Tomorrow, at 4am, weary-eyed young US expats with too much booze in their blood will stare at CNN live streams, holograms and useless animated charts projected onto the dirty walls of various bars in Neukölln and elsewhere across the city and watch the results come in. Whether the Donkeys or Elephants take the prize, they’ll end the night with a ‘phew’ about averted Romney-geddon or maybe a shrug of resignation about the “system”.
No matter who wins tonight, they might take this moment to wonder what has happened to their country – not just over the past four years, but over their lifetimes. If they’re in Berlin, there’s a 95 percent chance they favour an Obama victory (with possibly one exception). But in their heart of hearts they know it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference who wins. And, they probably agree with German commentator Jakob Augstein, who writes today that, “Total capitalism is America’s true ruler, and it has the power to destroy the country.”
It’s not just the painfully long state-by-state slog through the freakshow known as the Republican primaries that is depressing to watch. It’s not just the demoralising fact that nearly half of American voters prefer a heartless plutocrat. It’s not the fact that the richest nation in the world is unable to provide the most basic infrastructure to better protect its citizens from storms. It’s not just the utter mess that the US electoral system has become. (In Germany I have never waited more than five minutes to vote – on a simple piece of paper. The electorate in the US is hindered by complicated registration rules, strange opening hours, malfunctioning software for pointless touchscreen voting machines, lost write-in ballots – and flat-out voter intimidation.)
In the 1950s and 1960s the US exported jeans, Kennedy, Elvis, Marilyn, the protest movement, civil rights – inspiring a generation or two of young Germans. Now we have Google, Facebook and Apple – which we love of course, but not because they are American, but in spite of that fact.
Four years ago, we (meaning expats and bi-nationals such as myself – I spent a third of my life stateside) might have been seduced a little by Hope. But Hope was a tease. Castles in the air, as the Germans say. Four years on and one Occupy movement later, it’s clearer that money rules all in the US. And the spectator sport known as elections isn’t going to get in the way of that.
Don’t get me wrong: in many ways, Germany isn’t a hell of a lot better. Here, the oh-so-low unemployment rate masks millions of low-paid mini-job workers and stagnating wages, while the rich – having been bribed to stay in Germany by tax loopholes and a cheap labour force – have done extremely well for themselves. Germany is the world leader in the development of alternative energy. Great. At the same time, in China, German car companies are selling millions of Volkswagens and BMWs helping ensure climate change will be impossible to reverse. And while we criticise the US hard-line on Iran, Germans do billions in trade with its corrupt, dictatorial regime. And let’s not even get started on Germany’s treatment of immigrants and minorities at home.
Despite it all, Germany appears to take democracy a bit more seriously. The majority of politicians and the people they represent still believe it is the duty of the collective to protect the poor and sick from destitution and the devastation of serious illness – a scrap of solidarity that holds society together – even if the future of Germany and Europe is murky and impossible to divine.
I suspect more and more Americans will settle permanently in Berlin as the Obama years make clear that George Bush wasn’t the problem, but the US as such. Unlike the occupying “US boys” of bygone days, who brought cigarettes and nylons to eager Berliners, expect an ever growing invasion of vegan cupcake bakers and start-up makers.