At the top of a street called Rua da Matemtica, up the hill from my pension in Coimbra, Portugal, a politician hangs in effigy from a rooftop. His droopy face mask is non-descript, but in the window below, a wanted poster sports George Bush’s lithographed face. “Terrorist,” it says in Portuguese. “Find him.”
A few miles away, a quiet, fortyish man sits at the Coimbra railroad station. A physics teacher in nearby Leiria, he takes his daughter on weekends to watch the trains pass by, as his father did when he was a boy. “The majority of the Portuguese followed your elections closely,” he tells me. “We hoped–we were realistic, but we hoped–that Mr. Kerry would win. Mr. Bush made a real mess in Iraq, and it’s going to take 10 years to straighten it out. And in domestic policy, Mr. Bush made some real mistakes. Americans are going to be much worse off.”
It’s disorienting to watch election returns from five time zones away. When we went to bed Tuesday night, only a few polls had closed, and Bush was leading, 34 electoral votes to John Kerry’s 3. We tossed and turned all night–I dreamt of a Kerry victory–and awoke to deadlocks in Ohio, New Mexico and Iowa. At the news kiosk that afternoon, only one newspaper headlined the election, an Italian daily, declaring Kerry the winner based on exit polls with 311 electoral votes.
On TV that night, a journalist reported Europeans’ befuddlement that so many Americans bring religion to what on this continent is considered a rigorously secular process. Befuddlement abounds here: One Portuguese man I talk with can’t grasp the notion that America doesn’t offer free medical care to its citizens, as conservative Portugal does. America is still held up as a model democracy here, he notes, and isn’t health care a fundamental right?
By Thursday, my impulse is to apologize. Out drinking, I overhear someone bemoaning the election’s likely effect on Middle East peace, American women and the poor. I walk over to him and reassure him that he has allies in my country–half the population in fact. “We’re standing right next to you,” I say.
Beyond commiseration, though, I want to devote myself to understanding this vast cultural gash that runs like a red-and-blue river through America. (Living in Durham County, which voted 68 percent for Kerry, I have little daily contact with Red State North Carolina.) In Coimbra, the graffiti calls for revolution; pictograms inform us that McDonald’s equals G8 equals death. In the United States, we witness intractable carnage in Iraq and experience economic chaos at home, then cast our votes for the status quo. Kerry is branded a latte drinker by people whose meager earnings, under Bush, subsidize billionaires but can’t afford doctor visits. What fears keep so many working-class Americans voting against their own interests? And is there a uniquely American way to start speaking beyond those fears?
A British friend, just before the election, wonders aloud why Americans have a monopoly on choosing the leader of the world. I think of the intelligent and passionate conversation I’ve heard here in Europe–and compare it to the jingoistic chants of “USA! USA!” during the Republican National Convention–and wouldn’t mind, half-seriously, donating a few of my own state’s electoral votes to the people of Coimbra and beyond.