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The US election and the view from abroad

“America sneezes, and the world braces itself.”

This was the sentiment a life-long Hong Kong resident expressed to me the other day over a friendly meal. Despite being taught that talk of politics isn’t polite at the dinner table, our conversation couldn’t help but turn toward the US election. As of late, the conversation inevitably does.

Everybody has an opinion about the 2016 US presidential election. Not just the approximately 2.6 million eligible American voters living outside the US; not just the 3 to 9 million Americans living outside of US territories. People from all over the world, people who wish they could have a say in this presidential election, have their eyes trained on American voters.

Notice, I say American voters.

As an American living abroad in Hong Kong, a city that people from all over the world call home, not to mention a Special Administrative Region that continues to fight for its autonomy, independence, and democratic rights from mainland China, American voters (or lack thereof) are drawing major scrutiny.

“So…You are given the right, the freedom to vote for your leader from thousands of miles away, and you don’t exercise that right?”

“You can speak out against your leaders, potential leaders, lawmakers without retribution, yet you choose to remain silent?”

“You’re not just voting for America’s future, you’re voting on America’s impact on the world.”

The sentiment among non-Americans following the US election is that Americans need to realize that they are not voting in a vacuum. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green – each candidate’s stance on immigration and US border control, human rights, foreign aid, and foreign economics can and will have lasting effects on other countries. As Americans often have the reputation for only speaking English or being unaware of the world at large, there is a fear that American voters will not be able to see beyond their 50 states.

America flexes some major global muscle; whether the world likes it or not. The question is, do American voters really understand that?

A complaint amongst Americans living abroad is that they feel disconnected from the front lines of the presidential race. Sure, you can read about the candidate’s recent wins and losses, watch speeches and debates online, but when you’re not living the stakes of the election, there is a temptation to become complacent.

“It’s not in my immediate sphere of conern over here, I don’t feel like I have all the facts, I am much more in tune with local politics in the country I live in.”

I’ve come across more than my fair share of Americans who don’t see America as their problem anymore.

On the other side, many Americans abroad have the experience of outrage, embarrassment, helplessness in the face of America’s “behavior” on the global stage. Any American who has pushed themselves out of their “Americans abroad” bubble to speak to locals and other foreigners, will recognize the collective eye-roll that occurs when talking about the state of American politics. One can’t help but feel defensive while at the same time in agreement.

When people from around the world comment on American poltics, calling it a “shit show” or “a circus”, it’s hard to disagree. It’s hard not to feel apologetic, accountable for the lunacy being enacted over the presidency.

But perhaps accountability can be a good thing?

In the last presidential election, only 12% of eligible American voters abroad cast their vote. With the strength of such organizations as Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas, the number of overseas voters are predicted to increase significantly during this election. Many are predicting that the votes from abroad could even decide this election.

With Americans abroad feeling personally responsible for how this election may play out, voters with a global mindset may have a louder voice in this election.

But whether a voter is complacent or outraged, the heart of the issue remains the same for Americans abroad: love of country.

I don’t mean love of America. Like a family you are born into, “love” is complicated thing to define.

I’m talking about love of your chosen country; love of the country that you currently call home. That country is a part of this 2016 US presidential election.

The next president of the United States will most likely affect the foreign country any American calls home. It could be a ripple, it could be a tidal wave; positive progress could be spurred, international relations may de-evolve. Walls could be built.

And that is the responsibility for American voters abroad – to not only stand up for your own interests, but the interests of those who do not have a say in our election. American voters who live with in the US are understandably in the thick of things; so many trees in a very big forest.

But voters abroad have both the blessing and the curse of perspective.

Our votes not only count for ourselves, our party, our state, they count for our chosen country and the global community. America may be due for its next big sneeze, but as Americans abroad, we are part of the world bracing for it.

Photo: s.e. smith/All Rights Reserved


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