By Tobias Van Assche, Information Specialist at the United States Mission to the European Union.
Every four years, U.S. diplomatic personnel around the globe delve into their high school American Civics 101 textbooks and start honing up for the unavoidable questions on the U.S. elections process. What is a Superdelegate? Why the Electoral College? What is the difference between a Caucus and a Primary? This election year, European interest in the U.S. Presidential Elections seems stronger than ever, and the United States Mission to the European Union (USEU) is supporting a number of activities throughout the year to engage EU officials and publics on the process, through expert speakers, exchange programs, and dissemination of information via social media.
USEU Public Affairs decided to take a new approach to the elections this March, partnering with the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Young Transatlantic Network (YTN), to screen the first two episodes of the newly released fourth season of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” as a fun way of delving into the perceptions (and reality) of U.S. elections.
This award winning series tells the fictitious story of U.S. Congressman Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey), who together with his wife Claire (Robin Wright) fights and manipulates his way up the U.S. political ladder to eventually become President. With Season Four focused on Underwood’s fight through the primaries and convention, it seemed a perfect opportunity to blend a little entertainment with discussion of the reality behind the U.S. political process.
The U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Anthony Gardner opened the event for approximately 60 YTN members, noting that the U.S. Mission has to remain non-partisan during elections. While joking that the elections provide “high quality entertainment, 24/7” for Europeans and foreign publics, Gardner also stressed how both Europeans and Americans are facing difficult challenges and that the elections provide an opportunity for candidates to set forth their vision for the direction of the country. He stressed the importance of young people in the political party, not only as voters but as actors. Ambassador Gardner called on the attendees not to give into cynicism, fear, and division, but instead take up their rights and responsibility as citizens. “You are the future and the present of Europe, of the transatlantic relationship,” Gardner finished.
— Sabina Ciofu (@SabinaCiofu) March 10, 2016
After the audience enjoyed Episode 1, Politico Europe’s Managing-Editor Carry Budoff Brown provided her take on the current U.S. elections. In 2008, Budoff Brown covered Barack Obama’s bid for the White House from the early stages for the U.S. edition of “Politico,” followed by a stint as Politico’s White House Correspondent from 2009-2014. She has now been with Politico’s European edition for nearly a year.
In her presentation, Budoff Brown emphasized how different this campaign has been from previous elections, particularly due to social media, which was just taking off as a political tool in 2008. “I am as surprised as everybody else about where this is heading”, said Budoff Brown. She went on to assess the candidates and how she believed the campaign would progress, but added that her views are the “conventional wisdom”, and that this campaign has been everything but conventional. Budoff Brown for example emphasized that traditionally candidates tend to move to the left or right of the political spectrum in order to mobilize their electoral base during the primaries, to then move back to the center during the general election. The question is whether this will also happen this year.
Budoff Brown said that being a White House reporter tends to be less action packed than depicted in “House of Cards” and is generally not filled with the intrigue, manipulation and scandals presented in the series. She adds that the character Zoe Barns, who often resorts to these means to get her stories, is widely loathed by young female journalists in Washington. “I don’t know anybody like her”, Budoff Brown said, adding “and that’s a good thing.”
Intermission was a time to network over bagels and drinks, including Frank Underwood’s drinks of choice: American whisky and bourbon. The drinks, provided by USEU’s Foreign Agricultural Service, showcased some craft distilleries lesser known in Europe but booming in the United States.
For USEU, the night’s event was a great way to engage young Europeans on an important time in American politics, and it encouraged us to keep thinking of innovative ways to provide insights to U.S. policy, politics, and culture. We were grateful to Netflix and their agreement with the U.S. Department of State for allowing us to share their content with this audience. The YTN members in attendance praised the creative way in which the German Marshall Fund and the U.S. Mission to the EU used popular culture to promote a discussion on the U.S. elections and inspire people to become or remain politically active.