If the rest of the world could vote

Foreigners can see themselves in the candidacy of Barack Obama. Maybe the U.S.A. really is "exceptional"

Published November 4, 2008 5:58PM (EST)

Voters beware: The entire world's hopes are invested in the result of the American presidential election, and that is a strange thing indeed. It has been much remarked upon how the rest of the world appears to overwhelmingly support Barack Obama for president. One reason bandied about is that when people elsewhere look at Obama, they see themselves. Part black, part white, part African, part Kansan, raised in the melting pot of Hawaii and the islands of Indonesia. Never before has a legitimate candidate for president of the United States encompassed within him or herself such a multiplicity of identities.

Paradoxically, Obama's candidacy exemplifies something that Republicans like Sarah Palin like to talk about -- America's "exceptionalism" -- the idea that the U.S. is unlike any other country in the world -- and better. For social conservatives there's a spooky religious aspect -- America has been blessed by God. But for the rest of the world watching this election, I suspect it could be a bit more pragmatic. If a black man can be elected president of the most powerful country in the world, then truly, anything might be possible.

If not for you, then for your children.

For immigrant Americans, or Americans born to immigrants, the emotions must be even stronger. Obama's candidacy emphasizes why the United States is a destination for so many striving for a better life. To have the chance to vote in such an election must be a powerful experience.

Which is one reason I took notice this morning of an explanation offered by a contributor to the group blog Sepia Mutiny on "Why I Vote."

Two excerpts:

Then my grandfather became a citizen, so he could sponsor my aunt to come to America. I helped him study for the test, sitting with him on his bed and drilling the material as he apologized for the fact that he couldn't learn it perfectly the first time. Grandpa had always had a mind like a steel trap and although we couldn't have known it then, his struggles were actually the first symptoms of the Alzheimer's that would become obvious in coming years.

I went into the polls with him, even though I was a teenager and already looked like I was in my 20s. When we got inside, Grandpa let me vote for him. I said, don't you want to vote? He had such strong political opinions, I didn't understand. He said, no, I trust you. I turned the knobs, asking him if he agreed, and then pulled the lever. This was the first vote I ever cast, at age 16. In retrospect, that vote was tinged with sadness....

...By the time my sister turned 18, voting was old hat. We had been Americans for some time. (The only one who never became a citizen was grandma, who never learned to speak or read English. This year she could have become a citizen anyway, but she was too frail, and then she passed away this summer.)

Now we (those of us who are still alive) all vote in almost every single election. I think I've only missed one regular election, when I was out of the country and there were no important political races. I know I've missed a couple of primaries. Voting is my opportunity, each year, to re-enact my Americanness. Swearing allegiance reminds me of baseball, not patriotism, but voting ... voting reminds me of how much I truly love this country.

For my entire life, Republicans have been draping themselves in the flag and demonizing Democrats as unpatriotic America-haters. The way they pounced on Michelle Obama's totally understandable comment about being "really proud" of her country for the first time is a classic example. But the chance to vote for the son of a Kenyan man and a Kansan woman in an American presidential election is as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July.

Hmmm. Maybe I should leave my computer now and go vote!

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Globalization How The World Works Immigration