For John Shreve, an American who has lived in the German capital for the best part of 40 years, Bernie Sanders is nothing more than “a fad.”
“He has never been a member of this party. I didn’t even know who he was before he decided to run – and I’m interested in politics.”
“I agree with a lot of what he says, but I don’t think he can get anything accomplished,” Shreve stated flatly.
Shreve backs the Vermont senator's rival Hillary Clinton. But while he might be in the majority among Democrats in general, expats who voted in the global primary in March have a rather different view.
Sanders will take seven of 11 global delegates to the National Convention in Philadelphia in July after he swept the primary, taking 69 percent of the vote.
But at the Democrats Abroad Global Convention, being held from Thursday until Sunday in central Berlin, there was still much work to do.
Representatives from 40 countries bustled good-naturedly into two convention halls to vote on who would represent each camp at the national convention, where the party will finally pick its presidential candidate after a 12-rounder of a primary season.
For the Sanders side alone over 200 people had made it onto a list of potential candidates.
But, in a sign that not every thing at the convention was running their way, his team struck off the vast majority of these names at the eleventh hour – with no explanation given for why.
A visibly upset young man from New Hampshire, who had his hopes of nomination dashed, remarked bitterly that it was “undemocratic.”
One name that did stay on the list was that of Larry Sanders, the elder brother of a certain presidential candidate, and now a resident of Oxford, England.
The 81-year-old elder Sanders explained his brother’s appeal to expat Democrats to The Local.
“For people living in other countries, certainly in Germany, some of the issues he’s presented, like universal health care, or adequate leave for illness, are things taken for granted.”
“The argument made by people connected to the Clinton camp that these things are marvelous but utopian doesn’t really hold up for these people.”
Sanders the elder was also damning of Clinton's claims to be the pragmatic, effective candidate.
“The political idea that you give up on what you want before you fight for it is foolish. The Clinton approach is part of the reason why the United States has moved so far to the right over the past 30 or 40 years.”
This kind of tough talk must have played well with the crowd. Just as the interview ended, voting results were announced. Sanders won convincingly, securing himself a delegate spot.
As he stood up to take the applause, fists clenched above his head, the crowd broke out into an enthusiastic chant of “Bernie, Bernie.”
But not everyone in the room was happy. One Sanders supporter, who asked to remain anonymous, said Larry was parachuted into the Democrats Abroad organization by his brother’s team.
She didn’t vote for him, she pointed out. But she conceded that it is hard for their caucus to win headlines back home, and if having Sanders’ brother as one of their delegates was what it took, then so be it.
That hypocrisy existed in the Sanders camp didn’t surprise her, she said. “It’ll exist in any political campaign if you look hard enough.”
More importantly for her, he was the first presidential candidate in her political life who spoke to her own strongly-held beliefs.
“You can tell when somebody means it. And he means it.”
One reason that Sanders appears to have convinced many expats that he would look out for their interests is his pledge to wipe out double taxation.
Currently US citizens living abroad, unlike people from the EU, must continue to pay tax in the United States as well as in the country they live in, something that can be a heavy burden on poorer US migrants.
Sanders has pledged to do away with this anomaly and bring his country in line with international standards, brother Larry said.
A further piece of financial legislation which has stung expats was brought in by the Obama administration in his first term, explained Eileen Weinberg, a Sanders supporter who lives in Switzerland.
The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) compels foreign banks which open accounts for US citizens to provide details about them to US tax authorities, and banks which don’t comply face hefty penalties.
“There is a presumption of guilt in the law,” complains Weinberg, who said hat she could only afford to make it to the convention with the help of a grant. “I didn’t move to Switzerland to hide my fortune.”
Some banks have stopped opening accounts for US citizens to avoid the regulations, forcing people to renounce their US citizenship just so that they can have a bank account in the country they live in.
Democrats Abroad lobbied the two campaigns about the issue and met open ears on both sides.
But it was Sanders who was more decisive, promising to support reform of the legislation.
“Clinton was supportive, but she wouldn’t commit,” said Weinberg.
'Come on board'
If ‘she was supportive, but wouldn’t commit’ is starting to sound like it would one day make a fitting epitaph for the former Secretary of State, her emissary to the convention denied that she lacks conviction.
Amy Bondurant, a former ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, told The Local that what made Clinton stand out is that she is a first-class policy maker.
Already speaking the language of the victor, Bondurant applauded Sanders for how he had “improved the dialogue” and “helped Americans consider issues they hadn’t before.”
She encouraged his supporters to “come on board” saying “the string that separates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is nothing like the ocean that separates them from Donald Trump.”
The former ambassador strongly refuted that notion that Sanders' convincing win in the global primary was a denunciation of Clinton’s time as Secretary of State by the US citizens most closely affected by US foreign policy.
“The demographic abroad changes very fast. The Democrats Abroad vote does not in any way reflect on her very widely acclaimed tenure as Secretary of State.”
More likely, she said, expat Americans had lost touch with the realities of politics in their homeland.
“Democrats living abroad are used to countries with universal health care and it makes them more aggressive about those kind of progressive policies. They are not in the US where they would have to face the difficulty of paying for it and getting it through a Republican controlled congress.”
The German connection
When foreign policy has played a role in the US primaries it has tended to involve the Middle and Far East. Europe’s allegiance tends to be taken for granted.
But left-wing opinion on foreign policy in Germany is a million miles from how your typical Democrat sees the world, said John Shreve, the Clinton supporter, who is also a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).
He talks of being in SPD meetings where he was the only person who thought that Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than NATO was at fault for the Ukraine conflict.
Anti-Americanism has been a fundamental part of left-wing German thought since he arrived in the country four decades ago, he said.
When it emerged in 2013 that the NSA had been eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone – and later that they had been using German intelligence to spy on European politicians – it confirmed for many that the US were more puppet master than friend.
Furthermore, it has rankled with some Germans that the US has applauded Germany on how it has opened its doors to refugees, while doing so little to help.
“We [Germany and the USA] are friends, we are close friends, our countries share so much in terms of trying to help each other, issues of national security and those NSA issues are being hotly debated in both our countries. Those events resulted in much more honest discussion,” Ambassador Bondurant assured.
“I know her [Clinton] well enough to know she will work very hard herself and through her emissaries to build a truthful, right image of the US as a strong friend to Germany.”
As for the refugee crisis “Secretary Clinton has a very open perspective… I know that she intends to try to make sure that we are keeping out terrorists while improving our ability to take in immigrants.”
Larry Sanders said that his brother’s image as “a genuine and honest politician” would help reduce global tensions.
“Bernard’s approach to the world in general is going to be much less interventionist. I think people in Germany, and in Europe in general, would be happy to see America being less interventionist.”
As for the refugee crisis “he has been very critical of the Obama administration on this issue, thinking they have done much less than they should do given the scale of the disaster and that America should be taking a lot more Syrian refugees for one.”