The US elections are by far the most overcovered event in the world.
By now, I know more about Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, than I do about Mark Rutte, the prime minister of my own country, the Netherlands. I’ve heard more speeches by Amy Klobuchar, member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, than by Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, Europe’s most important politician. I remember more of Joe Biden’s gaffes than the policies of the party I last voted for.
And then, of course, there’s Donald Trump – the man who shows up on my timeline more often than Kim Jong-un appears on North Korean state news.
My point is: given the blanket media coverage of the US presidential elections in and outside the country, I wasn’t sure if I should write this piece.
The bizarre spectacle that is the US elections
Still, as a Dutchman with a US passport, I’ve been following the US elections with above-average interest.
Or should I say: with above-average bewilderment.
Viewed from across the Atlantic, the US elections look like one big, bizarre spectacle. Not just on account of the exaggerated rhetoric, the astonishing attacks that go back and forth, and all the flag-waving. No, mainly because of the content.
As a Dutchman, I’ve never had to wonder whether I would still have health insurance next year – everyone just does. I have never feared being shot with a firearm – guns are simply prohibited here. I have never doubted the necessity of a living wage – that is a given. I never feared my children wouldn’t be able to attend university – tuition fees here are around €2,000 per year. As a Dutchman, it never even occurred to me whether the LGBTQ community should have the same rights as everyone else – this is taken for granted.
In the Netherlands, elections focus on issues such as: should the annual health insurance deductible change from €350 to zero?
Yes, we argue about that.
Politics in the world’s richest poor country
I get to exercise my democratic privilege in two countries, but it doesn’t really feel that way. It’s rather like being allowed to vote in a country and in a developing country.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing but admiration for the US entrepreneurial spirit. There are few countries where I would rather spend my holidays, and I can’t imagine life without my favourite Hollywood movies and Netflix series. And, of course, without the United States, I would be writing this column in German – let’s not forget.
But listening to the US election debates with European ears and reading election party platforms with European eyes, it’s hard to shake the feeling of having been somehow transported to the mid-19th century.
I have described my second home country as "the wealthiest third world country" before – and I still think that is a pretty accurate description. You could even put it like this: the United States is the richest poor country in the world. Just think about it. They’re the largest economy on the planet and yet:
- One in eight US Americans, almost 40 million in total, live on or below the poverty line
- One in eight US Americans, around 40 million in total, depend on food stamps
- One in 35 adult US Americans – a world record – is detained in some way
- 40 out of 50 states are on the verge of bankruptcy
- The country has a national debt in excess of $22tn
- It also has the most weapons per capita (120 weapons for every 100 inhabitants)
- It has the highest student and credit card debt of all countries (around $3tn)
- It struggles with one of the largest gaps between the rich and the poor in the world (the richest 1% own 40% of all wealth)
- It has the most expensive healthcare system on the planet (17% of GDP)
- And at the same time, the US ranks 33rd (!) for average life expectancy.
Now, I am not saying any of this to sound derogatory – like a self-satisfied European looking down on the chaos that is the US. No, more than anything, my point is: the US elections really, really matter – it’s life or death for millions of US Americans.
It almost makes you understand the aggressive rhetoric and polarisation of US politics that seems so unnecessary from a European perspective: that is what a political life and death struggle looks like.
For people in the US, so much is at stake.
Today, spare a thought for the rest of the world, too
Nevertheless, I would like to take this Super Tuesday as an opportunity to make a modest appeal to our US American fellow Earth-dwellers: today, don’t just vote in your own interests, but spare a thought for us, too – the rest of the world.
Because in addition to all that is at stake for the US, the future of the rest of the world is on the US ballot more than ever this time.
Climate change is the biggest problem humankind has ever created – a problem that doesn’t care about our imaginary national borders, idealised purchasing power charts, or political preferences.
Solving it requires nothing less than a global switch to a completely new energy supply, like our species has never had to make before. To keep the damage within manageable limits, we need a social transformation to take place within 30 years.
And remember: it took oil and gas more than 60 years to become the dominant energy sources – a development that was by no means a necessity. Today, transitioning to a carbon-free society is a necessity, which is involuntary and needs to be completed in half that time.
Dear US Americans, we can’t do that without you.
The US is the world’s second largest emitter of CO2 – after China (which has four times the population). Of all major industrialised countries, the US emits the largest amount of carbon dioxide per capita (not least because you like your SUVs). Yet in spite all of this, the current president doesn’t believe climate change really exists, and the US is the only country in the world that has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement.
We can’t afford another four years of climate denial in the White House.
Fortunately, I know this isn’t going unheeded: 80% of US Americans see climate change as a threat to the world, and more than 60% even consider it the biggest threat we face right now. Two-thirds are in favour of serious measures to combat the climate crisis, a substantial majority.
The only question is: will that majority show up at the voting booth? I agree with the Democrat Bernie Sanders when he says that the most important factor in a November 2020 Democrat victory will be turnout. The re-election of Trump will not so much be determined by the number of conservatives that vote but rather by the number of progressives that stay at home. There’s already a majority; now they just need to get out and vote.
So, dear US Americans, let’s set a good example today. If you’re still not sure who to vote for, Climate correspondent Eric Holthaus has closely examined the most important candidates and written a personal voting recommendation. But whatever you do, don’t stay at home because you think voting is pointless. The US once gifted the world the Big Mac, the internet and liberation from the Nazis – so why not grant us all a future on a liveable planet as well? Vote – if not for yourself, then for the rest of us.
That way, all the endless coverage will at least have served a purpose.
This piece was translated from Dutch by John Edwards.
Correction: In an earlier version of this column, I wrote that the three richest people in the Netherlands did not own as much wealth as the bottom half of Dutch households. That statement was incorrect, according to this 2014 report on wealth inequality in the Netherlands by the Scientific Counsil for Goverment Policy.