Well, it’s done.
This morning I went down to the print shop and faxed in my absentee ballot. Surrounded by high school students printing their final projects, I filled in some blanks on a paper, pressed a button and sent off one of the most important decisions in my life.
The results of this election are crucial. I know that we are told this every four years. It is a cliché of civic life in America. However, this time, I believe that it is actually true.
America is at a turning point. In the last eight years, the wars, the economy and the lack of leadership have taken a toll not just on America, but also on the world.
The world cares about this election. It cares about American politics. I have spent many an afternoon here in South Africa answering people’s questions about both over a cup of coffee. The interest in the current campaign is overwhelming. Details, significant and trivial, are reported and consumed.
Every American election is news abroad. As the world’s only remaining superpower, the president that the American people choose affects the lives of people who have never and may never set foot within our country’s borders. Small details that most of us don’t know about impact their quality of life in profound ways. This means that sometimes, as the only American in the room, people will hold you responsible for something you had never even heard of. Once, during a seminar at the school of Public Health at the University of Cape Town, the professor lectured me about the harm that the Global Gag Rule has caused to South Africa’s fight against HIV and AIDS. Apparently, the rule, which cuts funding to any organization that provides, refers or advises abortions, had closed down a clinic that she was involved with. While this was frustrating for me, I could understand why South Africans take such an avid interest in American politics. For them the results have personal consequences.
This year, though, mostly due to the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama, the interest is even more intense than usual. It would be a huge understatement to say that he is popular here. His image is ubiquitous. I saw my first Obama image painted onto the side of a telephone pole the day after I arrived in Cape Town.
Since then, he has popped up on trashcans, walls and random nooks and crannies. I have seen his portrait both sprayed as graffiti in an alley and rendered in oil paint on the walls of a gallery. His books are bestsellers. Internet pop-ups ask, “Obama’s IQ is (fill in a high number), what is yours?” The University of Cape Town’s speech and debate team recruits “aspiring Obamas.” I even saw Obama t-shirts for sale in a one-street town in Zambia during spring break.
This son of a Kenyan captures the imagination of a country sadly lacking in political heroes. While Nelson Mandela is greatly beloved and respected, his successors are not. Mbeki, the denier of HIV/AIDS, and his replacement, Zuma, best known for his rape trial, have taught South Africans to be cynical about politics and made them particularly susceptible to Obama’s appeal.
Yet, the response Obama provokes is not uncomplicated. On one hand, the idea that an African is on the verge of becoming the commander-in-chief of the United States is a source of great pride. Many hope that an Obama presidency will benefit Africa. At the same time, especially towards the beginning of my stay, many South Africans expressed skepticism that Obama could win. As one guy put it, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Others asked why it has taken so long. And still others were openly skeptical about how much of a difference an Obama presidency would mean to them. After all, he has so many other issues and areas that would demand his attention.
Following the election and voting from abroad has been an interesting experience. There have been moments when I have felt frustrated by the way everyone seems to feel obligated to offer his or her opinion. There have been times when I resented being held accountable for the actions of people I did not vote for. But then I am reminded that there are others who are affected by the way we vote. Whether we like it or not, as Americans, we have the privilege and the responsibility to vote carefully and with consideration.