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European Voter Envy February 5, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy.

Some thoughts on the phenomenon of “voter envy” in Europe: Having recently returned from a visit to Denmark, I have witnessed, first hand, the almost feverish interest in our Presidential election shown on the other side of the Pond. When visiting with friends and family, the presidential election was all anyone wanted to talk with me about. An interesting idea was floated by a columnist in the culture-radical newspaper Politiken: that the US Presidential election will have a greater impact on Europe than on the individual American states, inasmuch as the States have their own local governments and legislation, while the decisions of the American President will have a global effect. During a previous election a Danish commentator even expressed the idea that European countries should be able to vote in our Presidential elections! I assume it was tongue-in-cheek. I hope. I am not posting any links to specific articles, because they’d be in Danish, but if you click here, you’ll see the extensive coverage. The newspaper—the largest in the country—has a running unofficial poll where readers get to vote for the presidential candidates. So far, Obama is winning.

The Danish state-sponsored radio station Program I (where I have been a guest commentator from time to time) has news updates on the election throughout the day, on the air and online. Candidates are profiled, and the latest polls are cited. Interestingly, the coverage of the Democratic candidates by far outweighs the coverage of the Republican candidates—you’d guess that the choice is exclusively between Clinton and Obama. What is interesting about that is (1) what it says about the preferences of the news editors, and (2) that the fact that the station is state-sponsored has no relationship to the actual politics of the current moderate/conservative government. Just in case anyone thought that having a state-sponsored media outlet in Europe automatically implies censorship.

However, this intense interest and scrutiny doesn’t mean that Danes/Europeans are familiar or comfortable with the US election process, being used to a parliamentary form of government, frequent elections, and a plethora of political parties that come and go. Primaries and caucuses etc. are a huge mystery to the otherwise generally well-informed population (In case we find the Danish style of country management attractive: It is easier to have a parliamentary style of government in a country of only 5 million people). And the interest doesn’t mean that Europeans look to the American system as an ideal, either—part of the interest is (1) fear of the future, and (2) a morbid fascination with the antics of a complex nation, with more political and social extremes than a European is used to, a kind of rubbernecking phenomenon…so when some Danes want to vote in our election, it isn’t because they want to become Americans—they want Americans to morph into Europeans…



1. Moriae - February 5, 2008

The primary reason Europeans possibly envy our voting (from time to time) is the simple fact that they vote for parties and never have a role in picking their head of state. Tony Blair could only get his office of PM and maintain it because his party had more than 50% of parliament–that’s the point of parliamentary sovereignty. Unless you have the 51%, you have no power at all. In fact, for many years the largest party in Germany (the CDU) was unrepresented in government because several of the other parties got together to exclude the CDU from the government. Because of this they vote VERY often in Europe. That’s the only way to upset these comfortable arrangements that usurp power from bigger parties of public representation by usurping power thru multi-party collusion.

No one has ever ‘voted for’ Merkle in Germany, Sarkozy in France, Boris Tadic in Serbia, Pascal Couchepin in Switzerland, Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, or Yasuo Fukuda in Japan–their parties voted them in, not the people. This may be the great source of this ‘envy.’ Our systems evolved in an inverse way. We started with an almost insane, and unbridled sense of ‘freedom’ to do as we please, and since then have tried to wield it in; they on the other hand have very slowly and incrementally (often incredibly slowly) devolved power from the state into the hands of the people. Europeans have never had our kind of power, and we have never felt their kind of power constriction. We are both, in a sense, heading in each other’s direction. They simply like the idea of voting for their head of state that they’ve never been able to do previously.

2. 2008 Us Presidential Election - February 5, 2008

[…] European Voter Envy […]

3. Estelindis - February 5, 2008

Moriae, there is a difference between “head of government” and “head of state.” Tony Blair was head of the British government. Elizabeth II is the British head of state. So, in this case, there’s no choice for either. However, many countries, like my own (Ireland) have elections allowing us to choose a president as head of state; this doesn’t mean we get a chance to choose the head of government, who is usually the leader of the largest party. (Incidentally, although the current Irish president, Mary McAleese, was elected for her first term, no one wanted to go up against her for the second term, so we did not have an election for that one.)

Anyway, here in Ireland we are very interested in the U.S. presidential elections; they get a lot of media coverage (and, yes, Democratic candidates do tend to get more attention than Republican ones). I think a lot of the interest, as the article says, is due to the enormous influence on the world that the U.S. president has. I too have often “wished” to be able to vote in the election – not in a real sense, as obviously it would be unfair, but in a wistful sense, since we all want to be able to affect the future in which we and our loved ones are going to live.

4. Nina Rosenstand - February 7, 2008

I’m sure it’s a mixed bag–fascination with the power (or presumed power) of voting directly for a leader, combined with the disdain for/fascination with the celebrity aspect of leadership; most Europeans will claim that the parliamentary system will prevent a demagogue from seducing the population; even so, the call goes out, periodically, for a “strong leader.”
Estelindis, welcome! You make a valuable distinction, and it’s nice to hear from someone across the Pond!

5. Moriae - February 7, 2008

My apologies Estelindis for playing loose with a distinction lost on us over here but important to some Europeans. I’m sorry you didn’t get to me sooner, for I surely would have liked to have voted for what suited you had you simply mentioned your fancies.

But the November election is coming and I’d happily sell my vote to an Irishman for free, rather than succumb to the entreaties of our hyperventilated, ambitious Lady Macbeth want-to-be. She’s already been suitably ‘un-sexed,’ seems to have milk for gall too, and she doesn’t have to appeal to spirits which tend on mortal thoughts to get her way, but will she opt for the ‘nearest way?’ Whether she’ll ‘screw courage’ or something else to the ‘sticking place’ I suppose will be up to Bill. My, My, what a chance to vote we have– out, out, brief candle–does it signify anything?

Again, my apologies, but I think my point still stands.

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