Trying to translate the US political system to German

February 28, 2008

In the month that I’ve been working in Germany before my semester begins, I’ve learned plenty: what a plus sign in a phone number means, how to say instantaneous [augenblicklich] and to buy groceries on Saturday, since everything is closed on Sunday.

In addition to learning all these linguistic and cultural tidbits, I’ve taught some as well: words like wimp, freight and mooch; what rice krispie treats are; why college basketball matters. It began inadvertently. The treats, which I made myself, were eaten, however skeptically. The latter, being a sport other than soccer—excuse me, football—was viewed as another example of those silly Americans missing the point. I attempted in vain to explain the importance of my 21st birthday to a room full of people who have had beer with lunch since they were 15, not that anyone ever asked for ID.

But what really interested the Germans were the presidential primaries. When I began work in early January, a co-worker asked me who I thought would win the general election. Back then, you may remember, Giuliani was the Republican front-runner and Obama was viewed merely as an impediment to the inevitable coronation of Clinton. I hesitantly called the White House for the Democrats, though I was too cautious to name the future president. Thus began our series of primary lessons.

I tried to explain what was so special about New Hampshire and why McCain’s win in Florida was a big deal, but Clinton’s was insignificant. When I mailed my own absentee ballot to the great state of Illinois, grumbling a bit about how the winner of Obama’s home state was a foregone conclusion, it prompted a question about why the states vote separately. Tradition, I guessed. As a footnote, I gave an account of the 2000 election, explaining the electoral college along the way. When Huckabee said that he majored in miracles rather than math, the Germans asked me why we Americans care so much about a candidate’s religion. The only question they didn’t ask—and it became noticeable in its omission—was which candidate got my vote.

Someone asked about the party conventions, leading to a (particularly ambitious) explanation of delegates and superdelegates. As I finished, the look of confusion on one co-worker’s face lifted and he commented, “Oh, that’s like how we used to do it in East Germany.”

Rather than defensively rejecting my co-worker’s assessment, I gave some thought to our primary process. The process of states voting separately—not only in time, but also in delegations—is antiquated at best, and brings to mind a real-life Animal Farm, with some being more equal than others. As lacking in suspense as the Illinois primary was, the general election is even more of a formality, with my bright blue city outvoting the rest of the state. I envy my friends in Ohio and their relevance. But before I even have the opportunity to vainly fulfill my civic duty, the candidate for whom I vote will be selected by a group of delegates whose superpower is influence. At least I’m not from Michigan; my vote will appear in the form of some delegates according to proportional representation. The narrow margin one candidate has over the other in the state delegates, though, catapults the superdelegates (seriously, do they wear capes?) to a position of highly undemocratic prominence.

Which means that, just as in Soviet satellites, party bosses will pick the candidate. At least we have two parties. I knew we had something over East Germany.

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