In my prep book for the US expat and study abroad community there is a chapter called “President of Earth.” It discusses the the intense opinions that non Americans often have regarding US presidential elections. The chapter title harks back to a character in the Action superhero comics in the 1960s. American students in the UK have been discovering two things in the past few months. First, there is a feeling of ownership about US elections as though the POTUS were indeed the President of Earth and second, the famous British reserve evaporates when it is time to elect that President. The British love irony. Fine. Here is irony. In order to stop the United States from bullying their government they bully American voters. At least that is how it seems to us, as the British have no compunction about haranguing Americans with their views on who should occupy the White House. The other day a student told me about a conversation in which he had been very tempted to remind the other people that it was after all HIS country’s election and not theirs! To his credit he remained calm. Most of the time these conversations remain just that – conversations – but once I had to ask a woman (to whom I had just been introduced!) to step back and take her finger out of my face if she wished to have a discussion about the candidate I was supporting. To make a long story short, election time can be personally stressful for Americans abroad.
Oddly, it is often pro Americans who go on the attack. Many British people who are fond of America feel that way because they are very selective in their view of the United States. As a result they fail to acknowledge the whole country – the very thing we press American students to do when they are abroad. If they have lived in big northern cities like New York they may be only vaguely aware of actual republicans living and working in the country. When they do see them it may be a fringe group on the news expressing extreme views. The result was shock and dismay in 2000 and then anger in 2004 where they assumed we would correct our “mistake” by electing Al Gore. After that election Americans of every political persuasion or none felt the sting and we understood the reason. Their connection to the US or to US culture made them feel let down, even betrayed. For those with little or no feeling of connection to the US there is simply resentment at US power and influence vis a vis their own government and indeed culture.
The anti Bush and anti American feeling (and no they were not the same thing) was at a fever pitch in 2004, fed by deep anger at the Labour government for allowing the country to be led into “American wars.” But even that anger was only part of a larger anxiety about American influence over Britain. Occasionally, it bubbles and boils to the surface over a very specific issue such the extradition of British citizens – a very touchy point here. So much so that the recent decision of the British government not to extradite the hacker Gary McKinnon to the US touched off a wave of national relief and pride that the Government had “stood up to the US” – at last! Many Americans think of the British as our best buddies but the relationship is more complex for them. It rankles that in any conflict of interest with US they seem to lose. From their perspective one way to avoid losing (so much) is to have a president who does not pick fights — thus the need to tell individual Americans who to vote for. On the other hand, the feeling of being a loser has definitely receded of late. The McKinnon decision helped as did their very successful Olympics and the pride in various royal celebrations. We can only hope that this new confidence will lead to a time in the not too distant future where they will not feel the need to “own” the US presidency.
In the meantime, the majority of British people were in favor of President Obama’s re-election so we have three years to be smiled at. Then the cycle of stress and intimidation will begin all over again. So if you decide to move to Britain in 2015 — you have been warned!