Traveling in Australia and New Zealand, you quickly realize that people here are incredibly interested, informed, and invested in the outcome of the American Presidential election. The result matters to them on several levels. Mostly, of course, it’s symbolic; there was little daylight between the foreign policy platforms of President Obama and the Republican nominee. But, fair or not, they tend to associate the Republican Party with the go-it-alone, “with-us-or-against-us” bluster of Bush and Reagan. These are not times that they fondly remember.
I found out the result of the election from the FM radio on a boat floating in a cove off the coast of Australia (rough life, I know). What struck me first was that the Australian news station reported the result at the top of their broadcast every hour. But mostly I was surprised by the way that they covered it: they didn’t focus on the horse race. They didn’t rattle off poll numbers or Electoral College scores.
But they did talk about Obama’s reelection in terms of issues mostly absent from the campaign trail. They talked about how America would now keep its health care law. They talked about their hope that the President would address issues of global warming—a topic that his opponent raised only as a punch line. They talked about how the government of the United States could expand policies to end discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, and how President Obama’s support for gay marriage had not hurt his electoral chances as it might have just a few years ago. They said—invoking a term usually reserved as an epithet in our own country—that America became a little more liberal that night.
A few days earlier we had a cab driver who had immigrated to Australia from India fifteen years previously. As soon as he found out that we were from the United States, he spent the rest of the drive to the airport singing its praises—literally, by the end, playing us a song he’d written that mentioned everything from the moon landing to the super bowl over a techno beat. The cynic might dismiss it as an attempt to earn a tip, but there are no tips in Australia. Instead, they have a minimum wage of seventeen dollars per hour.
This cab driver raised a good point about the way the world sees Barack Hussein Obama. In Australia, the Prime Minister is white, as is the opposition leader. Colonization is not a distant memory; in both Australia and New Zealand, the Queen of England is still the nominal head of state. Asian immigration is viewed with fear, and bringing up the indigenous population is the easiest way to quiet a room. This is not the exception but the rule throughout much of the Western world.
To people like that cab driver, the fact that America would buck this trend, overcome hundreds of years of discrimination, and put a person of color at the top of our chain of command—as the most visible man in the world and the face of the American power—is a symbol more potent than any statement or any policy. Obviously, the election of a single political figure does not mean that America has resolved its long history of racial oppression. But now, at least, that cab driver’s son can grow up in a time where he can dream of becoming a world leader.
That is why the United States of America is still the greatest nation on Earth: we lead, and others follow. We set the example for much of the rest of the world. They listen to our music, they watch our movies, they follow our television shows, and they eat in our restaurants. When another nation threatens—China, trying to enforce its will on the South China Sea; Russia, repressing democracy in Central Asia; Iran, threatening to destabilize the Middle East with a nuclear arms race—much of the world genuinely looks to us for leadership and protection. When we err they are embarrassed for us not because they resent us, but because they know we can do better.
Every election year, we have the chance for a revolution. We can take to the streets, fill out our ballots, and throw out our leaders. This is not unique to America, nor is our election process the best, fairest, or most competitive. But, travelling as a citizen of the United States, you see just how much it matters on every inhabited inch of our planet. This November, we did something truly revolutionary: we looked at four terrible years and decided that our President deserved more time to fix things. Without firing a shot, we showed the world that we share their challenges, their hopes, and their fears. We became a little more liberal.