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U.S. election process puzzles foreign students

Ryan Alessi
Ryan Alessi

With the United States poised to choose a new president at a moment of great economic uncertainty, it's no wonder that Americans are following the race on television and through news coverage in record numbers.

So is the rest of the world — and with great interest.

For the last two weeks, three students from Antwerp, Belgium, explored Kentucky to see for themselves how the U.S. brand of experimental democracy really works.

They shared their perspective — befuddlement at American voters and intense curiosity at the presidential campaign between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama — at a seminar at Georgetown College, where they stayed last week.

And their candid assessments of both U.S. politics and American culture left lasting impressions on the more than 20 students and professors in the room.

"We are interested in what happens, especially when a new president gets elected. We're not too fond of the former president," said Bart Tritsmans, 23, who is making his first trip to the United States. "So we really want to know how it all works and why people will vote for McCain and not a Democrat now."

They came armed with detailed knowledge about U.S. policies, from its refusal to join the Kyoto protocol aimed at slashing greenhouse gases to America's support for Israel. Belgian media, after all, spend a fair amount of time and space explaining international affairs, including background and in-depth profiles on the U.S. presidential race, said Stephanie Duval, 23.

Part of Europe's fascination with current American political discourse stems from how deeply divided the country appears to be, said Ellen De Preter, 25, who is making her ninth trip to the United States. "There's no room for anything in between," she told the Herald-Leader.

Added Duval: "And it's wrong. It's not good. It's so fundamentalist to align yourself with one party and not back off on it."

Duval said many Europeans turned against Bush after the war in Iraq began. Europeans viewed military action against terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan as warranted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but not the subsequent invasion of Iraq.

"Most of Belgium kind of wants Obama to win because we're afraid McCain will prolong the Bush way of governing, and we're not really fans of that," Duval said. "I also think Obama is more European in the things that he says."

At one point, Georgetown freshman Robert Carter asked the Belgian students the over-arching question of how Americans are viewed by Europeans.

"An analogy I once heard is that we're a really big, happy golden retriever in a really small room knocking over all the stuff on the table," Carter said. "Is that the perception that you all have?"

"No, golden retrievers are too nice," Duval responded without hesitation. "No, we have the image that you want to do things that are good for yourselves. That's the perception."

But she said her time on Georgetown's campus has prompted her to recalibrate her perception of Americans, especially after getting drawn into in-depth discussions with students about everything from religion to European news media.

Duval later said that despite her frustration with Bush's administration, she was impressed by the philosophical arguments made by two college Republicans she talked with last week. It's often helpful, if a bit startling, to receive such an outside critique, several Georgetown College professors and students said.

"Your culture offers you more opportunities to think diversely and be exposed to a lot of different perspectives, and that becomes part of how you think about things," Alison Tabor, a professor of education, told the Belgian students. "What you said does challenge me and it challenges me with my students to continue to encourage them ... to find the information. One doesn't have to choose to remain stupid."

At the very least, the Belgians said they hoped Americans recognize the importance of the race and cast votes on Nov. 4 — especially considering the participation rate of eligible voting Americans has hovered around 60 percent in recent elections.

In their country, voting is as inevitable as death or taxes. It's required.

Carter, the Georgetown freshman from Little Rock, Ark., said he hasn't decided who will earn his first presidential vote. But he said the Belgians' perspective made an impact.

"I think that really is interesting to me — hearing how our politicians affect them and how involved they are in learning our country," he said. "It makes me want to learn more."