the eyes of one’s non-US interlocutors, a moral self-positioning that my friend was refusing to perform. But his refusal also posed the question of how to engage critically in conversations about politics, especially when abroad, how to communicate the nuances and implications of one’s political position, and how to avoid stoking stereotypes.
When we designed our class plan to teach about the US elections, we assumed, paradoxically, both a general ignorance of the US political system, and a nearly unanimous favoring of Obama on the part of our audience. Built into the latter was a third assumption: that a majority of students would have an explicit opinion on the presidential candidates of the US elections. Imagine a teacher conducting a poll on the French elections in a US classroom earlier this year. Would you expect most students to have had a well-formed opinion on whether they favored Hollande or Sarkozy? Or, closer to home, a preference between Peña Nieto and López Obrador in the Mexican presidential elections, which also took place this year? Perhaps debatable, depending on the university in question, but probably not. And certainly not a full auditorium of unhesitatingly raised hands in support of one candidate. Yet, I both expected and witnessed such a response for Obama here in Belgium.
Our first assumption also proved correct: polls throughout the session revealed most students’ unfamiliarity with the electoral college system, the role of swing states, the major differences between the Republican and Democratic parties, and the changes in the campaign finance landscape following Citizens United.
So why does Obama receive such widespread support in Belgium and other Western European countries1, even in contexts of apparent ignorance of the US political system? And why did I, as a US citizen, already expect my Belgian students to overwhelmingly favor Obama?
Part of the answer to the questions I pose above lies in the role of the media. Though the students in my class, and people living outside the US in general, may ignore the functioning of the US electoral college system, they are relatively well informed about United States’ policies and actions as a result of exposure to a constant stream of information on these topics, and, in many cases, to the effects of these policies. The presumption of foreigners’ ignorance of US politics, then, is not exactly accurate, especially when it comes to people with an excellent command of English–like the students in our class. I am arguing that the Belgian interlocutor in my friend’s hypothetical conversation, or the average student in a Belgian classroom, is perhaps more informed than one may think about the implications of voting for Barack Obama in 2012.
Furthermore, Obama’s celebrity across the world since his campaign and election in 2008 is unquestionable, and has had an undeniable effect on global opinions of him, especially among youth. Though an exploration of the reasons for Obama’s worldwide popularity is beyond the scope of this post, it is worth signaling its existence for understanding expressions of foreign Obama support, both inside and outside the classroom.
Following from our expectation that most students would favor Obama, we designed a section of our class to focus on the Republican party, aiming to illustrate the values and concerns that may form the basis of a vote for Mitt Romney. We provided some examples of the ways in which the private sector can generate jobs, education and social services, in some cases arguably more efficiently than the government. However, most students remained unconvinced. We concluded our class by asking them to vote, again, for their preferred candidate for president of the United States. Obama won by a landslide.
November 17th, 2012
1| According to a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes project, 92% of the French, 89% of the Germans and 73% of the British wanted Obama reelected.