Fed Up With Politics, She Left The U.S. 20 Years Ago. Has Anything Changed?

Johnny Nguyen 06:05

When the Supreme Court handed George W. Bush the White House, Jennifer Berdahl knew democracy was broken.

Twenty years ago, Jennifer Berdahl was on the tenure track at the University of California-Berkeley when she lost faith in the democratic process in the United States.

Back then, the presidential election was too close to call. Florida’s vote was in question. Talk of hanging chads was inescapable. George W. Bush had a slight edge, Al Gore wanted a recount. The case Bush v. Gore made its way to the Supreme Court. And, along strictly partisan lines, the court’s five Republican-appointees stopped the recount and handed the election to Bush.

“That was the point at which I felt that the government was fundamentally broken,” recalls Berdahl, whose work focuses on the intersection of gender and power. She and her husband, also an academic, snagged positions at the University of Toronto and moved with their young daughter on July 4, 2001.

Now, teams of lawyers for President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are gearing up for another bruising fight. Trump has already said he believes the election will wind up at the court, and has fast-tracked a nomination to further cement a conservative majority. The scenario could end up “a wilder sequel to Bush v. Gore,” Paul Blumenthal wrote in HuffPost.

Berdahl, now 53-years-old with dual citizenship and teaching at the University of British Columbia, will be watching from home in Vancouver. HuffPost called her to check in on her decision to leave the country.

One of the indelible images of the haggling over the Florida vote count concerned "hanging chads" on some of the ballots. Her
One of the indelible images of the haggling over the Florida vote count concerned "hanging chads" on some of the ballots. Here, an election official in Broward County examines with a magnifying glass one of the disputed ballots.

What was it that disturbed you back in 2000?

The Supreme Court basically prevented democracy from being carried out. It effectively chose our president for us.

I lost faith in the court. I remember eighth-grade civics class, learning about the three branches of the government: You vote for your congressional representative, if you don’t like what they’re doing you can vote them out. You vote for your president, if you don’t like what they’re doing, you can vote them out.  

The Supreme Court is not supposed to be political. It’s supposed to interpret the laws. Of course people get appointed to the court and lean one way or the other.  The idea was they were interpreting the laws in good faith, according to the Constitution. 

When they stopped Florida’s recount and effectively said your votes don’t matter, there’s no recourse. We can’t replace [the justices]. We can’t vote them out. They are lifetime appointments. They are acting as a political body and they are intervening in political processes. 

That was the point at which I felt that the government was fundamentally broken. 

At the time I didn’t appreciate how racialized that was. I just knew votes weren’t counted. Turns out, a disproportionate amount of the votes that were not counted were votes by Black people. That is the history of our country, trying to disenfranchise Black voters. 

Maybe it opened your eyes to what Black Americans have long dealt with.

I guess you can call me a naive white girl who was like, it works, it’s fair. Up until that point. To some degree. I knew there was voter suppression. I had volunteered in Illinois in graduate school at the polls. My role was to observe. The neighborhood was mostly white. A white person would show up and say their name, maybe show one piece of ID. They’d be given a ballot and they’d go vote. A Black person would show up and they were asked for multiple pieces of ID. They were asked what their profession was. They were basically subjected to an inquisition.

So I knew already there were attempts to suppress certain people’s votes. But usually they ended up voting. I reported it to the party. I just didn’t think you could throw out thousands of ballots like the Supreme Court did.

Was Bush the president you wanted?

He wasn’t. I would’ve accepted him as president if the recount had shown that he had won by a democratic process. 

Have you been watching U.S. politics since you left?

I try to minimize it because it’s just so depressing and predictable at this point. Tuesday night’s debate was really depressing. It confirmed our choice. [Google searches for “how to apply for Canadian citizenship” also peaked that night.]

Did you watch the Trump election in 2016? 

Oh yeah, we had the bowls of popcorn ready. We were with our daughters, our young teenage daughters, ready to watch the first woman get elected president. We just thought it was a no-brainer. She had the majority vote. 

So, right now people are afraid of Bush v. Gore happening again. 

I think that’s a very realistic fear.

Seems like you did the right thing.

I’m really glad I did. I remember when I was little and you’d read things about people in other countries somewhere far away. And it would be like those people are crazy, what are they doing? Now the U.S. seems that way. It’s like what is the U.S. doing? How could it possibly be doing these things. 

The U.S. used to hold a lot of esteem in the world and it just doesn’t anymore. It’s almost like people feel pity for the U.S. People are worried for the U.S. It’s like this sad dying experiment that everyone is seeing as a tragedy. That makes me really sad.

What would you say to someone now who’s looking at the election and thinking they should follow in your footsteps?

I feel torn. On the one hand, I totally get it. And sure, people are welcome. Come to Canada. It might be best for your family. That’s what I concluded. 

But I don’t think ultimately it’s going to solve the problem. The kind of challenges we’re facing like climate change, these are global, collective problems that we’re going to have to fight somehow in unison. If everybody progressive evacuates the U.S. I don’t know what that would look like.

I don’t think that’s really the answer. I do think we need to try to fight if we can. Definitely vote. I’m still voting.

Berdahl, here with one her children, expresses no regret over her family's move. "The U.S. used to hold a lot of esteem in th
Berdahl, here with one her children, expresses no regret over her family's move. "The U.S. used to hold a lot of esteem in the world and it just doesn’t anymore," she says.

Do you regret leaving the U.S.? 

No. I am so glad that I’ve had the cross-cultural experience. That my children and my spouse and I have both citizenships and options. There’s lots of talk in my broader family that is American about leaving. 

With COVID-19, you guys did better up there than we’re doing.

In Canada, there’s just a lot more trust and faith in government. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where the U.S. has gotten where we just don’t trust the government. Everything is political in the U.S. 

In Canada there’s still faith in science and scientists. The health minister, who is empowered in each province, is leading the response and calling the shots. They are medical experts.

It would be like putting Dr. Anthony Fauci in charge of the U.S. response completely. And empowering him. 

Are there things you gained by leaving the U.S.?

There’s a lot. One of the first things you notice is universal health care. That completely changes the game. The worth of human life has been elevated for everyone in a country where it’s seen as a human right to get health care. There’s no question that you will get it. It’s a collective effort in making that happen.  It’s not an individual problem that you have a heart attack that you have to then pay for. Even a homeless person has health care. That changes the whole sort of feeling of humanity and togetherness and compassion. There’s kindness in the culture.   

Another one, of course relatedly, is guns. You don’t worry about sending your kids to school and thinking they’ll be shot up.  

Education is really different. There is a much stronger commitment to public education. All the universities are public. That also changes things. Instead of having this extreme hierarchy of universities, Ivy League or bust, they’re all good. Maybe none is as good as the very top 10 in the U.S., but none of them are really bad either. There’s excellence in all of them. And they’re affordable. The students that I’ve had [in Canada] are every bit as good as the students I had at Berkeley.

That’s so much more egalitarian.

Yeah. It’s much more egalitarian.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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