How to organise a revolution

First published in The Big Issue in 2008.

I love West Wing. My husband says it’s because of Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), but actually it’s pure escapism that draws me to it.

The grim reality of eight years of the Bush presidency is enough to send me digging frantically through our DVD drawer for favourite episodes. In West Wing, I can bury myself in a world where the U.S. president thinks carefully before sending American soldiers into battle on foreign soil, but who doesn’t hesitate long if an African genocide is involved; he’s an unpolished president who is shorter than his G8 colleagues, suffers from a serious medical condition (multiple sclerosis) and doesn’t rely on a wealthy and politically powerful family dynasty to get elected. This is Democratic nirvana.

I guess I’m a bit of a political junkie; although, let me tell you, this has been a painful pastime these last eight years. The Bush-era has been particularly gruelling for American Democrats living overseas—like me—regularly exposed to biting critiques of our government and its flaws by neighbours and colleagues.

But I have rediscovered a little hope in my country at an obscure hotel in central Melbourne.

It’s the third Wednesday of the month and I’m hunched over my beer, surrounded by a small group of cheery foreigners who are trying to organise a revolution. We meet in the corner of a mostly empty hotel bar nearMelbourne’s CBD to discuss details of the plot. There’s nothing illicit about the gathering; the intention is simply to change the world—by first changingAmerica—through democratic means. This is the Victorian branch of Democrats Abroad, and it may represent the changing face of U.S.politics.

Rob Clemens is a soft-spoken American biologist, who tells me he was studying birds and minding his own business until the Bush administration stirred him out of his complacency. “When we were living back in Oregon I wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but George Bush’s presidency shook me up, made me think about what really mattered.”

Clemens, based in Melbournefor the past five years, found expression for his frustration in Democrats Abroad: “When we moved to Australia, I started meeting with other like-minded people who were concerned about similar issues. It was cathartic for me.” I know what he means—I decided to show up at meetings when overwhelmed by the temptation to throw tomatoes at Bush’s smiling face on SBS.

Although by day these expatriate Americans are IT specialists and scientists, economists and artists, by night they are studying the New York TimesWashington Post, even the Kansas City Star (“I like to know what the other side is thinking”, says Chris, one of the regulars), following every movement in American politics and analysing its potential impact.

Since Bush defeated Gore in the knife-edge election in 2000, Democrats—including those abroad—have focused their sights on one goal: winning back the White House this November. However, Clemens cautions against winning at all costs. “I worry that the country has become so polarized, with the Democrats so angry, that we may make the same mistakes as the Republicans, letting the ends justify whatever means it takes to get, and stay, in power.”

Personally, his words ring true. Frustrated by years of cowboy policies and international showmanship by the Bush Administration, I found that snatching Congress from the Republicans in 2006 was like winning back the Ashes. And I’ve been smelling blood ever since. Universal healthcare, bona fide action on climate change, a reasonable end to Iraq—issues once dead and buried are now resurrected as possibilities. And they really matter, even for people who no longer callAmericahome.

About six million Americans live outside the country, making us potentially a bigger voting bloc than 30 U.S.states by population. I have lived overseas, in a selection of countries, for nearly 20 years. Staying politically involved in the U.S. used to require a big effort, but the Internet has put those days behind us, allowing voters to keep up-to-speed on issues and streamlining the registration and ballot process.

With current polls showing Obama and McCain nearly tied for support, it could be that the overseas vote tips the scales. If so, it would be an ironic turn for a nation that often shuns international opinion.

Until then, American Democrats will continue to meet around the world to plan and plot, donate and, ultimately, vote. And whether these expatriates are turning up at our small hotel inMelbourne, a sushi bar in Tokyo or a Haufbrau Haus in Germany, we could be making history, influencing the country we once lived in and continue to love.

And maybe, just maybe, come November, we’ll get our revolution.