Elnökválasztás is volt 2020-ban – interjú John Cox úrral, az Észak-Dakota Állami Egyetem történelem professzorával

Az Amerikai Egyesült Államokban november 3-ra tűzték ki a 2020. évi elnökválasztást, amelyen a republikánus Donald Trump az újraválasztás reményében indult, a demokraták oldaláról pedig Joe Biden (egykori alelnök) szállt versenybe az elnöki pozícióért. Az egész világ az Egyesült Államokra szegezte tekintetét és figyelemmel kísérte az események alakulását, azonban az emberek többsége mégsincs tisztában az elnökválasztás folyamatával. Mivel én magam is érdeklődöm a különféle politikai események és történések iránt, nagy örömömre szolgált, hogy lehetőségem volt interjút készíteni John Cox úrral, North Dakota State University (Észak-Dakota Állami Egyetem) történelem professzorával.

Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Hello! I’m a professor of history at a mid-sized university in the U.S. I live in Fargo, a city just a little smaller than Szeged. You have a lot more culture, and trees, in your city, and we have a lot more cold and snow, but these are both nice places. Fargo is a surprisingly young and multi-cultural city, with a good arts scene, great restaurants and craft breweries, and access to Winnipeg (in Manitoba, Canada) and the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, in Minnesota).

I teach and research East European history, mostly the Balkans, and sometimes including Hungary and Austria. I have lived in 4 US states, plus Washington, DC, and in several countries in Europe. I’m married and have two children. My daughter studies Arabic and Farsi at far-off, far-out Indiana University in Bloomington, which is also where my wife and I studied, and my son, who is 18, works here in Fargo at a fence factory and loves to cook in his free time. We have three cats, two Border Collies, and three chickens named Edamame, Annie, and Lady Duff.

Why are you interested in Eastern Europe? 

I fell in love with Europe when I was 11. It was a family trip through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, etc. Then, a few years later I realized there was ANOTHER Europe. It was also Europe. But it was even less like America, so I was very interested in it. That was Eastern Europe, which I „met” first in East Berlin and then in Budapest and then Prague and, by the time I was in my early 20s, I was ready to fall in love with the Balkans in particular. In graduate school (Masters and PhD) I used to joke that my career aspirations were simply to find a job where I could  „play with East European toys.” Like the languages. I love the languages of this region!

What connects you to Hungary, and to Szeged in particular?

I first visited Budapest in 1983, when I was studying for a semester in Munich. A buddy of mine on that study-abroad program was a Hungarian-American from Detroit, and his father had left Hungary during the uprising in 1956. He knew some people in Hungary, and we met an elderly „bacsi” of his at the Gerbeaud. Budapest was intimidating, gloomy, even grim in those polluted winter months, but I loved the language and the museums and, of course, the food. Alex and I must have visited Budapest at least three times that semester!

A couple of years later, after I had finished my undergraduate degree in Political Science and German Area Studies, I won a scholarship from the Rotary Foundation to study for a year at the university there in Szeged. At the time, it was called JATE. I still relish the fact that it was named after a great poet, and that statue of Jozsef Attila on Dugonics ter was in practically every photo we took. 🙂 So, in that year (1986-1987), I took courses on Hungarian culture and society. The courses were in English, but we also studied the language really hard. And made real progress in it. I bought dictionaries—a set of 4 that I still have in my hallway here in Fargo, nicely displayed on one of the best shelves–that I called the Nagy Orszag. Get it?

That year we traveled all over Hungary, from the Bukk Mountains to Pecs, from Esztergom to Szombathely to Mako (but not to Jeruzsalem. Get it?) Actually we never went to Debrecen or Nyiregyhaza, and I’ve still never been there. I’d like to see that part of your country someday.

Then, in 2014, I had another chance to live in Szeged. I was a Fulbright guest professor at the university, now renamed, and I taught in both the History Department and American Studies. Several of the friends I had made back in the 1980s now had PhDs and were teaching at the University, so it was great fun to be their colleague, again. Plus, I met a lot of cool new people. My family really enjoyed Szeged, too, although the school situation for our kids was not ideal. I hope that history will remember me as one of Szeged’s biggest fans. I affectionately call your city „Csongrad-by-the-Sea.” I love the new university library, all the used bookstores, and of course the pedestrian zone, the bread-lady statue, and all the wonderful trees….

Can you see any similarities in the political situation in the States and in Hungary? 

Similarities? Yes. Too many. We both have populist presidents who move constantly further to the right, erode behavioral norms in politics, function as oligarchs, misunderstand democracy, profit from creating division among their citizens, and upset traditional international alliances. I hope that we are turning the corner on that in the US, with the recent election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. But the American political house is, sadly, about half burnt down right now.

What is the process of the presidential election? 

Parties hold primary elections at the state level many months before the presidential election. The presidency must be contested or vacated every 4 years; that’s in the Constitution, fortunately. It’s not like most European systems, where a prime minister or president can „call” an election early if they think they are doing well, and win another „mandate.” We have terms, not mandates. Period.  But the black/white nature of our system means there have always been only two main parties. It’s so funny, and disappointing: we have a term called „third party.” It means you are active politically and belong to a party other than the Democrats or Republicans, such as the Greens, Libertarians, the Constitutionalists, or many others. But we pluralize that word. We say, „There are many third parties in the US.” I have real trouble with that grammar, but what’s really disappointing is the logic behind it. The term is as empty as „independent.” Americans who describe themselves as „independents”  are typically just disaffected Democrats or, usually, Republicans; they wait for someone’s fiery or magnetic personality to bring them back. Their common self-description is: „I’m a fiscal conservative but a social liberal.” Again, I find that phrase simplistic and useless. But at least „independents” are the opposite of „single-issue voters,” who, again, are usually Republicans obsessed with the abortion issue. There are other kinds of single-issue voters; perhaps some environmentalists count as that; increasingly, „white nationalists” are also single-issue voters.

Are there any requirements to become president?

Yes,  you must have been born a US citizen and have reached 35 years of age. 

What purpose does the Electoral College serve? 

It was designed to prevent radical destabilizing movements from taking over the country. It functions as a second level of consideration or selection that is supposed to provide reasoned debate.

How is it possible that a presidential candidate can become president despite losing the popular vote? 

Because the popular vote is segmented or compartmentalized by state. You get California’s 55 electoral votes if you win that state by 1 vote or by 4 million votes (as Biden did). Only two states, Maine and Nebraska, split their votes between multiple candidates. If all states did this, or if we got rid of the electoral college altogether, the Republicans would have a hard time winning federal office. Republican control over many states, especially rural ones in the West or conservative ones in the South, is here to stay though. It’s ironic that I’ve only ever lived in red states: North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia, and now North Dakota.

What are swing states/battleground states?

These are states that are also sometimes called „purple,” because they are a mixture of „red” and „blue.” Those are the colors traditionally used for the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. The gist of the designation is that these states could go either left or right, depending on the year. The list of swing states changes over time:  Ohio used to be one, but it is now quite red. Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia never used to be swing states, but they went through a phase (roughly since 1990 or 2000) when they were and now they have swung to reliably blue., at least in federal elections.  New Hampshire is an active example of a swing state of long standing. Florida is probably still a swing state, also, although Democrats have little luck winning there, either in federal elections or in state-wide ones. Pennsylvania is one too, I suppose, but that one is harder for Republicans. New „purple or swing states include Georgia and Arizona. They make the race exciting, but more importantly, they tell a lot about demographic changes in the country.

What effect does the pandemic have on the presidential election? 

We did a lot more early or mail voting this time (see next question below). And most candidates held fewer rallies, shook fewer hands, kissed fewer babies 🙂 , etc.  President Trump, who loves the energy and chanting of his supporters, resumed large rallies in October, but the Biden-Harris campaign did most things digitally. Or at least wearing masks.

Many Americans continue to believe the pandemic is „fake” or exaggerated. This is true even as the number of American deaths from COVID-19 crossed the 250,000 mark, as it did just yesterday. Conspiracy theories are clouding people’s judgment. Who could seriously believe that „the world” would invent COVID to make Donald J. Trump look bad? But when you consider that many Americans refuse to believe in evolution or the Holocaust, or argue that the Apollo moon landings and 9/11 were fake, what can you do?  As for the efficacy of public health measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing, a more responsible approach by media outlets like Fox News but, more importantly, from the office of the President of our country, would have set a great example. Americans, typically, react most strongly when a solution is needed, not when prevention is called for. So, until COVID hits you….why worry? If even your president is not worried, why worry? And a vaccine is coming that will take care of us all soon enough, so….why worry?

Lastly, I’ll just add that I think the Democratic turnout was helped in the election by people’s disgust with Trump’s failure to address the pandemic; quizzically, Republicans I think just ignored the issue when deciding whether to go to the polls and whom to vote for there.

How do the mail-in ballots work?

Every state does them differently. In the past, you had to have a „reason” or „excuse” to use a mail-in ballot, like you were stationed at a military base outside the country or you were going to be in the hospital on election day. But now, in almost all places, you can just ask for one, so that you do not have to go to the actual polling places on election day. You have to write in to your county courthouse for a ballot, by means of a real letter, not an email, with a hand signature; then they mail you a ballot to the address from which you wrote, and you must sign it and return it by mail, or drop it off at the courthouse in person. Our government has never bothered to put elections on a Saturday or Sunday, which would be smart; they are on Tuesdays, and most people have to work, so it’s hard for many folks to get to the polls on their lunch hours or before they close at 6 or 7 pm. Mail-in balloting was increased this year also due to the pandemic.  A couple of states now just automatically send out mail ballots to everyone, and you can decide whether you use it or go to the polls. Some states also have procedures for e-voting, but I’m not sure how that works. 

There is a related phenomenon now called „early voting.” I used it this year for the first time. Not every precinct is open in the weeks or even full month before an election, but some of them are, and you can vote at any of them. In person, but early. With COVID-19 everywhere in North Dakota, this made sense and my family and I masked up and voted just before Halloween at a large basketball stadium!

Is voting fraud as likely as president Donald Trump claims it is?  

No. Absolutely not. There is no serious problem with voter fraud in any part of the US. Period. Trump wants to delegitimize the election results. He loves to create chaos and confusion by taking everything to the courts. Plus he is a big baby (ok, a pathological narcissist) who cannot stand the idea he has lost. He has lost. Bigly.

What can you tell us about the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden? 

He’s an establishment politician of the center-left. He will run a competent and decent administration. He has a solid, if not necessarily distinguished, record as a long-time senator and as the Vice President under Barack Obama for two terms. I did not support him in the primaries, because I thought we needed younger and more vigorous (and innovative?) leadership. But he is a kind of compromise candidate that almost 80 million voters in my country agreed upon, so I’m fine with that!  I expect progress on climate change and immigration reform and I have no doubt that he will improve the American economy significantly, as all recent Democratic presidents have done.

How have recent events, like Black Lives Matter protests and the death of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg affected the election?  

The BLM movement is a much-needed response to unaddressed issues of racial injustice in law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a whole. It has focused discussion on key issues all over the country. In some cities and states, changes are being affected. The groups associated with BLM also helped increase the turnout of Democratic voters in the recent election.  As for the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, well, we were all afraid this was going to happen. She was a stellar example of American political thinking and practice at its best. Politically speaking, the worst thing about her passing was the hypocrisy of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who rushed to fill her seat before the election even though he had unprecedentedly denied President Obama that same right four years ago.

How does social media, and media coverage influence the result of the elections? 

Social media and cable news have an ever-larger effect on elections. Dominating the news cycle, even by being outrageous or provoking pointless conflict, does a weird dance with the egos of all the talking heads and political „technologists” and I fear we are all losing the ability to contextualize news, to make ethical choices without the temptation of „whataboutism,” and to remember our history. 

What were your predictions for this election? 

That Biden and Harris would win both the popular and electoral vote. Fortunately, I was right, for once. I also called the outcomes correctly in all but one of the swing states; I’m not a polling expert, but I listened to a lot of different news sources during the last couple of months of our achingly long campaign season, and read a lot of different publications and web sites, and I was able to follow the trends pretty clearly. My one wrong guess had to do with North Carolina, my home state (I was born in Raleigh, the capital of that lovely state). It was not ultimately able to break with its Republican past. That disappointed me. But I was also surprised that Trump maintained the loyalty of as many of his followers as he did. Not even the COVID-19 crisis, which he is egregiously mishandling, drove them away. It’s a good thing the center and left were as well organized and as stubborn as they were, because turnout was the key.

How are the results going to affect world politics? 

Biden will try hard to undo the confusion and self-dealing that has characterized Trump’s foreign policy. I have some friends in Europe who enjoyed the fact that Trump had a „hands-off” approach, but his retrogression on climate change and the Iranian nuclear deal cannot be good for any European. Biden will be much more like Obama, for better or worse.

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