Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Election Day

America, this morning. (Not my flag).
It's Baked Alaska time here in Texas. Not a reference to our November weather, in which crisp chill Autumn mornings melt into warm Summer afternoons, but to the Presidential election and my relationship with it: simultaneously hot and cold, up and down, engaged and disengaged. At one and the same time I am both on the inside looking out and on the outside looking in, like the bluebottle that has inexplicably found its way between panes of double-glazing.

The weirdness is mainly to do with the fact that I can't vote but I am affected by the result. This is nothing new, of course, as non-US citizens around the world will attest. I grew up in Britain following American politics, becoming increasingly partisan and yet unable to voice my preference. I cheered on Clinton from the sidelines in '92 and '96. In 2000 I stayed up until Florida was called for Gore and I went to bed happy that Americans had saved themselves, and us, from an idiot.

But now there is at least strong meteorological evidence that I do live in the United States (I'm still sceptical). I am even more directly affected by the outcome of this election: the quality and affordability of healthcare for my family, to pick one example. And the irony is not lost upon me that I suffer taxation without representation. Of course I do get a vote, just not here. And I can't not vote in Britain - it's my country, it needs me, wherever I am in the world! America is just where I live (allegedly - remember there's no consensus on that).

There's another slice to this Baked Alaska. Even if I could vote here, it wouldn't count. This is not a battleground state: the real election is taking place many hundreds of miles away. Despite Houston's bluish-leanings, Texas is red like its steaks and its thirty-four electoral college votes are guaranteed for Mitt Romney. The fight is in Ohio and Florida (amongst other places) and I have seen no motorcades down here, nor heard any rallies.

Lawn signs for Romney popped up overnight across the neighbourhood about a month ago, put out by friends and neighbours who would never discuss politics openly but obviously felt passionate enough about the Republican candidate to pin his colours to their, er, grass. Rather oddly, the colour in question is predominately white. Not a comment on race, I hasten to add (heaven forfend!), but on design: there's so much blank space on these signs that I cynically wondered if it was so his supporters could fill in for themselves what they thought Romney might be standing for. For a fortnight they ran unopposed but eventually the Obama signs did appear - nowhere near so many of them, of course, and often in pairs, as if consecutive homeowners had felt the need to circle the wagons. But it is irrelevant which side put theirs up first: both Republicans and Democrats feel surrounded and threatened by the others; for right or left, it is almost an act of defiance to publicly declare oneself.

Such seemingly irreconcilable differences, such polarised debate, suggests that American democracy is in poor health. Are elections decided by big-money donors instead of individual voters? Do lawyers and judges get to say whose vote counts and whose doesn't? Sadly, these questions will be asked again today. At best, there certainly isn't enough transparency in the system. At worst, it might be that one side is hell-bent on actively disenfranchising its opposition's voters in key areas.

But an hour or so ago, as I dropped my kids off at school, I walked past a line of Americans, waiting patiently to cast their ballot. Anywhere in the world, it is an inspiring sight.

Tonight I will sit down in front of as many screens as I can find and I'll watch the results come in. I'll bite my nails and drink large amounts of alcohol. I'll swear, both vituperatively and with joy. I'll scour graphs and count votes and generally cling on for dear life, utterly powerless, swept towards the result like a man in a barrel towards Niagara.

I shall be in the hands of all the people queuing today across America.

Which is, of course, just as it should be.

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