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A Global Perspective on 2012

By Taylor Boas, November 7, 2012

Citizens and the media of foreign countries often pay close attention to American campaigns and elections—much closer, unfortunately, than we typically do to theirs. How are they likely to have viewed this year’s presidential contest? Here, I offer a few thoughts on how the recent electoral process might be seen through the lens of comparative politics.

First, the outcome of the election should raise eyebrows for any citizen of a democracy that has been affected by the global economic recession. All else equal, we expect incumbents to be defeated in tough economic times, regardless of their ideological orientation. This prediction has been borne out in recent elections across Europe, from the UK in 2010, to Ireland and Spain in 2011, to France in 2012. Yet President Obama was reelected despite an unemployment rate of nearly 8% and constant attacks on his and his party’s economic management. The difference may lie in both the depth of the crisis (much worse in most European countries) and also the nature of the response. Where many European voters have roundly rejected austerity measures, the Obama administration was more interventionist—e.g., bailing out the automobile industry—and likely won votes in key battleground states as a result.

Second, those following our elections from abroad are likely to have noticed the disproportionate weight of corporate money versus public financing. Even before Citizens United, the U.S. stood out among democracies in terms of the minimal public support for candidates (in the form of either money or free airtime for advertising) and the importance of private campaign financing. Now, with unlimited spending by Super PACs, as well as presidential candidates willing to forego federal matching funds, the influence of corporate money is even more disproportionate. At the same time, among countries where businesses spend heavily to influence politics, the U.S. does stand out in terms of the rule of law. In many democracies, especially newer ones, firms routinely give money under the table and often receive illegal or unethical benefits in return. Corporate money may be ubiquitous in U.S. elections, but corruption, thankfully, is not.

Third, if citizens of other democracies were to accompany American friends to the polls, they would likely notice several unusual features of U.S. electoral administration. Voter identification laws may be uncommon and contentious in the U.S., but they are ubiquitous in many other countries, which issue national I.D. cards and require citizens to present them at the polls. Other safeguards, such as dipping one’s finger in indelible ink to prevent repeat voting, are common in new democracies but not here at home. America’s laissez-faire approach helps ensure that relatively few citizens are denied the right to vote, at a somewhat higher risk of fraud. Yet U.S. law also complicates efforts to vote by scheduling elections on a Tuesday rather than a weekend or public holiday, as in most other democracies. The increasing use of mail-in ballots and early voting helps alleviate this problem, though the latter was scaled back in several states amidst partisan wrangling over whose voters were most likely to benefit.

On balance, I think the 2012 presidential campaign and election will be viewed positively through foreign eyes. Yet it is always helpful to keep in mind the many ways, for good or bad, that our democracy differs from others around the world.

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