German Election – and Elector – Reflections

It’s day two of the great George W. Bush re-election wake (since his victory only became definitive on Wednesday the 3rd – day Zero); time to search for some sort of intelligent word about what it all might mean from the German press, perhaps from the highly-respected Die Zeit. There we find, as lead article, what is basically a Teutonic riff on the “two nations” theme out of the election results, in Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff’s article The United Half-Nations. Maybe you’ve already drunk up all the English-language commentary on the 2004 presidential election that you have been able to find, and so are sick of hearing about this thesis and watching it quickly approach the status of a cliché. But if you can still stand it, the German perspective on it here is somewhat intriguing.

(By the way, it looks like Herr Kleine-Brockhoff is a scion of that modern German familial custom whereby the child takes the last names of both its parents, separated by a hyphen. Except that here that arrangement takes on a special character, presumably unintended, since the first of his last names of course means “small.” One is tempted to declare “Pleased to meet you, but I’d also like to meet the large Brockhoff!”)


OK, so there’s a red and a blue America, remarkable in that the two blocs occupy separate, cohesive territories on the map. And of course that division is not just a matter of geography, but of quite different demographics. Indeed, the difference may go so far as to philosophies; Kleine-Brockhoff declares that it was two Weltsichten that stood against each other in this election. (That means “views of the world”; but just why Kleine-Brockhoff did not use the more-famous German term Weltanschauung here, I don’t know. Is it that the latter is more relevant in a psychological rather than a political context?) The typical “red” voter is older than average, male, married, not a union member, an aficionado of macho-type sports, and the owner of some sort of firearm. The typical “blue” voter, on the other hand, is younger than average, female, city-dweller, well-educated, and is either multi-ethnic oriented or actually a member of some minority group herself.

But we can’t stop there; this investigation of the personal traits of red vs. blue voters can be pushed so much further, and Kleine-Brockhoff duly takes us (or rather, his German readers) along for the ride. First stop is David Brooks, foremostly a mediocre columnist for the New York Times, but also an author noted for his descriptive abilities when it comes to the various American human fauna. Brooks professes to be Blue himself, which I guess makes sense from what you know of his job and his employer, even though his columns are uniformly right-wing and supportive of the Bush administration. But again, the point is that that last part doesn’t matter anymore once Brooks falls into his blue-versus-red schtick, and he is pretty good at it. Here are some samples:

Red America: Churches and Thai restaurants everywhere. [Thai restaurants – is that true?] The people go bowling and go hunting. In Blue America we have public radio, respected presidential historians, and socially-aware investment funds. In Red America the Wal-Marts are monstrous and the parking-lots as big as nature-parks ordinarily are elsewhere. In Blue America the stores are small, but the mark-ups are gigantic.

Or: “Some of us [Blue Americans] couldn’t tell the difference between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelist. We have no idea how to shoot a gun or even how to clean it. We can’t pick out the soybeans in the farmer’s field, nor the rank from an officer’s uniform.”

Pretty amusing, but nothing that would get anyone particularly upset. So we’re still not really there yet, namely to Red America as seen with Blue eyes, and vice-versa. Rest assured, Kleine-Brockhoff duly gets to that, too. For the inhabitants of New York or LA (i.e. Blue all the way), that pesky expanse of country in-between is merely “flyover territory.” Those little ant-figures they can barely make out below are inevitably too fat, wear pants that are too tight, clutch guns and their Bibles, and are racist or homophobic or ultra-nationalistic to boot. Now, if you would ask them, they would describe themselves as ultra-American: upright, honest, modest, the salt-of-the-earth. Those Blue Americans flying overhead, on the other hand, are elitist, materialist, and without any values of their own. They run after every new fashion, believe this today, that other thing tomorrow, and so are natural suckers for lunacies like homosexual marriage, abortion, and hallucinogenic drugs. Interestingly, this Red America description of their blue neighbors also often carries an anti-European overtone; next to the cheese and fancy autos that they import from Europe there comes also the cultural snobism and philosophy of relative values from the Old Continent.


This comparative study of mutual caricatures then segues to a treatment of each of the presidential candidates as seen from the opposing camp, but those go along predictable-enough lines that I can spare you the details. More interesting is the point Kleine-Brockhoff then makes that that boundary in America between Blue and Red is certainly not economic; no, what’s at work here is a true boundary of values, and the remarkable observation is trotted out here yet again that voters in the Mid-West, for example, are somehow convinced in election after election to vote against their economic interests, i.e. vote for Republicans and so for tax-cuts for the rich, through this appeal to “values.” (The canonical work laying out how this works, to which Kleine-Brockhoff does give due credit in his article, is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?.) The thing is, whereas George W. Bush failed to win even a plurality of the popular vote in 2000, this week he even won a majority. This was by no means a Republican landslide, but still an impressive-enough victory for the presidency, to say nothing of the gains the GOP made in the Senate and House of Representatives. Could it be that Red America is on the ascendant? That the Republican Party is set to become the nation’s natural party of governance, what the Democratic was for decades after the Great Depression? (This is the thesis of yet another recent book, to which Kleine-Brockhoff also gives proper credit, namely The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by Micklethwaite and Wooldridge, two former writers for the Economist.) Are Democrats being driven back to their cappuccino bars in exile, as Kleine-Brockhoff piquantly phrases it? If so, this would mark the triumph of the countryside over the city, of the traditional over the modern, of the religious over the secular – precisely the opposite, as he also points out, of the general trends civilization has seen since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.


Die Zeit’s on-line edition also provides some side-seasoning to its US election coverage in the form of what you could call a “spy’s report”: Die Zeit’s “mole” in Nevada, USA (namely an authoress of German background by the name of Irene Dische) tries to vote in the general election and reports back on her experiences (Strict Selection). Just to reveal right here how the story pans out: she makes it, but barely. But first she gets to write to what is probably her incredulous German audience about how, in America, you can move house wherever you please, as often as you want, without having to provide any sort of notification to the local authorities (quite the opposite situation than in most of Europe, for those who don’t know). No, the only time she really has to get in contact with local authorities is when she wants to be able to drive a car, for which of course she has to obtain her drivers license. But this accomplishment opens up for her a remarkable world: not only is she supposed to be able to vote now – but we’ll get to that story in detail right quick – but she can now buy a firearm (“after a mere two-minute security check” she proudly reports), and can even buy all the alcohol she wants at her local gas station – even while knowing that she had darn well better not consume any of that if she intends to get back behind the wheel.

Anyway, that drivers license is supposed to also give her the right to vote. But that does not take into account the various episodes of funny business that occur just prior to the general election. First there is the campaign, undertaken by the Republican in charge of Nevada’s voter-rolls, to purge those rolls of so-called “inactive voters,” i.e. those who did not vote in the 2002 mid-term elections. If one gets caught up in this and de-registered, you might think that one means to get re-registered quickly would be via registration campaigns such as the Voter Outreach for America, financed by Republican Party funds. But you might be wrong in that: it emerges that VOFA workers like to ask new registrants whether they would like to register as Democratic or Republican voters, and they somehow tend to lose the registration papers of that former group.

As for Ms. Dische’s particular story, she returns to Nevada just before the election from Europe, only to find a letter notifying her that she has been struck from the voter rolls because her drivers license was set to expire. That turns out not to be true – her license is valid through 2008. Dische thinks that the problem might more credibly lie in the fact that, when she registered to get that license, she didn’t bother to check either the “Democrat” or “Republican” box when the form asked her political preference. So she calls the election official in charge of her Nevada county, a woman who happens to be a Republican, to try to explain that her drivers license is really not about to expire. Well, that doesn’t matter, explains the official, since the deadline for registering to vote – 12 October – has already passed. No, it’s no use driving all the way to my office in Eureka (that’s a town in Nevada) to show me that your license will not expire for a while; and no, there are no arrangements in Nevada for “provisional ballots.”

Ms. Dische thinks she has lost out. But then she finds out about Dorothy North, the energetic Democratic Party chairman of Elko County. Ms. North sits her down at her telephone and lays out the script; and so Ms. Dische calls the Republican election official again, and threatens to bring a whole posse of East Coast lawyers to Elko County, Nevada, to investigate her case if it turns out that she is refused the right to vote. See you in court! Ms. Dische tells the official: And see you in the newspapers! Then she hangs up. Sure enough, by the time she returns home there is a message that that election official would like her to come visit her office, that she has something for her. Yes, it turns out to be a voter-registration form, and filling out that sucker gains Ms. Dische not any sort of provisional document, but a full-fledged Nevada state ballot. That means that she is able to vote not just for various candidates for office, but also on the various referenda being conducted at the same time on proposed changes to the Nevada constitution. Her favorite is that the provision in the constitution that voting be denied “to idiots or the insane” be re-phrased; but then this just reminds her of how close she came herself to not being allowed to vote.

But did she really succeed after all? Rather than voting electronically, that official Nevada state ballot she won was of the old-fashioned paper variety. How can she be sure that someone – maybe even her old Republican nemesis herself – won’t open the envelope and just throw it away in case there are votes recorded on it with which the person disagrees? Oh well, in case of a really close election Ms. Dische still holds the trump-card: the number of her form, for future tracing purposes, was 0242.

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