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Student Forum: European Perspectives on the U.S. Election
Student Forum: European Perspectives on the U.S. Election
Sergi Pardos-Prado, Researcher, European University Institute
La Pietra Dialogues
February 10, 2008

The discussion between European and American students around the 2008 American Presidential Elections at NYU provided a valuable opportunity to over- come the uni-dimensionality of analyses and judgments about U.S. politics on both sides of the Atlantic and demonstrated the potential of transatlantic dialogue to enrich and redefine points of view in an apparently very settled area of political science like electoral studies. The discussion highlighted some key issues that generate contradictory interpretations. The need to find a common denominator was particularly important in areas where there is not always a common language.

It became clear early on in the discus- sion that what is understood by the word party is not necessarily the same in Eu- rope and the U.S.. American political parties are more inclusive platforms that attract a wide range of political orientations. European political parties have a more narrow focus usually rooted in the representation of a single social group. Some of the larger European parties have evolved into enormous electoral machines that try to attract a more heterogeneous public but the core electoral constituency is still linked to a specific ideological and socio-demographic pro- file. Internal party dissent is often, thus, perceived as a weakness in Europe. A scenario in which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton end up in the same cabinet after competing for months would be inconceivable in Europe. People would wonder what the real difference between the two candidates was and what they each had to compromise to carry out a common policy strategy.

Another important distinction high- lighted in the discussion was the fact that a candidate’s charisma and personality has a stronger influence on party choice in the U.S. than in Europe, although no advanced political system today is completely immune to the personalization of politics. The 2008 U.S. Presidential election is paradigmatic in this respect. Un- fortunately, American leadership is still viewed through Manichean frames in Europe. Europeans have swung from at- tributing total incompetence to George W. Bush to building Barack Obama up as a veritable messiah. European public opinion projects the same qualities onto American society as a whole, too often exaggerating extremes and avoiding complexity.

The discussion also pointed out institutional differences be- tween the U.S. and most European systems that influences interpretations of what elections are about. The American registration process (where citizens are encouraged to vote on the street) and the frequency of calls to the polls (to choose the President, Congress, the Senate, judges, sheriffs, a given policy in a referendum, etc.) seem, at least on the surface, to be strong appeals to democracy. From a European perspective, however, the registration process can also seem like an unnecessary obstacle for the politically, socially and/or geographically marginalized who lack the resources, knowledge or motivation to pass through this filter. The plethora of elections can also generate a constant need to choose between alternatives that are not substantially different. Voter fatigue could explain the comparatively low voter turnout in America.

Finally, the issue of race was central to the EUI-NYU discus- sion. After reiterating time and again Barack Obama’s strong support in Europe, the European students had trouble explaining their pessimistic view of the chances of a racial minority candidate running successfully in a European general election. This seemed to suggest two alternative conclusions. First, that the issue of immigration in Europe is more recent and polarizing than race is in the U.S.. Second, contrary to the stereo- typical European view of the U.S., some American electoral groups showed an amazing capacity to mobilize and to evolve, demonstrating that electoral forecasting rules might soon need to be re-written.

All in all, the panel discussion was incredibly interesting from a substantive and also a personal point of view. Working in an international environment is not always easy because one is of- ten confronted with the restrictiveness of national boundaries and disconnected from the local academic context. The experience at NYU proved that it is possible to overcome some of these limitations by facilitating dialogue among American and European students. Hopefully the panel on American elections will be just the beginning of a long and fruitful interaction among NYU and EUI students in the coming years.

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