7 Surprising Ways Democracy Is Totally Different Overseas
Foreign countries -- it's all unintelligible languages, accidentally-offensive hand gestures, and weird names for cheeseburgers. And don't even get us started on their political systems, what with their byzantine rules and their powdered wigs. They're not like the good ol' United States of America, where democracy flows as freely as the beer in a red solo cup on the Fourth of July. Except that, when it comes to political traditions we take for granted, not only do other countries do things differently, they sometimes do our democratic values quite a lot better. For example ...
In Other Countries, Not Voting Can Land You In A Lot Of Trouble
Voting is a right, a privilege, and the best way to show your patriotism, outside of getting a bald eagle tattooed on your ass with its wings gloriously spread across both cheeks. But sometimes, there are great reasons not to do it. You may hate all of the candidates, or you may feel like you haven't learned a thing about them to begin with, or you could be overseas, fighting the war of the last guy making promises on a stage. But most U.S. citizens who don't vote are simply lazy, and there's nothing the government can do about them sitting one out.
The shame of being the only one of your buddies without an "I Voted" sticker only goes so far.
Meanwhile, in other, less "patriotic" countries, they feel like their citizens should take the right to vote a bit more seriously than the average Doodle poll. And they're willing to put their penal code where their mouth is.
Although voting is considered the civic duty of every citizen, in the U.S., there's no law requiring anyone to actually carry out that duty. It's really less a "civic duty" and more a "civic suggestion, you know, if you feel like it; no presh." Americans have the right to vote, but many choose not to exercise that particular right. Only 60 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2012 presidential elections, which means that nearly half of the country stayed home on the day they were supposed to choose the leader of the free world. To combat voter apathy, in more than 30 countries, it's compulsory for all eligible citizens to vote. In those countries, deciding to stay home and play Overwatch instead of participating in democracy means you fucked up as a citizen -- and you will pay the price. Punishments range from fines to prison sentences, and that's before they start getting creative.
Australia will toss you in the clink, as befitting a continent that clearly never got the whole "giant prison" thing out of their system.
In Belgium, missing four consecutive voting opportunities will lead to the loss of your right to vote for the next 10 years. In case that sounds like a reward, it also means your job prospects go way down, as the civil service won't even look at your resume. Refusing to be democratic can also hurt your wallet in Bolivia, where failure to show your "I Voted" card at the bank can prevent you from accessing the money you already worked for. And if you refuse to vote in Italy, good luck finding a daycare center willing to take your kids while you're off not voting.
In Bolivia, a vote for literally anyone is a vote for paying your water bill.
But no country penalizes voter apathy harder than Greece, whose punishment, in the tradition of their ancient ancestors, is deliciously ironic. Not voting can mean being denied a driver's license or even a passport, your fate being to forever remain trapped in the country you didn't care enough for to vote. That might seem a bit harsh, but Greece did invent democracy, so they get to take not voting personally.
Government Shutdowns Will Get Politicians Fired (By The Queen)
Government shutdowns are as integral to U.S. political tradition as town hall meetings or being in the pockets of pharmaceutical companies. In the last 40 years, the federal government has closed up shop 18 times for reasons as complex as fiscal budget arrangements and as petty as Newt Gingrich wanting revenge for being ignored by President Clinton on Air Force One. Strangely, other countries don't tolerate politicians hurting the public because they're too stubborn or spiteful to get along. Only one other country had its politicians successfully enact a shutdown like ours -- although we're not entirely sure that you can call it "successful" when it resulted in everyone getting fired on the spot.
In all fairness, most of us would let the country fall into lava as long as we wouldn't have to sit next to Newt Gingrich.
In 1975, the Australian government was in the exact same pickle as we were several years ago. The House of Representatives and the Senate -- controlled by the ruling party and the opposition, respectively -- were unable to reach a compromise over a bill to fund the government for the forthcoming year. With no resolution in sight, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam declared a shutdown, and prepared to hammer out a compromise between himself and the wildlife that wanted to eat him on his way home.
When word of the decision reached the United Kingdom, the Queen put her foot so far up the colony that it looked like Australia sprouted another peninsula. Within a couple of hours, Whitlam was summoned to the office of Governor General Sir John Kerr, the Queen's representative in Australia. Now comes the fast bit: At 1:15 p.m., Whitlam was removed from office with immediate effect. At 1:30 p.m., Kerr then placed the opposition party in charge. By 2 p.m., the new, terrified Prime Minister passed the government spending bill. And finally, at 4:30 p.m., when they refused to serve under the new Prime Minister, Kerr fired the entire Parliament. In three hours and 15 minutes, Kerr had done something guerrilla fighters take years to do and toppled a government. That's the problem when politicians go against knights and queens -- they're bringing checkers to a chess game.
The one and only time a fat dude with weird hair who fires everybody should ever go near politics.
The best part? All of this was completely legal. Although Australia is a country in its own right, it's still a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, alongside Canada, India, and South Africa. It's effectively a loaner still under the jurisdiction of the Queen, and like when you borrow your neighbor's lawnmower, she will go apeshit if you damage her property. If only former colonies could still benefit from her absolute power. Who needs Bernie Sanders if you can get a Hand of the King to come in and deus ex the entire two-party system to smithereens?
Ordinary Swiss People Can Choose More Than Their Lawmakers -- They Can Choose The Laws
There exists in this world a nation that stands against tyranny in all forms. A glorious nation by the people, for the people, wherein the process of direct democracy allows ordinary citizens to make themselves heard and even overturn decisions made by the ruling bodies of government.
That nation is the United States of-- nope, it's Switzerland.
Yes, the land of cuckoo clocks and Nazi gold is more democratic than the U.S. of A. could ever hope to be, no matter how many star-spangled banners we salute together during the Fourth of July fireworks. Switzerland is a country where direct democracy actually happens. If Swiss citizens want to challenge a law passed by the legislature (Parliament), they can simply call for a "federal/constitutional referendum." All it takes is 50,000 signatures within 100 days -- like a change.org petition, except not a complete waste of everyone's time. After that, the entire country votes on the issue, and with simple majority rules, can overturn the law.
Sorry, lawmakers. Swiss neutrality only goes so far.
And Switzerland's direct democracy isn't one of those archaic rules that's only ever brought up as a plot device in the Swiss adaptation of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (or: Mr. Muller Skies To Zurich). In the first half of 2016 alone, there were referenda concerning a vote to change asylum laws, a change of policy vote for genetic diagnosis in assisted procreation, and, most remarkably, a universal unconditional income proposal, wherein all adults would receive a basic income of 2,500 Swiss francs per month in order to combat poverty. The latter was rejected by nearly 80 percent of voters (in case you were already booking a ticket on a sleeper train to Liechtenstein), but the crushing defeat still set the stage for an international dialogue about the concerns of the citizens who espoused it, drawing public attention to all of the problems the referendum was intended to fix. Even if they fail, they still win, those crafty Swiss.
Plus, the 20 percent had millions of protest coins left over to chuck at the 80 percent.
Incredibly, the system gets used enough to matter every single year. The number of referenda per decade is increasing, and between 2011-2016 alone, there were 51 cases of voters directly interacting with lawmakers on legislation. Most of us couldn't even get our congressperson on the phone if we'd saved their kids from a burning building. Then again, neither could their kids.
In Norway, Everyone Has To Make Their Tax Returns Public. Everyone? Everyone!
It seems that during every election year, there's drama about a candidate's tax returns. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was criticized for not releasing hers for weeks. In 2012, when Mitt Romney finally stopped flat-out refusing to release his, he only gave out two years' worth. And Donald Trump will release his tax returns the day he releases Chris Christie's wife from whatever Trump Tower in which he has imprisoned her. But in Norway, they've discovered a great way to get rid of all the tax secrecy: by not giving the politicians the chance to hide it. And neither can anyone else, for that matter.
In Norway, the tax returns of everyone from teachers to nurses to comedy writers have been public knowledge since the 1800s. And they're as easily obtainable as a good recipe for gravlax. If this seems intrusive, don't worry. If someone were to read your tax returns, you would receive an email letting you know who's doing it, so you can snoop right back at them. The only group exempt from this policy of mutual transparency is the media, because investigating corruption is a lot harder if your target gets a Google alert every time you're trying to dig up dirt.
It does seem that the American people are finally fed up with their candidates not releasing their tax returns. Some lawmakers are trying to change the law in order to make the practice mandatory. The chance that they'll succeed is small, though, as people being honest about their taxes simply might not be part of the American psyche. Part of the reason this system has always worked in Norway is its culture. Norwegian society encourages even those rollin' in kroner to eschew exhibitions of wealth. It's considered distasteful, which is pretty big turnaround for a people who used to drink mead out of their enemies' bleached skulls.
Bergen, the second-largest city in Norway, glancing disapprovingly at Los Angeles, the second-largest city in America.
Voter Microtargeting Is Non-Existent In Germany (Because Of The Stasi)
In American politics, voter microtargeting is as vital to elections as campaign slogans, memes, and awkward photo ops. Whereas old-timey political parties had to make do with demographic information on the level of knowing the names of all the states, microtargeting allows political parties to gather information about individual voters and tailor their messages specifically to them. It's starting to make an appearance in more and more countries, but you know where it's never going to catch on? Germany. As it turns out, they're a bit uncomfortable with letting the government know too much about people's political affiliations.
Germany: the country that still cares about what happened in black-and-white photos.
Political persecution has been a big part of Germany's recent history, both during the Second World War and the Cold War. For decades, the state possessing this kind of knowledge was usually a precursor to you or your neighbors taking a long vacation to the Stasi's political prison, Hohenschonhausen. So while we're happy to argue with everyone in earshot about how our chosen political candidate is the greatest person ever, voting in Germany is a strictly private affair -- there are no such things as voter databases or electoral registers or fundraising telebanks. And it's more than the threat of widespread public tutting which stops politicians from bucking the trend; this aversion to state-sponsored data collection is codified in a whole raft of privacy legislation.
Meanwhile, here are all the ways your voting tendencies are secretly being tracked. Here's a hint: It's all the ways.
In Germany, if someone wants to know your politics, they have to ask nicely. For political parties, this means only one thing: getting out there, knocking on doors, and kicking it old-school. In preparation for the last election, the Social Democratic Party personally visited five million random voters in order to win them around to the benefits of socialism. We can't speak to whether it was an effective tactic, but they wound up getting a bunch of seats in the election. If Bernie Sanders' supporters had knocked on some more doors, it might have taken over here, too.
David Cameron Was Told To GTFO Of The British White House Within 48 Hours
Living in the White House after a new president is elected is like being stuck in an apartment rental with your ex -- you're trapped in an awkward arrangement for several months until the lease expires, and you have to watch as they start blaming everything that went wrong on you while making no secret of how excited they're going to be when you move out. On the plus side, it's generally assumed that you're going to trash some shit on your way out. Don't take any furniture, though -- they don't like that at all.
After Nigel Farage successfully hypnotized enough people in the UK to vote to leave the European Union with nostalgia-soaked visions of getting back to apple scrumping, quiet villages, and grumpy bulldogs, Cameron (who opposed leaving the EU, but put the referendum forward under intense political pressure and allowed cabinet ministers to publicly advocate a pro-exit vote) announced his resignation, to which pro-Brexit leaders responded by all abandoning ship like a bunch of irresponsible cowards. A subsequent leadership election that was supposed to take a bit of time (Cameron had announced his intention to leave office within the next few months) wound up almost immediately yielding an unopposed candidate in Theresa May. And everyone wanted her to move into Downing Street (essentially the British equivalent of the White House) right away, giving Cameron about two days to get out of town before the attack dogs were released.
"Someday, all of this will be y-- wait, it's hers already? Well, shit."
In fact, the transition was so quick that the Cameron family (who all lived at No. 10) weren't even able to organize moving into either of their two homes -- one was being rented out, whilst the other was too far outside of the city -- to which the people responded with the loudest symphony of tiny violins ever recorded in history. The only thing that the citizenry was concerned about was whether the cat was staying, seeing as how he has an official job and everything.
Unlike some pets.
Compare this to the succession of power in America, in which sitting presidents have about two months (from the general election in November until the inauguration in January) to collect their shit (clothes, personal items, children, etc.) and move. Hell, even Nixon got flown to his home by the fucking Marines after his resignation. And when former Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his resignation, he and successor Gordon Brown swapped houses, because Brown lived right next door to 10 Downing Street and recognized that Blair had a big family and needed the space during the transition. All Cameron got was a moving van and a egg timer. It turns out the British are rather quick about getting out of anywhere that isn't India.
Election Campaigns Don't Last For Years In Other Countries
By the time the 2016 election finishes, it will have been going for an astonishing 596 days. We could have completed a return trip to Mars in that time -- and that's including time spent browsing the NASA gift shop and stopping the space shuttle for toilet breaks. But the wheels of politics turn slowly, and candidates need all of this time, and those hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds, to ... we have no idea.
Unless there's a shitload of shady pizza purchases they're not telling us about.
There are plenty of countries that hold fair and thorough elections in a matter of weeks. In fact, they've got no choice, because their lawmakers think that politicians should only start wasting people's time and money after they get elected. Sounds nice.
We're not talking about a matter of months, either. In fact, France and Japan manage to hold their entire elections in less than two weeks. That time includes everything from advertising to speeches to campaigning to voting day itself. One of the reasons elections can be so brief is that all the details have already been worked out. Every single candidate is allotted a specific amount of space for their campaign posters. Getting airtime is also the same deal -- every candidate gets equal time, and once it's gone, it's gone for good. In addition, every bit of media has to be pre-approved, and can't be negative about their rivals. If you just heard a series of pops, that's the heads of every campaign manager in the U.S. exploding.
They don't even have time to think of any weird, Japan-y shit to do in place of actual campaigning.
It's not only France and Japan which demonstrate how we're taking this shit too seriously. In Canada, elections are 11 weeks long. In Argentina, it's nine weeks. In the UK, it's five weeks. But a lack of legislative restrictions isn't the only reason U.S. elections can go on for years instead of weeks. The reason we're an outlier is simple: money. As a Canadian political science professor put it, "Voters in would not have the tolerance or would not accept a system where that kind of money is spent on campaigns."
And if Canada can't politely tolerate something, it's probably not worth tolerating by anyone.
In other countries, anyone willing to spend the GDP of a small nation just to get crowned King Politician is unworthy of a vote. Our desire not to stifle the freedom of democracy has, ironically, corrupted the democratic process, with anyone who doesn't have half a billion dollars in Super PACs unable to compete.
But there's no going back now. We can't do that to all those political science graduates who need this eternal circus to keep them in blue Oxford shirts and charcoal blazers. They can't survive in the real world. If they're going to be begging for our money, at least let them do it in a warm office.
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