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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Roots of a Dysfunctional Democracy

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.


Blaze said...

When I visit the US and listen to some of the discussions and comments, I feel like an alien from another planet.

When I see the sign in the Post Office telling aliens to register, I think it's directed at me personally. I always breath a sigh of relief when I drive under the Canadian flag at the top of the Peace Bridge.

I can't even imagine the culture shock for people from other places around the world visiting or returning to US.

bubblebustin said...

Thanks for the recommends, I'll have a listen. And for you, here's a verse I created to put to Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" tune:

All those worldy Americans
They put them in OVD
And many had to renounce
Just to be free

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got til it's gone?

Tim said...

A couple of comments:

1. First European and especially French views of the US and its political system tend to be very biased towards "high" institutions of American government i.e. the Treasury Dept, the IRS, the Executive Branch, the Federal Reserve(especially the Federal Reserve Bank of New York). On the other hand more local "grassroots" institutions like state and local governments, American political parties, the lobbying groups etc are very mistrusted by the Parisian elite.
2. Both the US and Canada have a much more decentralized system of government than France. France has a very common idea of what it means to be French throughout. I would argue this is far less true in the US and Canada(especially Quebec).
3. Some European countries are quite screwed up like Belgium and Cyprus. The difference is in the minds of most Frenchmen these countries are not seen as particularily important to the global economy in the way the US is(Also the conflicts in Belgium and Cyprus tend to ethnic in nature not ideological) . Again this circles back to point number 1. The French elite and even the French man and woman on the street have a certain amount of respect for "high" institutions of American governance that most actually Americans have long ago lost.
4. Some of the more "lower level" institutions of American governance are not quite as screwed up as the Federal Government is. Many state and local government, nonprofits etc. have done fairly well for themselves vis a vis their French counterparts. I do think though one you get lower down in the political hierachy it seems to be easy to come to political agreement. For example for many years both Republicans and Democrats in Massachusetts supported the concept of Universal healthcare system similar to what exists in Switzerland and Singapore(Not like though what exists in Canada). At the national level though this very same subject continues to have significant controversy. Interestingly enough though until Obamacare many other liberal states such as Washington State, California etc choose not to follow in MA's footsteps.
5. The world is becoming is a more clustered and spiky place. It is harder for more "traditional" geographic entities such as countries and State/Provinces to keep political unity. Some like France have such as a strong political culture they are able to swim against the current but for others it is more difficult.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

"The French elite and even the French man and woman on the street have a certain amount of respect for "high" institutions of American governance that most actually Americans have long ago lost."

Have to disagree with you there, Tim. Two things: Iraq war where the US bungled it beyond the wildest dreams of the French (I mean they did think it would go badly but they were pretty horrified by just how badly it went) and the debt crisis where they seemed perfectly OK with tanking THEIR OWN COUNTRY in the name of some larger purpose.

For all the occasional outbursts of anit-americanism in France, there was an underlying sense that, OK, they are grown-ups and surely they have a strong enough sense of responsibility to not destroy themselves or do serious harm to the world.

Wow, did that turn out to be wishful thinking.

There has always been nervousness about American power. There have always been suggestions about countering it or lessening dependence on it. And there are efforts to do so which I think are moving forward quietly and completely under the radar of most Americans. This is likely to accelerate. If there is another dance in the next few months believe me the Chinese will be more than happy to lead everyone in another direction.

Tim said...

These are just some personal insight's of mine but here is a go:

1. I am not sure many average Americans really care anymore about being a "global superpower." After Iraq and Afghanistan I think the sentiment on both the right and left is to bring the boys and girls home.

2. In the last five years the US plus Canada have become a lot more energy independent. Oil Refineries in Washington State now export jet fuel to China on a regular basis. The head of nuclear power in France on a recent trip to see several new nuclear power plants under construction in the US stated that the US was fast catching up with France which for the past 20 years or so has more or less been considered to be the leader in nuclear power. Yes, there are very real environmental and safety controversies over these changes but I think a majority of Americans right and left are quite happy to see a lessening of dependence on Middle Eastern energy.
3. Once upon a time when Jacques Chirac was president of France France itself along with the other core EU nations were talked about as being the next global superpower. Under Sarkozy and Hollande(two wretchedly bad leaders I would rather have Michelle Bachmann as president than those two) France seems to have shift to a much more deferential position to the US than under Chirac.

4. Speaking as an Economics Major in College, if and this is a big if the US were to start running trade surpluses instead of trade deficits it would actually cause major problems for the world economy(Generally a reserve currency issuer has to run trade deficits). Essentially the US Dollars in circulation outside the US would start to flow home and monetary base of the world economy would shrink. Politically in the US once you started running trade surpluses political sentiment would start to run highly in favor of continuing to do so. So the world would have to find another reserve currency and fast.

Now the possibility of the above happening is still quite slim but a lot depends the energy import situation(see point #1). Oil and petroleum products is still the number one US import if that changes though I could have dramatic consequences for the global economy.

Michael Putman said...

When I left a decade ago, I stopped watching U.S. tee-vee 'news' and even stopped reading the papers. I have been reading US news via Canadian, British, and German journalism, primarily. All of this helped me immensely in overcoming parochialism and (US) propaganda, and starting to see the world through a different lens.

Now as an ex-American, I could potentially contribute to the US national discussion with differently informed insights as you said in your post--but the irony is that nowadays I just wouldn't care to. I spend far more time explaining the states to my fellow Canadians, if anything.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Michael, I find it very funny that the only US news program that my daughters (raised in France)ever watched was The Daily Show. Yep, that's where they got most of their info about America's politics. :-)

Michael Putman said...

Don't forget the Onion.

Just Me said...

Glad you enjoyed the podcast and it stimulated some conversation. I sent it to a friend who is very much on the opposite side of the equation from me in debates, and not sure that it resonated with him as much as it did with me. I liked it, and thanks for prompting me to watch the Ted Talks. I haven't done that yet.

Just Me said...

BTW... I just watched the video. Very thought provoking. I guess I better understand why I hate ideological "certainty", but had not thought about it in those terms.

Think I will be passing this Ted video along.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

The Onion?

Marvin, Haidt is a very compelling speaker but I wondered just how serious and influential his research was. Apparently quite serious indeed since I am now seeing his work being cited in some serious scholarly works.

And, now that I think about it, that entire paragraph I just wrote reeks of a certain bias. Accckkkk!

OK, here's my rule of thumb. Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) in the City of Man is to be doubted. :-)

Michael Putman said...

America's finest news source, of course!

Anyway, great blog. Have you finally gotten French citizenship yet? I was at first in Germany for a brief while before I decided that Canada was going to be far more 'doable' for a number of reasons, so I am always interested to hear from people who have succeeded in settling in Europe.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Just went down to the Prefecture last week to get the latest list of documents I need. Would you believe there is a French test in there? :-)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

And I will check out The Onion. Merci.