Their concerns? The role of money in the American presidential campaigns. The wearying length of primaries and elections. The polarizing effects of the two-party system. Candidates pandering to extreme voters when more substantive discussions and moderate solutions are needed.
The speakers? Students—from Afghanistan, China, Germany, and Zimbabwe.
Asked if Republicans or Democrats appealed more to his countrymen, government major Khaled Wardak '13 repeated a popular saying in Afghanistan: "It's the same horse; the saddle keeps changing."
Wardak said people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he also lived, care almost exclusively about foreign policy, particularly toward the Muslim world and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And since both parties are expected to favor Israel, a strong party preference isn't likely, he said. "I just want to hear what the candidate has to say about Israel-Palestine, or what he has to say about Syria, or what he has to say about Iran, or what he has to say about Afghanistan. That's all that matters to me."
U.S. and German dual citizen Jonathan Sommer '14 said Germans are clearly interested in U.S. politics, but the way the primary has been run and the way the media has covered Republican candidates has hurt America's image abroad. "When Obama took over, he definitely improved what Germans and Europeans thought of the United States after Bush, and Germans' attitudes and feelings toward American improved."
The media, though, "has portrayed these Republican candidates as rather incapable and laughable and not suited to be presidents of the United States," Sommer said. He blamed that partly on a primary system that forces candidates "to appeal to basic values and fundamentals of so many people, and focus on so many things that aren't important."
The two-party system is part of the problem, said Jozef Moffat '15, who's from Zimbabwe. He said in the short time he's been in the United States he's concluded that the two-party system increases polarization. "At the end of the day it's just producing generic candidates from both sides and doesn't allow for variety."
Money injected into the system by Super PACs is dragging out the bitter competition among Republican candidates, said Ness Dong '14, from China. The advent of Super PACS is giving wealthy donors outsized influence. "Now, as long as you have a sponsor behind you you can stay in the race as long as you want to, even if people don't like you," she said, using Newt Gingrich and his backer Sheldon Adelson as an example.
"A single person having this much effect in an election is not the ideology of a democracy in the U.S.," Dong said. "The election has become the game of the rich people in the U.S. instead of the American people selecting their own president."
People in Zimbabwe, Moffat said, would favor to the strong Christian beliefs and stands on social issues espoused by Republican candidates more than anything else, so he would expect the most religious-sounding candidates would be the most popular in his country.
Dong gave two reasons the Chinese are so interested in the U.S. election. One: "Because we don't have one." Another: "It's more entertaining than all those reality TV shows. ... I saw Gingrich talking about building a moon base at the end of his second term, and I thought, 'That's a real reality show.'"
The March 7 panel featuring international students discussing their perspectives on the American election process was organized by Russell Wilson '14, a member of the Goldfarb Center Student Advisory Board. Assistant Professor of French Valérie Dionne, a Canadian who has lived in France and elsewhere and is married to an Irishman, moderated.