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International students speak on election

By Zach Cihlar

Section: Features

November 11, 2016

Every four years, the United States presidential election captures the eyes of the world. For many international students currently studying at Brandeis, the 2016 presidential election was not their first time following an American election. It was, however, their first time experiencing an election alongside American voters.

International student Tal Richtman, Student Union Senator for the class of 2020 from Tel Aviv, Israel, believes international students approach American elections with two perspectives. First, they examine how the results will affect their home country. Second, they analyze how the outcome will affect their time in America and how the candidate elected will influence their everyday life as a student studying abroad in America.

Every international student interviewed agreed that United States elections are no ordinary elections. The president of the U.S. holds an influential role around the world, according to these international students.

“It’s about the kind of hard power and soft power this country is going to exert on the global environment for the next four years,” said Sonia Pavel ’20, a student from Bucharest, Romania, urging fellow international students to care about the American election. Soft power describes America’s ability to shape other countries by political appeal, whereas hard power describes its monetary or military persuasion.

Rachel Benchimol ’20, a student from Manaus, Brazil, stated that throughout history, America has been used as a role model for change and progression for other countries. The state of U.S. politics reflects global sentiment, socially, politically and otherwise, she said, especially throughout the Americas. “You can see how it affects our market,” she added, noting the fluctuating shifts of the market following President-elect Trump’s win on Tuesday.

The effect of the U.S. presidency is not solely influential, though. Most of the international students interviewed reflected that the effects are issue specific as well.

For Benchimol, U.S. presidential elections affect the country in regards to international trade between Brazil and the United States.

Similarly, Richtman urged all international students, specifically those from Israel, to care about the U.S. election in regards to unrest in Israel. “It’s not less important in Israel than it is here because the influence about Israel in specific is huge,” he said. Israel has been a heated debate topic throughout the election.

Debate and Discourse

International students quickly noticed a unique style of political discourse at Brandeis differing from their home country. However, their observations varied, providing different sources as to the influences that shape American political discourse.

Akshiti Todi ’19, a student from Mumbai, was dispirited by American students’ hesitation in debate. “In America, I feel like in certain places you don’t have that space to have debate,” she said.

Comparatively, in India, dialogue is much more open, which makes the elections there more spirited than those in the U.S., Todi elaborated.

Pavel added that the polarizing nature of presidential debates reveals the flaws in American political discourse in general. When recalling the debates leading up to the election, Pavel confessed she was not surprised, but still disappointed. The candidates, she said, merely threw attacks and discredited each other.

“I was also disappointed that people didn’t seem to care all that much when another one of the candidates would attack each other,” she said of Americans’ attitudes toward the debates. The candidates, in her opinion, should have been called out for “not being informed enough or argumentative enough or logical enough.”

Some international students attributed the lack of debate to the polarized style of American elections. Oliver Koch ’20, from Saarlouis, Germany, who has dual citizenship, expanded on this, mentioning that German politics differ from American politics in that Germany has a multi-party system, which softens the polarized party lines in his home country. The multi-party system, according to Koch, allows for more voters to align with one party on a specific issue, and disagree with that same party on another issue. Having two parties, he said, forces a greater divide among political ideologies.

Benchimol suggested that increasing polarization is happening on a global scale as well. “You can’t be in the middle, people don’t allow you to be in the middle anymore. They force you to pick a side.”

On an international scale, the topic of debate and discourse has shifted, which Koch, Pavel and Benchimol all suggested when analyzing the American election from a larger perspective. Populist sentiment and nationalistic rhetoric has been a global trend, Pavel explained, both of which are “fueled by the people and their insecurities, and sometimes a lot of resentment.”

In turn, populations throughout the world have shown a shift from the traditional career politician to greater support for outsider candidates, much like the sentiment behind Trump’s election on Tuesday, according to Benchimol. In Brazil, her home country, the recent mayoral elections followed a similar pattern, she said.

Koch also mentioned the trend in German politics, where “people are voting for [a] party just because they are not satisfied with any of the conventional options.”

Election Day

As Election Day finally approached, Richtman noticed a striking absence of excitement for the pivotal political event. One of the most apparent differences between Israeli elections and American elections, according to Richtman, was the atmosphere leading up to the ballot count. “Back home, in Israel, when there are elections, you can feel it everywhere and for some reason, I don’t feel it here,” he said.

Other international students agreed. Koch noticed very little active debate about the approaching election. However, once coverage of the election started, Koch found the zealousness of the media’s coverage of the election results odd, contradicting the general attitude at Brandeis toward the election before the ballot counts reached media. Despite the flare of media coverage on Election Day, Koch said the day seemed like any other.

Richtman expressed a similar observation, pointing out that he thought it odd that American elections took place while schools were still in session and Americans were still expected to be at work. “I know that in the U.S. there is low voter turnout, and I think one of the reasons is that you don’t have a day off on elections.” In Israel, elections normally occur on a weekend, which influences greater turnout.

Benchimol added that she witnessed many conversations concerning Americans’ thoughts on political efficacy in elections, which she said augmented the issue of low voter turnout. “I realize that it’s not about how many people went to the polls. It’s actually people who thought that their votes didn’t matter,” she explained.

Benchimol remembered one conversation specifically in which “I actually saw people, especially young people, say, ‘It doesn’t matter. My state’s going to be all red.’”

In Brazil, she explained, everyone is required to vote, otherwise citizens lose privileges, including renewing a passport or being allowed to leave the country.

She concluded her thoughts on voter turnout, warning of the aggregate effect of such a pessimistic mindset toward voting. If enough people do not believe in their political efficacy, the numbers will make a difference in the final outcome. “Every vote counts,” she pled, “and every vote matters.”

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