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  Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gather in London earlier this month as voting began for American Democrats abroad. (Photo: Frank Augstein/AP)

What Americans Abroad Know about Bernie Sanders and You Should Know Too

As the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House moves from ludicrous to terrifying, it’s time to reconsider the electability question. Despite polls suggesting that Hillary Clinton is more likely to lose the general election than Bernie Sanders, her supporters routinely argue that Sanders’ program is too radically utopian to have a chance. Often a note of condescension is injected: Young people support Sanders because they want free stuff. Once his proposals are seriously considered, it’s argued, any adult will reject them out of hand.

Although countless analyses have been devoted to the demographics each candidate needs to win, one demographic has not been part of the national conversation. Sanders won the first global Democratic Party primary by a landslide —  69% of the vote — that the media hardly noted and never analyzed. Democrats Abroad, the overseas arm of the Democratic Party, organized the election, which took place in March, to represent citizens who live outside the U.S., a group the Democratic National Committee considers the 51st state.

Expatriate Democrats could choose to send primary election absentee ballots back to their home states, or they could participate in the global primary, which will send 21 delegates to the party convention in July. Ballots could be cast by fax, email or snail mail in the global primary, or at one of 104 polling places that were organized in cities from Lima to London. (Since I was traveling at the time, I faxed my ballot, but my daughter sent me a festive photo showing her feeling the Bern in Berlin.)

Of the 8 million Americans who live abroad, 34,700 participated in the global Democratic primary. Although the sampling is not huge, it’s considerably larger than that used for polls that play crucial roles in the electoral process. While we are wondering what drives young Latinas or older white men to support this or that candidate, we ought to consider why 69% of Democratic voters who live in 40 countries preferred Bernie Sanders.

The answer is quite simple: The Sanders proposals that may strike Americans who have never lived in other countries as impractical and outlandish are simply common sense elsewhere — especially in Canada and Western Europe, where the majority of Democrats Abroad voters live. Universal healthcare? The U.S. is the only developed country that lacks it. Family leave? While it is nice that San Francisco just mandated six weeks of paid leave for new parents, Germany mandates 14 months — 16 if both parents share the time spent at home. Free college tuition? Britain recently tripled its college tuition fees, though it’s still the case that a year at Oxford will cost you a fraction of a year at a middling American college. In the rest of Europe, free tuition, and interest-free loans for living expenses, are the rule.

[For Germans], healthcare, education, publicly sponsored arts and labor regulations ... are considered to be rights, not favors.

Early in the campaign, Sanders made a rhetorical mistake by appealing to Scandinavia as a model for realizing his proposals. “We are not Denmark,” was Clinton’s withering reply. His choice of such a small country seemed only to underline the impracticality of his proposals for the United States. Why didn’t he name a major player on the world stage?

The obvious choice would be Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, which manages to provide its 80 million citizens benefits unheard of in the U.S. Importantly, the word “benefit” isn’t used for these programs. Healthcare, education, publicly sponsored arts and labor regulations that include family leave and long vacations are considered to be rights, not favors.

If you want to understand the difference between our two countries, just try to explain the concept of sick leave to a German. “But what happens to people who are sick for longer than the allotted time?” she will ask you, aghast that Americans find the German system equally incredible: If you’re sick for more than three days, a note from the doctor will be sent to your employer, who cannot legally withhold your salary. Like any system, this one is occasionally abused, but not even Germany’s most business-friendly political party would consider amending it.

The Germany of World War II plays a major role in American consciousness. Basic — often simplistic — knowledge of the Holocaust is offered in schools at all levels and assumed in popular culture. Knowledge of the last 70 years of German history, however, and the ways in which Germans have worked hard to confront their past, is woefully lacking. “German” to many still means “Nazi,” making it hard for Americans to look at Germany as a model of anything.

But Germany is a model worth emulating: Its economy remains one of the strongest to emerge from the 2008 financial crisis. It has managed to preserve much of its manufacturing base in the process of becoming a dominant player in a globalized world. It is a major industrial exporter. Its success has gone hand in hand with laws and practices that American workers, blue collar or white, would be grateful for.

Real knowledge of daily working life abroad has shown expats that the revolution Sanders proposes for the United States could be just a matter of course. Voters at home should take heed.


© 2021 Los Angeles Times

Susan Neiman

Susan Neiman is the director of the Einstein Forum in  Germany, where she has lived since 2000, and the author, most recently, of “Why Grow Up?”

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