U.S. expat voters in Europe and Israel: One people, divided
My experience of how Americans in Europe decide on how to vote differs starkly from the blanket support for Romney among expatriate Americans in Israel.
As I read the latest reported exit polls on American Israelis voting in the U.S. elections, I saw that the results are still three to one for Republicans Romney and Ryan. I was intrigued by the anomaly: in my experience, American expatriates in Paris, where I live, and in Europe in general, vote overwhelmingly Democrat in every presidential election. How is it that only in one country, Israel, Americans vote Republican three to one? And how does living in Europe, with its markedly different political culture, affect the views of expatriate Americans when they come to vote in a U.S. election?
My belief has always been that the fact that expatriates have a global vantage point makes it simpler for us to compare systems in different countries, one that allows us to overcome the often-commented-on lack of knowledge of many Americans about the world beyond the borders of the United States. This has led these expatriate voters here with whom I am familiar to a clearer appreciation of European social policies, and consequently to support the party whose policies most closely resemble them – the Democrats. This of course is in marked contrast to the reportedly Republican leanings of U.S. expats, who are often thought of as dismissing U.S. domestic policy debates in favour of an exclusive focus on Israel's security.
The experience of "comparing and contrasting" domestic policies among expats in Europe versus the situation in the U.S. during this campaign is, I believe, revealing. Take two specific domestic issues: the health system and abortion rights.
The only part of the U.S. health system that to some extent resembles the state-run European healthcare of countries including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium and northern Europe is Medicare, U.S. federal health insurance that has a narrow scope and that relates primarily to the care of the elderly. Israel also has a health coverage system that resembles European models in general, but with the local twist of healthcare being provided by competing health coverage funds. The founding value of European healthcare is its comprehensive coverage of the population.
When my French colleagues and friends ask me how 40 million Americans do not have health coverage, even when they work, I can only answer: at least the elderly have Medicare. For Europeans and Israelis, the idea that national health care should be administered on a for-profit basis is a non-starter. And this idea takes root quickly among Americans in Europe, as Lilian Malki, a journalist in Paris originally from Brooklyn and Berkeley, California, told me, "We live in a country that provides publicly- funded healthcare and we know how good it is. Going to the doctor is not a financial issue here; it is in the States. In my family back in the U.S., people don’t go to the doctor unless they have no choice because it is too expensive.”
How do the health services that expat Americans enjoy in Israel and Europe compare to the proposed changes by the Republicans to Medicare? The Republican plans for Medicare would be to make the elderly and those with often failing health subject to free market economic highs and lows. These radical changes have the elderly - some of whom are the parents of those Republican-voting American Israelis - running scared in Florida, and this has boosted their intention to vote Democrat. It’s hard for me and for other expats here who have grown used to European-style healthcare to understand how Americans in Israel can find the moral argument to vote for a plan that leaves their elderly parents’ health as bait for free-market wolves.
Turning to abortion rights, the policies in Europe are far more liberal than those in the United States. In France, abortions are considered a private health matter, but they can be carried out by the public healthcare system. Only last week, the French parliament passed a law that the state would cover 100 percent of the cost of abortions rather than the previous 70 percent or 80 percent. Contraception is now free for all women, including minors (from 15 -18 years old), and without parental consent. The original French law legalizing abortion was developed by then-Health Minister Simone Veil, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, in 1975 in a rightist Gaullist government.
The Republican anti-abortion platform is marked by religious and moral obsessions that are looked on by many in Europe including my colleagues and friends in Paris as insulting and pitiful. There is no equivalent public discourse of debate and judgement about women’s bodies in Europe. American expats here combine both the pro-choice stance of secular Americans with a European rejection of the "town-square" politics of abortion so familiar in the United States. American friends here see the endless focus on abortion in the United States as a convenient diversionary tactic away from more pressing domestic and international issues: as my friend Lilien puts it, "Education and creating jobs, and foreign policy, that is for government policymakers, not abortion. Here, there is no abortion debate, and that’s the way it should be.” And from Terence Kenny, a friend and champagne exporter, living near Paris and originally from Long Island: "Here in France, the healthcare and abortion issues are no big deal, or they are private matters, and as long-time expats, we have internalized that as being normal."
And what about the two interrelated foreign policy issues that have disproportionately engaged the two presidential candidates - Israel’s security, and about dealing with a bellicose Iran? Americans in Israel seem to believe that former Governor Romney cares more and knows better on these issues than President Obama. Seen from abroad, Barack Obama has been something of a disappointment in the field of foreign policy, although his mistakes do not compare to what are commonly thought of in Europe as major blunders by Republican presidents, such as President Bush Jr's decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of democracy.
My friend, a champagne exporter, characterized the Republicans under Bush as reacting "on a gut level" to foreign policy crises, and he also commented to me that in terms of Iran, it was all a question of "containment" and that the Republicans don't have any fresh ideas about how to do this; most expat Americans he knows think Obama would do a better job. And in terms of his country of residence, he surmised that the French Socialist government would rather deal with Obama than a Republican president.
The more nuanced European discourse on the United States' international involvements seems to impact expats in Europe, who tend to see the world less in terms of the binary equation of "good guys" and "bad guys", a worldview that is often heard from the right-wing of the Republican Party, and by Americans living in Israel. Perhaps on this issue as well as on domestic ones such as healthcare and abortion, this nuance is a reflection of the political system in general in Europe, which tends to cultivate a broader range of political parties and which may have stimulated a more genuine multilateralism that rewards compromise and coalitions rather than the two-party system of the United States. From where I stand, in Paris, this could be one of the more valuable lessons that Americans living abroad could repatriate back to their home country.
Brett Kline is a journalist based in Paris who visits Israel frequently.