Derek and Johanna are American expats living in Hamburg. Every month, they tackle important issues like bureaucracy, discrimination, and how weird Germans are. For their first column, however, they felt it only appropriate to discuss the recent US election. From an expat perspective of course.
I know Republicans exist. The internet is full of them. The United States government is full of them, and someone, presumably Republican, must have put them there. I, however, don’t really know any Republicans. I know lots of Americans though. Most of them live in the US, but many have sought asylum in Europe, and it just seems like they are all are either Democrats or, like me, too liberal to label themselves as Democrats, but vote Democrat anyway. I don’t think I know anyone who believes that gay marriage will destroy the fabric of society or that corporations are people. I live in a total liberal, Democratic bubble.
And this is why during the (ridiculously long) lead-up to the 2012 US presidential election, I was never particularly worried that Mitt Romney would beat President Obama. I was peripherally aware that there are people out there who think Obama is in the process of destroying America, but since I’m not confronted with that kind of insanity on a regular basis, I didn’t get too worked up about it. I saw other people getting worked up about it (mostly on Facebook), but I was able to keep my mellow and not let the election get me too stressed.
On the one hand, this was probably good for my health. But on the other hand, talking to people back home who had been losing their minds over this for the past year, I’ve realized that living in Europe has kept me pretty sheltered from the ugliness that election season in the U.S. brings. And even though I’ve spent nearly eight of the last twelve years since I was old enough to give a damn about politics in the US, I’ve managed to always be in Europe during the bulk of election season since Fall 2004, when I was studying in the UK. So all those attack ads you hear about? I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one aired on TV. Local news segments about Republican candidates having a beer at the bowling alley on corner of Main St and Elm? Nope! I mean, it’s not like I don’t read the news; I’m not uninformed. However, being so far removed from all the action, it’s pretty easy to stick to sources that just confirm my own beliefs. Unlike many Americans, I’m not forcibly confronted with anti-abortion advocates or people with “These Colors Don’t Run!” bumper stickers on a regular basis. As far as I’m concerned, Republicans may as well be fictional.
This is what makes it so difficult for me, from an expatriate perspective, to really understand what’s happening the US. I’m so sheltered over here. I want to think that that’s a good thing, but what if one day I meet a Republican? Will I know what to say to him (statistically speaking, it will be a (white) “him”) or how to act? Should I have to? Or can I just get someone to take a picture of us together so I can prove to my other expat friends that I met an actual Republican? Maybe this person can’t wrap his mind around the actual existence of liberals. I can only imagine that a great many Republicans must exist in their own bubble too. I don’t really see a way for their ideology to exist without that being the case. But what does that say about mine?
I have been living in Germany for just about four years now, and each and every experience I gain here changes my previous perception of the way I used to think. There is much that I have become accustomed to, even more that I had to strive to become accustomed to, and yet an exponential number of things that I struggle with every single day. Yes, my friends, whether you’re an expat or not (if so, welcome, I shall be your host) Germany is a wonderful place for bureaucracy to happen.
Now, although I’m quite confident I could write multiple young adult vampire children’s book series on bureaucracy in Germany, have the book
made into a multi-million dollar movie and then turn that movie into a series, I’d rather not get into the politics and angry feelings that come with bureaucracy this week. I would, however, like to venture into how bureaucracy has played a part in my understanding of Germany and how it changed my view on the big rodeo and gun show we like to call “American Politics”.
Having moved here in September 2009, I enjoyed witnessing the touching inauguration of Barack Obama. One of my first impressions of the German perception of American politics was how open they were to state how unbelievably unfit George W. Bush was to run the United States. This was very reassuring, not only because I just wasn’t into Bush, but also because it was a very clear sign that the Europeans had some sort of clue what was happening thousands of miles away when I, at least at the time, hadn’t the faintest clue what the current status was on Germany’s president. Well, I came to find out next that Germany doesn’t really have a president (at least not the kind I was used to) and that this person was not a president, but rather an Angela Merkel. I can still remember that awkward feeling of being congratulated from German friends for days after, at the time not really understanding what Obama meant for the US and the rest of the world.
After a few months here in Germany I had the basics down: eat a lot of bread and cheese for breakfast, make sure to get paperwork filled out for the “aliens office”, say “genau” or “digga” every few sentences and above all, use the German government to my advantage. This may come from the fact that I had moved from (the sad and little town of) Lino Lakes, Minnesota to Europe, but “Government” was always something too big to touch in my small-town American reality. Receiving money from the government only meant a few things for me. Either your family worked for the government, you were applying for student loans, or you needed food stamps. The entire idea of using your government to receive social help in not only a positive sense, but in the German mindset of the government owing you that assistance, was a difficult one to wrap my head around. I understood that it was indeed the role of government, but growing up in the middle/lower class in a small suburban town didn’t really show me that side of my own country.
Bureaucracy seemed to follow me everywhere I went after that. I couldn’t go to the bathroom without worrying about another bureaucratic hoop to jump through; from permanently staying in Germany, to working in Germany, to doing my Abitur, to Uni, it has been a long haul. But here is something I learned along the way: if you do your part for Germany, it will do its part for you, no matter who you are. That’s how things are supposed to work. No lack of middle class. No paying $11,000 a semester for school. No inability to pay for healthcare.
So, now I find myself an entire presidential term, four years and one Gangnam Style song later, and I have realized how important it was for me to see the entirety of an election from a foreign perspective. I must admit I struggled. I felt very strange knowing that as many important things were happening back home, my voice was not being heard directly. The struggle became more and more evident around the Santorum phase of the preliminaries where I had to come to terms with the sad, sad fact that it was not a joke. I am not here to bash beliefs or say that one political party is above the other, but the string of possible candidates for the 2012 election seemed to be picked from the ten-gallon-hat rodeo located on corner of Closed Minded Avenue and Let Me Stick My Nose In Your Business You Homosexual Drive. I could not believe the topics that were brought up into “election politics” in a sense of not concern, but blind anger and importance. I started to pay more attention and it was indeed incredible how much I “learned” about how evil and downright sick I am for being a gay man. I learned that I don’t deserve the same marital rights as other Americans. I learned that women don’t deserve the right to decide what to do with their own bodies and that them taking the pill is an insufferable sin. I learned a miraculous thing about the female reproductive system: how it can magically “shut itself down during a rape”. I learned that President Barack Obama’s middle name insinuates that he is a terrorist and that he was not born in America. But worst of all, I saw that corruption took hold of the election when super PACs contributed a whopping $566,564,606 to this year’s election.
Taking the Abitur here in Hamburg really opened my eyes to how a government’s system and a democratic election should be run. It was only made clearer to me when I was asked why I would vote for Obama and which views of his I supported. I then realized…I wasn’t sure I knew that much about the actual political issues that would be taken into office with the new president. Where either Obama or the final Republican candidate Romney stood on any of the actual political issues, I was not well informed. My head was being filled with so much anger and hate and guilt that I had no idea what the election was really deciding. Given the use of political advertisements, Americans are being bombarded from every angle, immediately trusting what the media says is not usually the smartest approach in terms of getting actual information. But what really took the prize throughout the entire campaign was the, let’s use the word, “stunt” pulled by Mr. Donald Trump himself. Trump uploaded a self-made video where he throws what seems to be a temper tantrum calling Obama “the least transparent president in the history of this country…” and then proceeds to demand his passport and college records and applications. If the president was to have released these before 31 October, Trump stated he would immediately issue a check for $5 million to a charity of Obama’s choice. I never knew this was an issue bigger than the issues of the 2012 election, but Trump, Clint Eastwood and the chair can discuss that later.
As long as we are on the subject of ‘things that make you say hmmm…’, let’s not forget to thank Romney’s wonderful running mate, our own State Representative Paul Ryan for that fabulous photo shoot.
The facts are not what matter today. Somewhere along the line things got twisted and we started caring so much about our own personal vendettas, appearances and beliefs that the bigger picture went missing. Not being in the US broadened my perspective and showed me a lot more than what I was used to (and a lot more paperwork). Knowing that around 40% of Americans don’t vote and that 76% of Germans do, makes me think. I never understood how important voting truly is, not just in terms of ensuring that you get your own way, but also in terms of securing the democratic process. And part of that process is being an active participant in society. This is something the Germans have down. Yes, there’s lots and lots of bureaucracy – you wait in line for hours just to wait in line some more so you can fill out a form, pay the fee, send it somewhere, get it back months later, pay that fee, get a stamp, send it away once more, archive it and finally receive the application to apply to ride the bike you bought four months earlier – but the Germans get something out of this. They participate in bureaucracy, vote, and willingly pay taxes so that they can earn the amazing social benefits for which all people should have a right. Knowing and understanding this has really given me insight into how Americans view our government and our democracy. We take it for granted; we expect it to work; and we don’t expect to have to put too much effort into it. There are very important things only learned abroad and I strongly believe it is vital to realizing where you are from.
Not being present for this showy rodeo where every word of the candidates is analyzed and where the political issues being discussed send us back to the middle ages really helped me see U.S. elections for what they are and how they must change to maintain our democracy.
Johanna G. & Derek Lee Fobaire
Johanna listened to the album Only a Lad by Oingo Boingo while writing this.