Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Talking Politics

At a recent dinner I found myself seated with an Albanian, a German, and an Italian.  All were fluent in English and after the usual niceties about family, health, and the weather the conversation quickly turned to politics.  Now this is a topic I generally try to avoid;  its hard enough to discuss these topics in a neutral tone in English, but add in the possibility of having to do it in Albanian and it is just too much for me to handle.  But the conversation was in English and it not only provided me with a quick refresher on the American political system (what is the purpose of the Electoral College again?) but my lack of solid knowledge about out own system proved to be quite eye opening.

2012 is a big election year for the United States.  Here in Albania we don't have access to regular American television but thanks to AFN, we do have the opportunity to watch select network news broadcasts and the occasional Republican primary debate which is aired after the fact at odd hours.  Most of our election news comes from what we read on the internet and from BBC and CNN Europe satellite broadcasts.  We hear the ugly rehashes and sound bites but are thankfully spared what I can only imagine is the incessant sniping, bickering, and finger pointing of the Pac and Super Pac ads.  I can't say I'm blissfully unaware of what is happening in the American political arena but I am thankfully much more sheltered than your average, stateside American.

So as I was picking my way through yet another uninspiring Albanian meal I was asked point blank what I thought about Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  The question was posed by the Albanian, a man who had been involved in Albanian elections for many years.  I wasn't sure whether he was joking or not so I carefully crafted a non-committal response about the importance of having choices in an election.  I was quizzed by both the German and the Albanian as to why, when the world was in the midst of an economic crisis, that social issues were at the forefront of campaign discussions.  Are social issues really the most pressing issue for Americans today?

There was great interest among all of our table mates as to the purpose of primaries and caucuses, elections, and the voting process.  They were surprised that not only could Glenn and I vote by absentee ballot in the primaries and the general election but by the fact we voted in different states- Florida and Virginia respectively, with each state having their own set of rules for voting in primary elections.  In a country where election fraud is rampant, voting by mail seems unimaginable to Albanians.

My explanation of the US electoral process from primaries to the general election tested everything I had learned years ago in my high school civics class.  As I described the three major political parties (I included Independents but I think their inclusion just confused my explanation) and the role each party played in the primary process I found myself questioning the very process I was describing.  When pressed as to why each state had their own set of eligibility rules- Independents can vote in either primary in some states (i.e. Michigan allows it) but not others; you may change your party affiliation at any time in other states - I found myself at a loss of a clear explanation as to why.  My only concrete response was simply "states rights trumping those of the federal government."  This explanation seemed to confuse everyone at the table.  I must admit that I was a bit confused myself.

The concept that votes are truly anonymous and that voters are not obligated to vote for the candidate from their registered party seemed foreign to our dinner companions.  Repeated explanations that yes, you can vote for a Republican in the primary then a Democrat in the general election were met with blank stares.  The explanation of the Electoral College only added to the confusion.  Yes, every vote counts but as some recent elections have shown, they might not.  In today's day and age, is the Electoral College even relevant? 

Later that evening I found myself questioning my own knowledge of the entire process.  The evening's conversation had me thinking about American politics and our political system.  Was I correct in my explanations of how things work or did I only assume I was since voting has been second nature to me since I filled out my first absentee ballot at the age of 18.  What role do primaries and caucuses play in shaping the general election and are these roles still relevant today?  And probably my  most pressing question of all, who are these people who make up the Electoral College and do they truly represent the voice of "the people".

Overall I feel as though I did an unsatisfactory job in explaining our political system and as an American History major I should have done better.  With eight months until the general election in November I have time to hone my knowledge and I suspect I should since I'm sure to be quizzed more about American politics in the coming months.

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