I have yet to meet a Republican in South Africa. This is surprising, considering there are reportedly about 20 000 Americans living here, and I’ve met quite a few of them. There are apparently 55 million registered members of the Republican Party in the United States, compared to 72 million Democrats, with the remainder of the 169 million registered voters listed as undeclared or independent. By this estimate, one would expect roughly one third of Americans in South Africa, over six thousand people, to be Republican. Yet, I haven’t met a single one.
Is the experience of coming to South Africa so life-changing that Republicans immediately become Democrats or independents upon landing in the Rainbow Nation? Or is it that Republicans are less likely to visit South Africa in the first place?
This situation isn’t entirely unique to South Africa. While living in France I was also hard pressed to find Republican Americans in Paris, though I did manage to run into a few. This was true of my time spent in England as well, though it was slightly easier (perhaps not surprisingly) to find Republicans there than in France. Ahead of the US general elections in 2004, Slate magazine ran an article entitled Hunting for Republicans in Paris detailing how they encountered a similar phenomenon: Americans living abroad tend to vote Democrat. Indeed, a 2004 Zogby poll reportedly found that Americans with passports favoured Democratic candidate John Kerry over George W. Bush 58% to 35%.
Why is this the case?
In the interest of full disclosure I should probably state that I used to be a Republican myself. I was twelve and didn’t really know why I was a Republican; I just knew that that no-good Bill Clinton character was ruining the country. This was more a product of following my family’s political leanings than any passionate political fervour. However, while I am not prepared to call myself a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and still consider myself an independent, since attaining the age of 18 I have only ever voted for Democrats.
This is not to say that I would never vote for a Republican. In fact, while in high school I remember being blown away by a sprightly sixty-four-year-old John McCain coming to speak in my hometown in Oklahoma. Talking passionately about campaign finance reform, religious tolerance, bipartisanship and personal liberties, he presented a centrist platform that appealed to independents like myself and I was incredibly disappointed when he failed to capture his party’s nomination in 2000. Yet as much as I respect John McCain — and make no mistake of it, he is an honourable man who is deserving of respect for his many years of public service, his commitment to reach across the aisle and work with his opponents, and his willingness to defy his own party (until recently) on issues he strongly believes in — he will not be getting my vote in November.
No, like most Americans you meet in South Africa today, I will be voting for the Democrats this year and I will provide you with one reason out of many why I will be voting this way.
This past weekend I attended an event in Braamfontein for Democrats Abroad South Africa. About one hundred or so supporters of the Democratic Party — Americans and South Africans alike — met at the foot of the Nelson Mandela Bridge. The idea was to get people to join at bridges across the globe to symbolize the Democrats “building bridges with the rest of the world.” Could one argue that this was merely a media stunt? Sure, but I have not heard of any Republicans joining with locals around the world to symbolise their desire to improve relations with their fellow man (or rebuild the “bridges” that have been burned over the past several years). Perhaps this is because there are just not enough Republicans overseas to pull off such a gathering. Surely this says something as well.
Living abroad tends to make most Americans realise the importance of cross-cultural understanding and respect. It also makes them aware of the international reverberations of America’s actions overseas and how cooperation is often more successful than going it alone. Thus, given the apparent lack of Republicans abroad, it would be interesting to know whether the experience of living overseas makes someone lean Democrat or whether Democrats and like-minded independents are just more inclined to go abroad in the first place. Regardless of the reason for this apparent phenomenon, it would surely seem to have some impact on the foreign policies pursued by the two dominant political parties in the States. And at this current juncture in history, America is in desperate need of a foreign policy built on building bridges with the rest of the world. Hence my decision to respectfully decline John McCain’s offer to be my president.
The photo that was taken at the foot of the Nelson Mandela Bridge on Saturday is surely worth a thousand words and a thousand reasons why I will be casting my vote for the Democrats on November 4th.