A Journal of the Plague Week 34

Monday, November 9th, 2020

I have spent most of my adult life living in countries where I couldn’t vote and voting in a country where I don’t live.

If you’ve never been denied the right to vote, or you’ve never had stumbling blocks put in your way, or you simply take your enfranchisement for granted, you won’t understand how deeply disempowering it is to have no say in your political fate. When you vote, your preferred candidate or concept might not always win. In exceptional circumstances, your preferred candidate might even subsequently try to cast doubt on the entire endeavor in a show of undermining the very democracy they supposedly represent. But by voting you are raising your voice, and you can influence the outcome of a decision that affects you, no matter how small that influence or effect may seem. And that is immensely powerful.

I have rarely felt more helpless than during the Brexit vote in 2016, which was held a year before I got British citizenship—meaning I wasn’t allowed to participate in it, even though, as the “spouse of an EEA citizen,” I was (ostensibly) directly affected by it (though my situation was both simpler and more complicated than that thanks to Jeremy’s dual Irish/British citizenship). My UK citizenship was approved in March 2017 and the citizenship ceremony was held on May 8th. After the ceremony, Jeremy and I celebrated with a lovely glass of English sparkling wine at Ten Green Bottles, and then we went home and I immediately registered to vote in the UK.

I got to put my voting rights to use exactly one month later, in the UK general election on June 8th. And while the election did not go the way I might have hoped (on a national level, anyway), I felt genuinely proud when I dropped my ballot into the box at the polling station just down the road. And when I say “proud” I do not mean national pride or patriotism. I mean civic pride, like I had finally been recognized as someone making a contribution to this society—never mind the fact that I had already been making a contribution by paying UK taxes for the preceding 17 years (in addition to, you know, just generally trying to be a good citizen in the broadest sense of the word).

UK citizens living outside the UK currently lose the right to vote here if they’ve been away for 15 years, though this is apparently due to change so that people have a lifelong vote. The US already offers its citizens a lifelong right to vote from abroad, which is only fair considering the US is also one of just two countries in the world that taxes its citizens living abroad—even if those citizens have never lived in the US. To be precise, all US citizens have to file US tax returns and report the details of their non-US bank accounts to the Internal Revenue Service. In my case, I don’t actually have to pay any US taxes because I’m a UK taxpayer—I just have to pay a US accountant to fill out my US tax returns to tell me that I don’t have to pay any US taxes.

But the tax thing is merely an irritation and not the real reason I vote in American federal elections. The heart of the matter is that, even after spending more of my life in Europe than the United States, on some fundamental level and in ways I can’t entirely psychologically unpack, I am still American. And I therefore (feel like I) bear some responsibility for what happens in America—not least because what happens in America reverberates around the world.

All last week, my clients in Germany added not only the requisite coronavirus asides to their emails (“Hope you’re healthy!”) but also election asides (“Hope you’re not too stressed out—we’re all holding our breath!”). One of my contacts at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial wrote: “Even though I’m not directly involved or affected [by the election], the global impact is certainly significant.” And as soon as the election was called for Biden on Saturday, two different Germans texted me with messages of relief. Germans know better than most just how fragile a republic can be, and how dangerous it is to appease would-be strongmen and nurture humanity’s worst tendencies: racism, xenophobia, tribalism, suspicion, the rejection of fact and reason in favor of conspiracy and emotion, the thirst for spectacle and the will to violence.

All of those tendencies are still very much in evidence, of course. They won’t disappear just because there’s someone else in the Oval Office. The outgoing president wasn’t the direct cause of such dark sentiments, he was a manifestation and amplifier of them. They will continue to be fostered on cable news and talk radio, on Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and in opinion pieces, just as they were throughout Obama’s presidency. And four years from now, I expect another candidate will come along—one much suaver and savvier than the man exiting stage (alt-)right in January—and they will either explicitly or implicitly play on these sentiments in an attempt to win votes and take office. And I will, once again, as a citizen of both America and the world, use my vote to try to prevent that from happening.


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