“Hope is irrational”

Chances are the vote is on the mind of most American expats this month. But with Obama-mania long since over, sitting on the fence is the the feeling. John Riceburg samples the mood. But our tips might convince you before November 6 to get on it.

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Illustration by Mirjami Qin

Feeling apathetic about the vote? Four years ago, Berliners were high on Obama-mania. With the US presidential elections on November 6, support amongst expats is lukewarm at best. John Riceburg samples the mood.

In September 2008, 200,000 Berliners thronged to the Tiergarten to see him, some waiting the whole day in the sun. Excitement filled the air. It felt like one of the old Love Parades except instead of the boom-boom-boom of techno beats, there were chants of O-BA-MA.

Back then, Obama-mania swept through Berlin as if it was an American college town. Polls showed that Germans favoured Obama over McCain by about 90 percent. The American expats, if anything, were even more enthralled. This year, with high unemployment, ongoing wars and crushing deficits in the US, ‘HOPE’ (Shepard Fairey poster-style) has dissolved into resignation. Most Berliners still lean to the left, with few if any declaring support for Mitt Romney. But the party atmosphere of 2008 is long gone.

Disillusion in Berlin

As in the US, where Democratic enthusiasm is down from over 60 percent to just under 40 percent, disillusionment is rampant among American Berliners. Ryan Plocher (27) studies politics at the Free University. During the last election, he says, “I carved a pumpkin with Obama’s face and ‘YES WE CAN’ in my tiny attic apartment.” He had very concrete expectations of the country’s first black president: “I thought Guantanamo would be closed, universal healthcare would be introduced and the War on Terror ended. Hope is irrational.” Over the following years, he realised that Democrats remained “remarkably capable of total betrayal of their values”.

“We thought that after eight years of Bush, everything would be possible,” concurs Ben Cooper (24), a North Carolinian studying in Berlin. But soon enough, he was “utterly disappointed”. He admits there were some high points to the Obama presidency, his favourite being the 2009 ‘beer summit’: When a black professor was arrested in front of his own house under suspicion of being a thief, the president invited him and the racist police officer to the White House to share a beer. Of course racism still exists, but at least it can get washed down with alcohol.

Micah Brashear (26), is a jazz musician and a native Brooklynite who could top most Berliners in cynicism. But even he says he “felt a bit warm and fuzzy the night Obama got elected.” Then the seemingly anti-war candidate supported militarism and turned out to be, in Brashear’s words, a “chauvinistic sock puppet”.

Between a rock and a hard place?

Most young expats concede that at least Obama is not Romney, a Mormon multi-millionaire who got rich through mergers and acquisitions. His vision for getting the US out of its crisis involves cutting taxes for the extremely wealthy and restricting the right to abortion – and if that doesn’t work, perhaps also attacking Iran.

Cooper’s been following the campaign circus with amused interest, comparing it to the thriller 127 Hours: “It takes a while, but he finally just has to grit his teeth and cut his arm off. Whether or not it was worth it, at least it made for a summer blockbuster.” Cooper himself will grit his teeth and vote for Obama. At the end of the day: “I do appreciate any president who pisses old white people off that much.”

No matter what, Brashear isn’t voting for Obama this time. “If I get the energy to do the paperwork, I would vote for Roseanne.” The ageing comedian is running on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party, and is the closest thing to a working-class candidate on offer.

Plocher won’t renew his vows either. From Georgia, a state that reliably votes Republican, he doesn’t see much point in casting a ballot. “I’m not so enthused that I’d waste my time by voting – even symbolically.”

“Most people I know will be voting for Obama as the lesser evil or because they always vote Democrat,” says Constanze Frank, a 60-something Berliner who spent 30 years in the States as a teacher and social worker. She campaigned for Obama in 2008 but eventually lost all hope of seeing her adopted country move towards that “platform of promises Obama was selected on, most of which he abandoned as soon as he was elected.” This played a huge role in her decision to move back to her Heimat.

“There is a lot of denial with the Democrats I am talking to, but they cannot face someone like Romney. And who can blame them?” Frank says. But as far as she’s concerned, “I would not vote for either one.”

We are the .03 percent

Alan Benson (53), an active member of Democrats Abroad, puts expat apathy down to unrealistically high expectations in 2008. He remains convinced that Obama could implement more of his agenda in a second term, “by making use of executive orders when he doesn’t need to take re-election into consideration.” So he’s still signing people up to vote. At the German-American John F. Kennedy School in Zehlendorf, for example, he recently registered 18 voters in one parent evening.

For Benson, getting expats to the polls is more than a “basic civic duty”. It’s also a tactical question. “The longer Americans are overseas, the more they tend to acquire a more progres- sive way of viewing their home country.” And of course, supporters of the non-progressive party – the one that claims America was created by God himself – are less likely to move abroad. Benson estimates “at least nine in ten” of the Amis who vote here are for Obama.

In 2011, there were 101,643 Americans living in Germany, not counting military personnel and all those folks who overstayed their tourist visas. This 0.03 percent of eligible voters is not likely to sway the election – but as Florida showed in 2000, individual ballots can make a big difference.

Exberliner is not going to give its prized endorsement to anyone. All we would vote for is a bit less smugness from Germans when it comes to watching the circus across the pond. Americans in Berlin already know the political system in the US is more or less insane, but that’s probably why they came here. They don’t need to be reminded.