When I went off to India this past summer, I was prepared to answer many unusual questions. I had been told that I should expect strangers to approach me and ask about my family or marital status out of curiosity, and this often proved to be the case. But there was one question above all others that never failed to infuriate me.
It would happen on the bus, in the office where I worked: “Why did your country re-elect George Bush?” Or worse, “Do you like George Bush? Then why did you elect him again?” I would flush and try to think of an explanation that would do the question justice.
“Have you ever heard of the Electoral College?” I might begin, if I were in a particularly contentious or anti-Electoral College mood. “It really all comes down to the Electoral College.” Sometimes I would be a bit fairer, and start off by explaining that the United States today is just about as divided along political lines as a single country can be.
Inevitably, my questioners lost interest. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that not many people outside the United States really care to understand the Electoral College. No one wants to hear about dramatic political division; that’s nothing new to India, anyway. And besides, while I do believe that those subjects are at the heart of answering this question that I, along with so many others, have agonized over since November 2004, they weren’t the point. My questioners were looking for me to take personal responsibility for what they considered an enormous, incomprehensible blunder. Too young to vote during the 2004 election, I couldn’t truly accept that responsibility. Had I voted in the election, I would have protested even more vehemently against being accused of electing a president I certainly would have voted against. I tried to dodge the critiques of America in various ways, sometimes by creating an alternate Canadian persona (not a bad idea in this day and age). Yet time and time again I found myself explaining and defending the choice of those who did vote for Bush, as I united with them under the banner of national identity.
This is not a feel-good story about how I came to tolerate the other side of American politics. Even the most levelheaded among us must agree that today is certainly not the appropriate moment for that. But it is about time we all realized the role we play in perpetuating the political schism that we gripe about so often. My aunt recently complained to me that Republicans use “liberal” as an insult, but I’ll be the first to admit that those in our camp turn on conservatives just as easily. And as my Indian questioners suggested, I’d be surprised if any of us can succeed in truly divorcing an individual’s character from her political stance, at least before getting to know her better. Who hasn’t optimistically Facebooked someone only to recoil in shock upon discovering his unacceptable political preferences? I suspect that on this campus, this tendency is truer of the liberals, who tend to assume that everyone here is one of them.
It can be infuriating, when abroad, to be classified as American without the luxury of further qualifying yourself as a liberal or conservative. We don’t often have to think about this at home, where political labels are a dime a dozen, but when we’re abroad, it’s another story. After facing the Bush question time and time again, I felt convinced that I would like nothing better than to walk around with “Big Fat East Coast Liberal” stamped onto my forehead.
But soon I found that I enjoyed classifying myself under the broader label of “American,” even if this also meant being perceived as a supporter of the “other side.” To my surprise, it was more satisfying to argue on behalf of America, whatever that means, than to argue against it as a liberal. Over the past few months and weeks, we have seen a moving away from the schismatic red-blue spectrum of 2004 to a promise of a more unified country. By the time this is printed, “liberal” and “American” might not be as incompatible as they seemed to other parts of the world over the summer. I can only hope that the Congress we the people elected yesterday will give reason for Americans like me to tell people we meet abroad that we are not only responsible for electing our government, but also proud of it.
Alexandra Schwartz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.