Header Search U N C C . E D U

Spotlight: German Students Parse Presidential Politics

Main Content

Spotlight: German Students Parse Presidential Politics

Date Published:
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Where in the world is David Goldfield? It’s a valid question. The Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences suffers no shortage of invitations to share his expertise - race relations, economic development, religion, and political culture in the American South - with think tanks, students and citizens from around the globe.

Goldfield’s latest foray into foreign territory finds him back in Germany, where he regularly provides programs on behalf of the U.S. State Department. Last May, he embarked on a similar tour through China.

"This year the 2012 Presidential election is foremost, so I’ll be spending time talking about the influence of region, religion and race on the presidential election," Goldfield said.

Goldfield will travel to various cities, including Hamburg, Frankfurt and Berlin, where he will address think tanks and university audiences. But unlike previous visits, this time Goldfield will be working directly with high school students in northern Germany who have been asked to focus in on particular aspects of the U.S. presidential election.

"Germans are fascinated with American politics," he said. In 2008, more than 200,000 Berliners turned out to hear Barack Obama speak. "There’s a tremendous amount of interest in the U.S. election because, as a world power, whoever gets elected will have significant influence well beyond the United States."

Goldfield’s latest foray into foreign territory finds him back in Germany, where he regularly provides programs on behalf of the U.S. State Department. Last May, he embarked on a similar tour through China.

Nearly 700 German high school students are participating in a new State Department initiative developed to expose German citizens early in life to American culture and institutions, and to strengthen ties between the two countries. Groups of participating students were assigned U.S. states to study, and Goldfield was tapped as the subject matter expert for North Carolina, one of almost a dozen so-called "swing states."

Before leaving for Germany on Oct. 13, Goldfield corresponded with the students via email.

He received a number of questions about the party conventions, with one student inquiring into how Charlotte "qualified" as the location for the Democratic National Convention. Goldfield speculates that the students’ interest is an outgrowth of their experience with party conventions in Germany, which are more substantive affairs than those in the United States.

"Swing states are interesting to German high school students, who don’t really understand we don’t undertake a national election," Goldfield noted. "Because of the electoral college, some states are more important than others; our presidential election is fought in the swing states. Students also find it odd that in a democratic society such as the United States, we do not vote directly for the President. The popular vote totals are interesting, but not decisive. It’s the electoral votes that determine the winner."

Another subject of great interest to the students is the environment and how North Carolina fits into the environmental continuum within the United States, Goldfield said.

"Although Germany is a federal nation, comprised of states, it has a much more centralized government than we do, and it’s often difficult for students - and sometimes officials - to understand our federal system," he said. "Many of the environmental laws we operate under are not state laws but are federal laws, and are controlled in Washington, DC."

Because Germany has enjoyed economic health and growth, economic issues are currently less pertinent to Germans than they are to Americans.

For the remainder of the tour, Goldfield will focus on issues including the impact of immigration on the United States; the co-existence of religion and government; and diversity.

"When I traveled to Germany in 2010 I got into a discussion with one group about the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court contains nine justices: six are Roman Catholics and three are Jewish," Goldfield said, noting that the United States is probably the only country in the world where the majority religion is not represented at all on the highest court.

"One of my points this year will be, for all our difficulties, we’re seeing an election between a black man and a Mormon - these were two of the most despised groups in 19th century America," he said.