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On being a reluctant national spokesperson…

When you live abroad for even short periods of time, you will inevitably be asked to explain your country’s history, political system, race relations, etc etc.  If you come from a country that is in the news a lot, you will surely become a reluctant national spokesperson more often than you might like.  And while this can be annoying, it is also a very instructive way to learn more about your own country from the outside-in.  When you stay stateside, you are surely subjected to the 24-hour news cycle, but you rarely have to explain, in painstaking detail, how and why your country functions they way it does.  When you have to answer a simple question like, “why did your government shut down?” you immediately realize how much of your own country’s political process you really understand and how much of it is as much of a mystery to you as it is to a foreigner.
So I’ve come to Barcelona for a few months to escape the dreadful Berlin winter, and hopefully to secure a fellowship.  Ironically enough this is the same city I was in when the Iraq war first broke out in 2003, and I was in a similar situation back then–having to answer the questions of Europeans keen to know from an American what my country was up to.  Although I was never in favor of that war, I was deeply changed by experiencing directly how people on another continent were affected by the decisions of my government.  Had I been in the US at that time, I could have easily shrugged that war off as “not my war” or “I didn’t vote for him.”  But when you’re overseas, even if you don’t support your government’s policies, you have to answer for it.
Now, it is the government shut down and the looming debt ceiling crisis that is baffling my friends.  Sadly, explaining the war was somehow easier than trying to explain how the American government, what some call the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” can simply cease to function.  I have a BA, MA, and I’m working on my dissertation in political science and international relations.  I consider myself a political junkie.  Still, I’m struggling here.  It seems like no matter how I try to explain the government shut down, my European inquisitors are unsatisfied with the answer.  In many ways, I can’t blame them.  The situation is truly absurd, given the fact that in much of the rest of the world, such a situation simply cannot happen.
It is sad to say that although I got my BA in International Relations, I never really had a very good sense of other systems of government until I actually lived abroad and read the local news, talked to local people, and witnessed elections first-hand (I’ve witnessed two German elections, and I am eagerly awaiting the final coalition that will come out of the most recent election).  In my earlier post about a University of Georgia study that suggests that study abroad students get better grades than those that stay at home, I criticized this model of measuring the effects of studying abroad.  This is another example.  You can study for tests and pass them, get good grades and graduate with fancy Latin words after your name.  But none of that really demonstrates understanding.  Now, I don’t claim to completely understand the American government shut down or parliamentary systems of government for that matter.  But I can say that in parliamentary systems, the type of system that most of the world’s functioning governments use, if the government comes to such an impasse on budgetary matters, parliament is dissolved and new elections are called.  This way, the different visions of the budget are, in a way, put to a public referendum.  If that is how the American government worked, I’m fairly certain that the Republicans wouldn’t have risked this shut down (or any party), because they would probably be immediately voted out of power, rather than waiting for a year for the mid-term elections and hoping that our collective memory lapse will keep Republicans in power.
This is certainly not to suggest that we are the only dysfunctional government in the world.  Belgium famously went without a government for over a year a half, but they set up a provisional government that oversaw basic services. While many Americans were taught that our system of government is the best in the world, the envy of the world, living abroad teaches you that some of these patriotic national stories we tell ourselves are either hyperbolic or simple myths.  Of course, one can realize these things without ever stepping foot outside the US, but it is much easier to understand when you can see your own country from the outside-in.  Now I know that most the House Republicans probably don’t care much what people overseas think of them, but if they did, they might be less obstinate.  (They might also know that most of the rest of the developed world has comprehensive and government-sponsored health care, and after living in these countries, I can confidently say that the world has not ceased to exist at the hands of these programs.)  But at least in my experience, the most important thing about studying abroad LONG term is the development of perspective.  And to do so takes time.  One semester abroad or the standard 8 week program might be enough to instill some curiosity, but I just really don’t think it is enough to develop an appreciate for the complex politics of another country.  Imagine being a study abroad student coming to the United States for a semester.  Do you really think that would be enough time to understand the shut down?  Would you be there long enough to witness an election?  Students coming to the US have a bit of an advantage—they hear about the US a lot and read about it a lot.  So unless you’re an avid reader of Der Spiegel or Frankfurter Allgemein Zeitung before you study abroad, it is probably going to take a lot longer than 8 weeks to “get” local politics, let alone applying a foreigner’s perspective to your own government.
So the result of my colleague’s frequent questions about the state of American democracy?  I was finally compelled to do more research beyond what the press has been offering as standard explanations for all this.  Turns out, just like a parliamentary system can’t really “shut down” due to procedure, so to is the American shut down an effect of precedent and procedure.  The American system was never like this until the 1980’s, when Jimmy Carter’s Attorney General declared that that the only way a federal agency can avoid violating the law during financing lapses is to close down services until there is a budget again.  In other words, while the reasons for the current shut down have something vaguely to do with Obamacare, the ideology of the Tea Party which essentially anti-government which makes shutting down the government a rather easy thing to do, or something about austerity and reducing the deficit, the core of the problem is a procedural one.  That answer is not sexy or emotional, but from what I can tell the Congress could simply repeal or amend the Antideficiency Act, and we could go on like most of the rest of the developed world even in the absence of a budget bill.
To me, this is one of the most valuable things about studying abroad long-term, or living abroad semi-permanently: to actually experience how things can be done differently.  You can read about other systems of government or health care or social organization from text books, but it is an entirely different thing to actually experience these systems as they impact on your own life and your own well-being.  Sometimes these different ways or organizing turn out to be much better than what you’re used to back home, and other times it is much worse.  But without this experience, it is more difficult to see how change can be possible.  Without perspective, you’re likely to have the same argument over and over again, and this is what seems to be happening in the United States right now.

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