Monday, June 6, 2011

Explaining US politics to foreigners

At our last BBQ, I was talking about how strange things seemed to be in my original country, the US. I mentioned that the entire idea of middle-class people marching in the street, demanding tax cuts for the rich and the right to be denied health care was a bit mind-boggling to me and my neighbor asked "are these people stupid?"

Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol

Photo by Fibonacci Blue

My flippant response would be "well, duh!", but I couldn't actually do that here. In the US, when many people discuss politics, they're often talking to friends or people with similar cultural backgrounds and it's easy to be dismissive of other people's points of view. Since I've moved to Europe, I have found myself, in the past few years, trying to paint a more balanced view, albeit one which is naturally colored by my personal perceptions.

This isn't always an easy thing to do and it forces a reevaluation of many things. Most importantly, it's done a great job of reinforcing my view that the Democrats are just as bad for the US as the Republicans. When you have a country run by a "tax and spend" party versus a "tax cut and spend" party, things are pretty seriously messed up.

I didn't need to explain basic economics to my neighbor, but I did have to explain how the US corporate-driven media, manages to have a significant filtering effect on what information people are likely to be exposed to and few people (not just Americans!) are interested in digging down beyond their own personal beliefs into the data. If they do, they often don't get beyond confirmation bias. As a result, it's hard to call people "stupid" when they are spoonfed a particular point of view for years on end.

The book Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media, is published before the days of the dominance of Fox News, but the clear, understandable way the authors (both journalists) explain how media is distorted go a long way to explaining many of the current political woes in the US. I strongly recommend that you buy this book, check it out of your local library or borrow it from a friend. You'll never look at media the same way again.

Update: and don't even get me started on our gun laws. I support the second amendment, generally, which shocks the hell out of a lot of Europeans. Trying to explain the culture behind it and the controversy behind the "well-regulated militia" part is a nightmare.