The e-mail simply said, "XXXXX invite you to their ELECTION NIGHT PARTY to discuss, debate, analyze, and watch the midterm election returns and cast your vote as to how you think the House, Senate and Governor's offices will look after the votes are counted!"
This sounded too tempting to resist. I don't foresee myself doing much in terms of "debate" and "analysis" - after all what the heck do I know about American politics? - but I can definitely "watch", not to mention gorge on the free food and imbibe the free drinks.
I have seldom felt more pretentious. There I was, in a building just minutes away from the White House and located on a street that leads straight to the US Capitol, trying to make clever remarks about the US mid-term elections. The big screen showed election results as they came in, and now and then, the Journalist-in-Residence would break the rowdiness of the crowd with commentaries and predictions on how such and such state would vote on such and such issue or how such and such race reminded him of a similar electoral race 20 years ago. It was all very infectiously exciting.
Everyone I spoke to - junior diplomats, foreign holiday-makers, graduate students - had something to say about the elections. It turned out to be a most educational experience. By the time I got to my fourth glass of Pinot Grigio, I was already quite well-versed with the main talking points of the elections: how many seats the Democrats needed to control the House, how many they needed to win the Senate, which races were expected to be tight, which scandals were expected to hurt which candidates etc etc...
I don't really know if we have similar election night parties in Malaysia. You see, I've never been invited to one. I'm sure the political parties have their own "thing" happening as they wait for the results but I don't think there's much in terms of "election festivity" organised or sponsored by the non-political entities or the public.
The closest thing to an election party that I've been to was a farewell party for a friend which happened to take place on the 2004 general elections night. While the TV was on, providing live reports of election results as they came in, the only ones that were excited about the elections were the foreigners. The Malaysians, while making pointed remarks now and then, were generally disinterested.
I guess you don't have much reason for excitement if you've had roughly similar electoral results over the last 50 years.
Two things caught my interest leading up to the elections.
One is the election campaign ads. They are amazing! Though admittedly these deteriorated into nothing more than glorified name-calling as the elections drew nearer, they were generally very well done, punchy and tackled the main political issues right on. Given the amount of ridiculous things that Malaysian politicians do, it's easy to think of a few good ones for Malaysia too. A campaign ad featuring the Istana Pandamaran would be a nice one for a start...
The second thing is this whole Red vs Blue America thing. I always associate "blue" with conservatism and right-wing fanaticism and "red" with left-leaning movements. Thus, I'm still struggling to think of the Democrats as "Blue" and the Republicans as "Red". Shouldn't it be the other way around?
One thing that really struck me on the election night was how wrong I had been about people's political leanings. Except for some obvious cases - e.g. the Mormon lady who voted Republican (duh!) or that gay guy who voted Democrat (double duh!) - all my other assessments of people turned out to be wrong.
As a foreigner, I could get away with all sorts of political insensitivity and faux pas, so I milked it for all it's worth by asking people point-blank whom they had voted for. This was when I found out that I had misread most of my acquaintances completely. Those whom I thought were a bit too supportive of the US less-than-responsible foreign policy turned out to be staunch supporters of the Democrats, while those who had always struck me as very liberal turned out to be raving Republicans.
Maybe this is due to my simplistic understanding of US politics. Maybe this is because I am in Washington DC, where people - I have been told - behave differently than elsewhere in the US. But I'm more inclined to think that this is also partly due to the level of political maturity that the US has attained as a nation. In the US, you can be a supporter, or even a member of a political party, but it is not impossible for you to consider every issue on its own merit and have a stance that is diametrically opposite to your party's.
In addition, elections in the US do not only revolve around partisan lines. US voters also vote on current issues and the stance that a candidate takes on these issues. So, while you may be a staunch Democratic supporter, you might vote for a Republican or an Independent if you do not like the candidate that your party puts forward. At least that's the only way I can explain why an overwhelmingly Democratic state like California would vote for a Republican governor. Or why an Independent candidate managed to beat a Democrat in the Senate race in Connecticut.
Quite a contrast to the rabid supporters of certain political parties back home who support their political parties and their beloved leaders no matter what, don't you think?
The dust is now settling but there is an unmistakable buzz in DC. In what was described as a "thumpin'" by George Bush, the Democrats in one fell swoop have taken over the House of Representatives and the Senate, ending 12 years of Republican rule. There were also other epoch-making trivia: these elections saw America's first Muslim being elected to the Congress and the rise of its first woman Speaker. People are also beginning to talk of a potential black US president in the person of Barack Obama.
For all the faults that we ascribe to Americans, this kind of things can happen here. In the case of Malaysia on the other hand... Well, just consider this: the US, a nation whom we accuse of being dominated by the Jews, has elected a Muslim congressman. I don't see Malaysia having a Jewish MP in the next 100 years (if ever).
And call me cynical, but I won't hold my breath for an ethnic Chinese Prime Minister either...