I get questions from time to time about the state of the American political system. Looking at it from outside the U.S., it really appears dysfunctional - an analysis often shared by many Americans in the homeland who are frustrared, angry and downright disgusted by the behaviour of the U.S. politicians. That lawmakers in the U.S. were willing to take the country to the brink of economic catastrophe is bad news - one would think that patriotism alone (something Americans are known for) would have set some limits on just how close to the edge lawmakers were willing to dance to make a political point. Apparently not. And that's frightening because if they are willing to destroy themselves, then what's to stop them from playing dice with the rest of the world? Which in a sense they already did because a failure of the U.S. economy would have serious consequences for other countries and their people.
What it looks like is here's this really paranoid guy (or gal) waving a gun and no one is sure whether he's just going to shoot himself or take out a few innocent bystanders before he does himself in.
(And I realize, having used the above analogy that some of my readers will say, "She's clearly a Democrat! Not only is she disrespecting her country but she believes in gun control!" Well, actually, no, I'm not. Furthermore, I'm perfectly comfortable around firearms provided that the person carrying one in my presence is sane and that his daddy (or mommy) taught him what he needed to know about gun safety and made it stick.)
I find that the longer I live abroad the less patience I have for homeland partisan politics. When Americans abroad meet each other, the Conservative/Progressive divide is not, in my experience, something we discuss much. Not only are these labels not particularly relevant outside of the national context but our numbers are so small and the the joy of meeting a compatriot is so great that picking a fight and taking a side over some homeland issue is the last thing on our minds. Really, what would be point of that? Of all the Americans abroad I know, unless they have shared in passing membership in Dems or Repubs abroad, I really couldn't tell you their political orientations in the homeland context.
I see three things that Americans abroad could bring to the homeland political landscape: distance which allows us to be concerned without becoming irrationally partisan, some idea of the opinions and concerns of the world outside the U.S. and a tendency to look first at what unites Americans and not at what divides us. Trust me, an American will never feel more American then when he or she is swimming in social, political and cultural waters outside the U.S. (My French friends abroad say the same thing about France.)
Distance, however, should not lead to a complete lack of empathy. I may not follow the US newspapers or delve too deeply into homeland debates that, frankly, don't seem particularly thoughful or productive, but there is a thin strand of something that stops me from not caring at all. I don't go looking for understanding what's happening in my home country but I'm willing to listen if someone clues me in to a serious reflective discussion.
Just Me passed this podcast along via email and I listened to it this morning. It's an interview with Jon Haidt who wrote a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided over Religion and Politics. I had never heard of this book before and have not read it. It was apparently a bestseller in the U.S. a few years ago and that fact that I am only now noticing it should tell you a lot about how little I know about the U.S. these days. But I enjoyed the interview so much that I watched his Ted talk as well. He has a very interesting take on just why the American political system is so messed up and why Americans in the homeland can no longer talk to each other without descending into ad hominem attacks.
Here's the Ted talk for your enjoyment this morning over your coffee. The talk is not entirely US-centric and he includes data from other countries as well. His point about cooperation decaying without punishment may be one pausible explanation for the complete lack of homeland interest in overseas Americans' tax issues. His proposal that people should "step out" from their personal moral matrix is something that I think many Americans abroad have done (not always willingly) which means we just might have something important to offer the homeland in national discussions. You want diversity of opinion, America? Try talking things over with some long-term U.S. expats from Canada, Germany, Nigeria, or Russia. Their take on things might surprise you.
Honestly I don't know if Haidt is right (though he is a very engaging speaker) but I think what he has to say is worth considering. Feel free to throw in your .02 in the comments section.