Nik Dirga: The one word that really matters for US election day – unity

Trump and Biden
"Intellectually, I think Joe Biden is in a pretty good place to make Donald Trump a one-term president. But emotionally, I've got no clue what might happen." Image: RNZ composite

I conducted a highly scientific study among a handful of my Facebook friends back home in America this week, asking them for one word that sums up their feelings going into Election Day.

I got words like “terror,” “nauseous,” “distress,” “fearful,” “apprehensive” and “despair”.

A “hopeful” or two.

Also, “anticipointment” and “cautiomistic” – neither of which are actual words, but they really should be.

But mostly, the vibe is tension and exhaustion.

In some ways, the whole mad ride of 2020 seems to have been leading to this moment, when America decides between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Tuesday.

How do you keep from losing your mind in the final days when everything that makes your country your country seems on the line?

A rare NZ and US match-up year
This is one of the rare years that New Zealand and America’s elections sync up together (the last was in 2008).

I cast votes a few weeks apart in two countries that couldn’t feel further apart today.

The New Zealand election already seems like a vague memory and life ambles along, cautious but chill.

America at the moment is anything but chill.

I’ve voted in every US election since 1992. My candidates have won some, and they’ve lost some. I’ve been pleasantly surprised and pretty bummed out by elections.

But I’ve never been scared, until now.

Look, I won’t pretend to be impartial – I moved to New Zealand in 2006, and Donald Trump has created an America I hardly recognise, a conman’s ignorant fantasyland. I hope he loses the election decisively, and this whole episode is seen as a misguided wrong turn for America.

America should learn from NZ
I wish America would learn something from the relative smoothness of New Zealand’s elections, where campaigns are far shorter and cheaper.

Having voted in five general elections now in New Zealand, I’m Team Parliamentary System all the way.

Smaller parties matter more here. The Greens, Māori Party, ACT and New Zealand First have all played major roles in New Zealand the past 15 years, while in America, a third party vote in national elections is still nothing but a token protest.

Our MMP system encourages cooperation. America’s two-party dynamic encourages tribalism.

New Zealand’s vote seems more malleable. A party that’s down in one election like New Zealand First can make a comeback, and then be gone again the next time around.

In a parliamentary system, party leaders are also more accountable to their peers and can be removed easily.

That can be messy – look at the National Party’s three leaders this year, or Australia’s round-robin of prime ministers for much of the last decade.

Had Trump been rolled in congress … ?
But if Trump could have been rolled in Congress with a no-confidence vote, the last few years might have unfolded very differently.

American democracy is a fine ideal with some massive, antiquated flaws that keep it from truly representing all its people. In the US Senate, both California and Wyoming have the same amount of senators – two – although one state has nearly 40 million people and one has 550,000.

How votes are counted and districts are created vary wildly from state to state, town to town, and it’s ripe for manipulation.

The Electoral College, which apportions a certain amount of “points” per state, has allowed the candidate who received the most overall votes to still lose the election in both 2000 and 2016.

The idea that an election should always be held on a Tuesday – a work day that’s not a public holiday – is an absurd hangover from the days of horses and carriages.

Due to the uncertainties of the pandemic this year, we’ve seen far more early voting than ever before in America. I’ve never seen engagement and queues like this in my lifetime.

Maybe the year of covid-19 will make it a habit, and we’ll see an election month instead of a single day.

Thinking less of my homeland
I’m a kind of pessimistic optimist who wants to believe the best of people even if they’re going to let you down.

But on the day Donald Trump won the presidency four years ago I suddenly found myself thinking less of my homeland … and its people.

When you’re an immigrant in another land, you find yourself becoming a bit of an unwitting ambassador for your home country.

Whether you hold it close or are running away from it, you’ll always be a part of the place you came from. You represent it.

So to watch the good in America overwhelmingly swamped by the bad has at times felt like an attack on who I am. Was Election Day 2016 who my country really is? Or a historical spasm of personality and timing just that once?

I know I’m not the country I was born in. But at times it’s easy to forget, to want to apologise to the world for these last four years, for the endless drama.

I have seen friends lash out at other friends online over the election. I’ve watched people repeatedly yelling at strangers on the internet.

Late-night tweets instead of leadership
I know I’ve got some friends and family members who have supported Trump, and we just don’t talk about that too much.

I’d sure like to see things get calmer. I don’t see that happening if Trump is re-elected. It would be another four years of late-night tweets from the White House and division instead of leadership.

I gave up on making predictions after 2016.

Intellectually, I think Joe Biden is in a pretty good place to make Donald Trump a one-term president. But emotionally, I’ve got no clue what might happen.

I am not my country.

But if I had to pick a word to describe my hopes for Election Day, it’s right there in that country’s name.


Nik Dirga is an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for 14 years. This article is republished by the Pacific Media Centre under a partnership agreement with RNZ.

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