I spent my last meal at McGill’s Bishop Mountain Dining Hall trying to rationalize going home to New York. With COVID-19 cases mounting, all of the jokes I had made about U.S. backwardness ceased to be funny. Instead, the America that I had tried to wish away became all too real, haunting me during strained phone conversations with my parents as we weighed my options. That America—the worldwide epicentre of the virus, with a government that does not believe in science and a president who fails to acknowledge the severity of the crisis—is an embarrassment that makes me want to run away. To top it all off, the American healthcare system is so flawed that some people are more afraid of unaffordable health insurance bills than COVID-19. Still, I came home in the end, as did most of the American students I know.
Returning was disillusioning. Of course, there’s the sad reality of social distancing and quarantine. But even worse is watching Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis. It’s like watching Monty-Python, except it is not funny because his most absurd remarks and decisions are likely to kill thousands of Americans. And for millions of progressive Democrats, no end seems to be in sight, now that Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the Primary. Sure, there’s former Vice President Joe Biden, but even some of his supporters are calling him a distasteful, utilitarian compromise. The mountain of misgivings seems insurmountable. Some students may become disillusioned with politics and consequently fail to engage in the election process. Lackluster candidates like Biden, certainly, are unlikely to galvanize young progressive voters from abroad. Besides which, voting while studying or working at McGill can be confusing, considering that voting from abroad requires one to obtain an absentee ballot and then mail it in according to state-specific rules. Nevertheless, American students must adopt a new sense of patriotism and recognize that apathy precludes ever giving the U.S. the chance to be the country Americans want and need.
Voting in U.S. elections is not just a basic civic duty but an imperative step to counteracting the Republican Party’s audacious authoritarianism. Trump’s administration is using COVID-19 as a distraction to accumulate broader emergency powers. Needless to say, this is concerning for a multitude of reasons, not least considering that he was impeached for obstruction of Congress and then acquitted because, apparently, a president can do anything if they feel that it is in the public interest. Experts agree: The Trump administration looks suspiciously like a Trump dictatorship. Considering the centrality of U.S. affairs in international politics, it stands to reason that all McGill students, regardless of national origin, have a stake in saving American democracy.
Reviving American patriotism is more vital now than ever, and it does not have to be tainted with some gilded, 1950’s facade of American exceptionalism or supremacy. It must be reimagined: It must recognize America’s shortcomings and require that Americans work towards a better country by educating themselves on political issues and by participating in the democratic process. That means voting in state primaries, congressional elections, and the general election—especially now, as apathy is eroding the last vestiges of democracy with a vitriolic fervour.
American students are not absolved of that responsibility just because we go to school in Canada. If anything, it is more important for those who study abroad to be politically active, considering that studying abroad renders America’s shortcomings painfully obvious. Although these issues are easy to ignore in Canada, COVID-19 has forced American students to confront them like never before. Moreover, the economic tumult surrounding the crisis has been an unfortunate reminder of the economic problems that drove many U.S. citizens to McGill in the first place. Americans should not have to escape to Canada for an affordable education. American students should take this crisis as cause to re-engage in American politics, even after life returns to “normal.” McGill students should remain engaged by taking advantage of clubs like Democrats Abroad at McGill, which promote voting and provide resources to help students obtain absentee ballots.
Voters can wallow in national disgrace, or they can give democracy a chase. Even abroad at McGill, Americans have a duty to safeguard democracy by engaging in the process. Yes, Trump is a national embarrassment, and the U.S.’ reputation may never recover. But being proud to be American does not depend on what the president is doing in the White House. It depends on millions of Americans around the world believing that America can improve and taking action to build a better country.