It’s easy for Americans to feel that we are separate and distinct from the rest of the world. Much of what we read tells us so. Nowhere was that clearer than in coverage of the Democratic primary as, for months, the news was filled with horse race reporting on the front-runners’ sexuality, their eating habits, their spouses, and their fashion choices. “Here’s the story behind Tom Steyer’s plaid tie,” CNN offered. “Who is Tom Steyer without his red plaid tie?” Vox countered. Marianne Williamson ran a long advertisement for herself in the guise of a political campaign; she was rewarded with interviews and profiles in major publications. I don’t know how many articles I read about Pete Buttigieg’s ability to speak Norwegian, but it was certainly more than I found about the seismic changes overtaking politics in Europe.
Election coverage was premised on the view that whoever got the Democratic nomination would single-handedly alter the course of the universe. Meanwhile, the United States almost entered a war with Iran, a far-right populist movement was spreading across many of our nation’s allies, and the new coronavirus was beginning to infect people around the world. In its narrow focus on the primary—that is, on itself—the American press largely failed to convey that a deadly threat was making its way over from Wuhan, China, a city whose population is more than fifteen times the size of Washington, DC’s. If we had been paying attention, we would have had more time to learn from the examples of Italy and South Korea and elsewhere. But that would have required us to recognize that Americans might be in the same position as people beyond our borders, that our fates are shared.
Journalists will likely point to the economic pressures that drive decisions about how and where to focus coverage. When there are cutbacks, foreign bureaus are often the first to go; increasingly, the work of foreign correspondents is left to freelancers. But it’s not just a money problem. The paradigm of the American media puts American politics at the center, out of a belief that American politics steer the world. In 2020, however, that’s no longer true, if it ever was. The US does not set the agenda for world policy. Moreover, no matter who our president is, our future as Americans depends nearly as much on who wins elections in other countries. That’s the reality of a world that is truly interconnected.
The past few months have shown us how small our world really is. The problems of one place affect everyone.
In February, I launched a website called The Ballot to track every major 2020 election outside the United States. At the time, there were at least seventy elections scheduled to take place by year’s end—in Iran, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, all over. (Many have since been postponed because of the covid-19 pandemic, meaning that Ballot correspondents are now watching democratic procedures slow to a halt around the world.) Our project has been guided by the idea that, in our siloed media ecosystem, voters rarely get a chance to compare notes about the forces altering our politics, yet it has never been more important to listen to one another. This feels especially valuable to Americans, as the Trump administration has sought a return to isolationism, symbolized by the erection of a border wall. Trump and his advisers—and supporters at outlets like Fox News and Breitbart—have boosted deglobalization, which might make it seem like the United States can go it alone.
But what’s been striking, as I’ve followed elections around the world, is how connected so many of our leaders still are—and by extension, how much voters are linked, too. Many politicians have found that touting nationalism is an expedient platform for gaining support. In practice, though, they are pursuing mutually dependent networks and reshaping existing ones. A new form of populist diplomacy can be seen in alliances between the increasingly authoritarian Hungary and Poland, and in the ways far-right politicians are attempting to remake the European Union to preserve certain economic agreements while dispensing with those having to do with the free movement of people.
As America’s global power declines these networks will alter the political future of our country and many others. Shortly after we published a piece by Snigdha Poonam on anti-Muslim bigotry in India’s elections, for instance, Donald Trump visited Narendra Modi and stood silent as deadly sectarian violence filled the streets of Delhi. It’s hard not to feel that Modi was emboldened by Trump’s presence, and that Trump, in turn, was buoyed by the knowledge that the leader of India would never publicly criticize him for racism or violence in his own country.
The Ballot is scrappy. I funded it with money I won from a journalism prize in Europe, where I was reporting on the collapse of centrist politics and the transatlantic relationship. The initial budget for the entire site was about the same as what many magazines pay for a single article. Since starting up, my team has received donations from readers around the world; we pay our writers, but we have not taken salaries for our work editing and fact-checking pieces.
The majority of our writers work for English-language newspapers wherever they’re based. There is a wealth of local talent who can write as well as, if not more authoritatively than, any parachuting American. In Iran, for example, our correspondent described how a generation of Iranians find little hope in a future marked by US sanctions. In Ireland, one of our stories covered how years of exorbitant housing costs and income inequality revived a left-wing party that had long been a pariah. We have also been tracing the rise of authoritarianism fueled by responses to the coronavirus—everywhere from Malaysia, where the pandemic meant that people couldn’t protest an undemocratic reshuffling of their government, to Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu has used the crisis to stay in power.
International news doesn’t boil down to elections alone, of course. But elections represent inflection points in social reckoning; they offer a rare chance for people to express themselves as a group. Voters around the world are struggling with big, existential questions about the future of democracy and republican systems, questions that can’t be reduced to candidates’ workout routines. The past few months have shown us how small our world really is. The problems of one place affect everyone, everywhere. American media would best serve its citizens if, for once, we looked out rather than in. It’s a skill the rest of the world has already learned.