Before the advent of live-streaming, American-made television series would slowly make their way to Europe and become big hits. One that we fell for in Scandinavia was the White House-themed drama, “The West Wing,” starring Martin Sheen as President Bartlet.
To us this was public service, and the United States, at its finest. The dedication of Bartlet’s ensemble cast of aides — characters such as Josh Lyman, Leo McGarry, Toby Ziegler and C.J. Cregg — showcased what was fine and decent about American politics. It was a valuable U.S. export.
I remember many iconic lines from “The West Wing,” but the one that I can’t get out of my mind as the 2016 American elections unfold: “Decisions are made by those who show up.”
It was true then; it was true in 2008 when Martin Sheen repeated it at the Emmys; and it is still true in 2016.
Voter turnout is one of the key differences between the political traditions in northern Europe and the United States — and the difference we least understand.
When Denmark’s most recent parliament elections took place in 2015, some 86 percent of eligible voters turned out. The same is true in neighboring countries. In Sweden, where the most recent parliament election took place in 2014, the turnout was nearly identical. The year before that, 78 percent of Norwegians came out to vote.
By comparison, in the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, just under 55 percent of eligible voters bothered to show up in the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney. In the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014 — in all U.S midterms — the turnout was significantly lower. For us, the difference is both remarkable and unfortunate.
We understand that there are differences between the democratic systems on both sides of the Atlantic. The most obvious is the vast size of America’s population. Second, we don’t have any equivalent to gerrymandered districts, a factor that depresses midterm election turnouts. Nor do we have anything resembling the Electoral College with its state-by-state, winner-take-all system that forces Europeans to learn about the differences between voters in Ohio and those in Florida.
In the Scandinavian model, and in most of Europe, votes are simply divided proportionally between parties. (And there are more than two!)
Finally, there is the question of registration. In countries such as Denmark, all citizens over 18 are automatically registered as voters. Ballots are sent to our homes a couple of weeks before every election.
We don’t like to lecture our American cousins, but we think our system is better. Everyone is affected by elections in democratic countries; therefore, everyone should be encouraged to vote. And the low rate of voter participation in U.S. is not an academic question to us. The choice Americans make on Election Day have great impact on Europe and the rest of the world — economically, militarily, environmentally and culturally. We just wish all Americans would make that choice, and that they’d remember the words of a moral, if mythical, U.S. president:
“Decisions are made by those who show up.”