Democrats Abroad

Why Bernie Sanders's message resonates with Americans overseas.

Bernie Sanders might not yet be ahead in the delegate counts at home, but his “political revolution” is catching on abroad. American expats favored him 69 to 31 percent in the Democrats Abroad global primary — a contest which is sending thirteen delegates to the national convention.

Voters cast ballots in over 170 countries, and the Vermont senator won decisively in nearly every location from Costa Rica to Germany to Thailand. Some countries — Czech Republic (409 to 99) and Japan (1178 to 176) showed huge victories for Sanders, and he even beat Clinton in unexpected places like foreign policy-wonk-hotspot Geneva and posh Luxembourg.

The only countries that went for Clinton were Singapore, Nigeria (where there was a total of 5 votes cast), and the Dominican Republic, which favored her heavily (350 to 53). But Sanders’s overwhelming victory among expats generally is particularly notable considering turnout was up 50 percent from 2008 — a year in which there was plenty of worldwide excitement about Barack Obama.

Why is Bernie so popular with Americans abroad? As someone who has lived in the United States and in various parts of the world (Asia, Europe, and Australia), I’ll speculate on two possible factors.


The empire doesn’t look so great from the outside

A globetrotting former secretary of state running against a candidate from relatively provincial Vermont might seem a natural favorite among a scattered constituency of center-left American expats. Traveling abroad can bestow all variety of enlightening experiences; living abroad is something entirely different. Being a colleague, neighbor, long-term part of the community landscape in another country, and sharing in daily struggles, large and small, provide a different perspective on American hegemony.

Domestic voters often consider foreign policy as something that happens off in the distance, but expats get to see the empire from the outside. While foreign leaders of “friendly” nations pay obeisance to American presidents and their functionaries, they see firsthand how US policies impact others.

Citizens of other countries host American military bases, are affected by US-backed trade policies, bear the consequences of Washington’s unwillingness to address climate change, and are spied on by the National Security Agency.

Expats also get a front-row seat to the discussions about empire. Even in countries that are allied with the United States, these debates are increasingly critical of Clinton’s aggressive, interventionist worldview. For instance, Clinton partisans tout the so-called “Pivot to Asia” while she was secretary of state as a major accomplishment. This initiative was aimed at strengthening American presence and economic interests in East Asia, supposedly building trust with China while simultaneously chiding them on human rights and shoring up the security of allies like Japan, all the while moving to “advance our values” in the region.

The initiative came with real costs to countries in the region. Secretary Clinton secured a substantial $5 billion contribution from the Japanese government to “ensure the continued enduring presence of American forces in Japan,” money that could have been spent on education and other public goods.

What’s more, the communities burdened with accommodating sprawling American military bases are weary of it, and it’s easy to imagine that the Pivot’s aim of “expanding joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance activities” sound more ominous than reassuring.


In many places the welfare state remains the backbone of daily life

While the social safety net is being attacked everywhere, throughout much of the world people still retain rights — to education, housing, healthcare — that Americans simply don’t have.

American naysayers often wave away the welfare systems in places like Denmark and Sweden, declaring them inefficient, or avowing that some of these countries are far more “homogenous” and less gridlocked than the US could ever be and that is why we can’t have nice things. (It is curious how often liberals venerate diversity as some kind of cure-all for social ills ranging from bad policing to corporate malfeasance but solemnly testify that it renders the economic justice of a national health care system impossible.)

But expats see firsthand that, while the governments that preside over the kinds of institutions that Sanders argues for are indeed flawed, social-democratic programs nevertheless improve quality of life tremendously. The benefits are not just understood intellectually, but visible everywhere, embedded in the scenery of daily existence: children herded through city streets by state-supported daycare workers, free public museums, service workers like grocery clerks and waitstaff able to lead dignified lives thanks in part to national health care systems, affordable housing, and low university fees.

Throughout her campaign, Clinton has cast herself as the pragmatist and Sanders as the idle dreamer with no regard for fiscal constraints. There’s a reason the message isn’t resonating overseas.