With all due respect to my colleague June Thomas—whose “International Papers” column this week confirms America’s new status as a banana republic with a shaky and bizarre form of democracy—things are much worse than she thinks. True, her examples of what the rest of the world thinks about our election are pretty stark. She cites a German analyst who called the Electoral College “idiotic,” a French newspaper that dismissed the result as the equivalent of a soccer World Cup final “decided by penalty kicks,” the Times of London, which called the American electoral system a “parody of democracy,” as well as the Daily Mirror, which has called the United States a “laughing stock.”
But these are elitist opinions. I can now confirm that I have heard from a much more authoritative source: my Warsaw cleaning lady. A former nurse who speaks no foreign languages and rarely watches even the Polish news, she told me this morning that the U.S. elections had been a complete fraud. “People were not allowed into polling stations,” she explained, her voice high with excitement. “People were protesting in the streets, demanding to be allowed to vote.” Er … it wasn’t that bad, I told her, and launched into a long explanation of the Electoral College and the significance of lawsuits and the difficulties of ballot construction in Palm Beach, Fla. She looked at me with arched eyebrows. She didn’t believe me. I knew what she was thinking: “There they go again, these Americans, always trying to make themselves sound better than everyone else.”
Remember the children’s game of “telephone,” sometimes known as “Chinese whispers”? When you told someone a phrase—say, “scrambled eggs”—and, after being whispered from one person to the next around the circle, it came back as “blondes and brunettes”? The international news is like that too. Whatever is being put out on CNN will be magnified and twisted and exaggerated in the retelling, first by local TV channels around the world, then by local newspapers, then by local radio stations, and finally by the village gossips, people like my cleaning lady. Within a week or two, a large chunk of the hundreds of millions of people who have been following the American elections around the world will believe that the American political system is bankrupt, and that anyone who says otherwise is trying to cover something up.
In part, they will believe this because the essence of gossip is exaggeration. More important, though, they will believe this because they want to believe it, a fact that is not without political significance. To put it bluntly, plenty of people out there are heartily sick of America the Sainted, America the Perfect, America the nation that believes everyone will sooner or later adopt American-style democracy, even if they don’t yet know that they want it. No one likes to be preached at, and Americans preach. Our State Department issues annual reports, evaluating other people’s human right records. Our diplomats tell the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to grant and withold funds to poor countries, depending upon the cleanliness of their elections. We send observers to other people’s elections, yet would be shocked and horrified by the thought of anyone sending them to our own. Making fun of America in her hour of distress is one way for foreigners to get even.
Of course, the attitude of most foreigners toward America’s program of democracy promotion is also deeply ambivalent. The European press has been loudest in its whistles and catcalls over the past couple of days, but European governments are also the most vocal in their fears of an internationalist America turning isolationist. Without the United States, NATO is bust, and there isn’t yet (and might never be) a European military force to replace it. When Condoleezza Rice recently let slip her musings about a possible American pullout from the Balkans—precisely the place where American pushiness about democracy has been, well, pushiest—there were howls of distress across the continent. Sometimes it seems as if Europeans really want an America that graciously lends its money and its military to its allies, but quietly refrains from talking too loudly about what should be done with them. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if that is what Europeans have been wanting since about 1945.
But the larger point remains. With every new twist in the electoral saga, the notes of disdain in the international media will grow louder. With every fraud allegation, no matter how spurious, America’s credibility as a shining example will grow thinner. Perhaps the days when America was allowed to lecture the world with impunity about what kind of government it ought to have are drawing to a close. A touch of humility may now be in order.