If you were perpetually consigned to choose between stale pancakes or runny scrambled eggs each morning, would you not develop an aversion towards breakfast?
For avid followers of international affairs, 2021 has been a terrific year for observing and learning about the ways things are done differently, as voters in countless countries scattered across the globe have had the opportunity to exercise their franchise. A general conclusion: the more diverse the menu of options, the more people want to get involved and participate. Political parties in the United States are fairly big-tent, and force people with strikingly different perspectives on the issues onto the same boat. In a multiparty context closer to what most European countries have, it would be hard to imagine someone like Joe Manchin and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez rooting for the same party, as well as a Phil Scott and Donald Trump running under the same ticket. The more black and white American politics become, the more and more people will be pushed by the hyper partisan fringes into the fringes of electoral participation. Although completely unrealistic, imagining our domestic context in another country’s circumstances allows us to imagine an America where you can truly vote for your convictions, rather than being forced to prioritize your beliefs and settle for what’s offered.
Last November, the United States boasted its highest turnout election in over a century, yet the nation still lags behind other countries with strong democratic traditions by several percentage points. The Nordic countries, regarded by many as bastions of democracy, regularly see more than three-quarters of their voting age population stroll to the booths on polling day, and have increasingly stronger rates of political participation than their transatlantic counterparts. A myriad of reasons tend to be named when attempting to explain why the United States consistently fails to turn out at the ballot box, but most explanations I have come across tend to shift the blame on the voters rather than the deep flaws built into the political system that silently crush the political aspirations of many. Is it safe to say that two political parties are able to accurately represent the views of over 300 million people in an ever growing, ever diverse, ever tumultuous nation? The hyper polarized nature of America’s contemporary political landscape has forced America’s federal politicians into two opposing camps, with supporters expected to cheer on them with the same fervor and blind devotion you can only reasonably expect from a football fan who’s hopelessly devoted to their team no matter the odds or circumstances.
Last week, voters in Germany went to the polls to elect a new parliament, and had the privilege of being able to choose from seven distinct political parties, each catering to a different subset of voters ranging from the hard left to the hard right, with enough options to heartily satisfy a moderate’s palate. The nature of Germany’s political system encourages cooperation and coalition building, something completely foreign to the eyes of most American observers. Preliminary reports indicate that three fourths of German voters turned out to participate; evidently they’re doing something better than us. All throughout Europe, countries where coalition governments are the norm and not the exception enjoy higher rates of political engagement on behalf of their citizenry, and that is something we should all aspire to emulate. When more voices rise above the fray and make themselves heard, democratic governments will have clearer understandings of what the citizenry wants. American politicians from some pockets of the country are confident they can embrace positions detrimental to the greater good and never face competitive elections; the lack of similar circumstances across the Atlantic completely shifts the way politicians respond to pleas from their voters.
Although overhauling the American political system to something that reflects the will of the people more proportionally, therefore giving those who feel disenfranchised a platform to make their voices heard is simply any political scientist’s pipe dream, the lessons observing systems that do can teach American society a valuable lesson. Shifting from adversarial viewpoints and embracing the necessity of compromise does not just enable functionality, but works to solidify a harmonious coexistence, strengthen the country’s unity and emboldens the national identity.
A brighter future for America does not rest on whether you like the person sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, but instead depends on developing a collective sense of maturity where we all understand the backbone of America’s prosperity relies on working with the Other and not trudging down a path alone. Europe might be called the Old World, but their politics can definitely teach us something new.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.