Expat Voices

On election eve, Americans in Vienna are hoping against hope for a new direction

Members of Democrats Abroad Austria campaigning on the Kennedy Bridge across the Danube Canal | Photo: Democrats Abroad

The final debate at Pickwick’s Cafe | Photo: G. Schnitztler

Democrats Abroad

Members of Democrats Abroad Austria campaigning on the Kennedy Bridge across the Danube Canal | Photo: Democrats Abroad

Vienna has been an adjustment for accountant Michael Higgins, very different from his home in the American Mid-West. It’s not the place itself; like most, he has fallen for the charm of the architecture, the countryside and the pace of life.

What he has more trouble with are the other Americans.

“Their politics really takes some getting used to!” he admitted.

The fact is, Americans abroad are often very different from those at home – outwardly focused, multi-lingual, and far more liberal. These are people who are openly critical of U.S. foreign policy.  And on the eve of the U.S Presidential Election 2008 – and the increasingly likely choice of Senator Barack Obama – they are hoping against hope for a new direction that could radically affect their lives.

“The status quo is intolerable,” said one equipment importer who asked to remain anonymous. “The Europeans have lost all respect for us; I understand their perspective and I suffer from this daily.”

It’s a frustration you hear everywhere.

“I’m sick to death of being embarrassed for being an American,” said English teacher Stefanie Winkelbauer in exasperation.

For the first time in a long time, however, she now believes things could change. The indicators get stronger by the day: A week before the election, Pew Research reported Obama leading McCain 53% to 39%, a full 14 point spread. Most voters are fed up with McCain’s personal attacks and disenchanted with the know-nothing conviction of Sarah “Barricuda” Palin. A full third think McCain is too old to be president.

Still, living with this hope can be unnerving. After years of trying to explain the unexplainable — how the United States could have put George W. Bush in the White House in 2000 in the first place, and then made the disastrous mistake of reelecting him (sort of) in 2004 – this seems too good to be true. You can hear it in people’s nervous laughter; you can see in their tight smiles: They just don’t dare trust the indicators.

“Something’s going to happen; I just know it,” insisted one foundation executive. “Whatever it is, they’ll find it. And if they can’t find it, they’ll make it up.”

So in hope and fear, Ex-Pats gathered in droves to watch the three US Presidential debates in September and October, shown each time on the following evening on the giant screen at Pickwicks Café on Marc-Aurel Strasse. The place was packed, cramming a couple of hundred people into book-lined pub, hooting and whistling the events on the screen, as they might have at a soccer match. And ordering another round to ease the tension.

Debates are traditional in the American election season – articulate voices on each side to frame the issues and respond to questions. This is what politics is supposed to be about, or so thought the Public Affairs office at the U.S Embassy Vienna when they joined up with Democrats Abroad Austria and Webster University Vienna to host two public debates locally.

The only problem was, they couldn’t find any Republicans.

“Actually there aren’t very many,” said Katie Solon of Democrats Abroad Austria, “at least not organized.” Unlike the some 800 members of DAA – a number that has tripled since January – Republicans Abroad has no formal membership role or regular schedule of activities. In the end, the Embassy had to go all the way to Budapest to find Patrick Egan of Republicans Abroad Hungary to fill the chair.

Pickwick's Cafe Democrats Abroad

The final debate at Pickwick’s Cafe | Photo: G. Schnitztler

“Until recently, I’d actually never met any Republicans living in Europe,” said freelance editor Cara Michelle Morris, a longtime Vienna resident. “Ex-Pats are almost always Democrats. When you live abroad you see your own country differently.”

Altogether, there are about 10,000 Americans living in Austria, spread among the country’s major cities and company towns. And this year, after launching an overseas primary that sent 22 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August, Democrats Abroad has made it possible for Ex-Pats to cast their ballots through the easy-to-use Votefromabroad.org portal. This fall, overseas voters are expected to weigh in as a meaningful factor in the election for the first time.

The Bush years have been hard on these Americans; as the United States’ unilateralism hardened, they felt increasingly isolated. Political arguments sprung up at parties; college students who had a choice avoided speaking English in public; security measures turned US embassies and schools into little better than armed camps.

Following George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, Stefanie Winkelbauer stopped hanging out the American flag on the 4th of July. “We used to hang out both flags – the American and the Austrian. But after that, I don’t know,  I lost heart. The U.S. just seemed like a big ignorant bully.”

It’s a gap many feel keenly.

Morris returned from a recent business trip to Texas in a state of shock: “I felt like an anthropologist,” she said. “All these things I know from hearsay – the cowboy boots, the obesity, the shrillness – are so much harder to take in person.” And the stakes are very high.

“I see America on the edge of a precipice,” said David Aronson, a vocal coach and conductor at the Vienna State Opera, “We’re about to fall off a cliff, with one last chance of being brought back into the world of reason.” He sees the election as an end to “going it alone,” a return to collaboration with the rest of the world.

In the candidacy of Barack Obama, they see a chance to elect a president they can feel proud of.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard such an educated man speak for me,” Aronson said.

But still, you can hardly blame the Democrats for a little paranoia; there has been so much sabotage, so much cynicism and ‘dirty tricks’ pouring out of Republican politics for over two decades.

After the stunning success of the Swift Boat chicaneries against John Kerry in 2004 – destroying the reputation of a genuine war hero while convincing the public that a draft dodger, failed businessman and reformed alcoholic made a better Commander in Chief – anything is possible.

So everyone has been braced for the next “October Surprise” – American political jargon for a last-ditch maneuver to sway the election by scandal or subterfuge.

Like the Oct. 29 2004 release of a video of Osama bin Laden justifying the 9/11 attacks, that spiked the national fear index back up to Red Alert, helping reelect Bush and perpetuate the War on Terror.

And it’s not that John McCain hasn’t tried. We’ve heard about Obama the “elitist” running a “celebrity campaign,” a man of “shifting positions” and “lofty rhetoric.” McCain’s tried “inexperience,” “socialist” leanings and “consorting with terrorists.”

So far, nothing seems to stick.

But Democrats have learned the hard way that American elections are not won on policy but on emotions. And these days, the hardest ones to deal with may be their own.


This article, by Vienna Review editor-in-chief Dardis McNamee, was originally published in the German weekly Die Zeit

It appears here in English for the first time.

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