Saturday, July 31, 2010

Does expatriate experience change politics?

balance-scale Isabella posted her Dutch Top 20 over at A Touch of Dutch this week, her list of  interesting observations on her expat experience.  It’s a good set: I had no idea that the Dutch write their number ‘8’ different than we do.

I was particularly intrigued by her answer number 13: “Since you've lived in the Netherlands, have you changed your political views?

I would have answered that life abroad made me more liberal, but Isabella gives a thoughtful reflection on how her politics became more international: understanding the differences among cultures and how these differences aren’t necessarily good or bad.  I thought a lot about that today, and both agree and disagree with her insights.

At the outset, I should say I’m generally center-left politically. Liberal, not ‘progressive’, I came of age in late 60s social idealism, and was an early believer in environmental protection and social equality.  Strident conservatives ran me over a few times (memorably, Rep Phil Crane from Illinois excoriated me in a public forum when I was 17 for asking about an Alaska Wilderness bill), and I’ve never had much patience for religious conservatives and libertarian free-market types.

And living abroad has further grown my thinking.

There’s no question, as Isabella writes, that my expat experience has broadened my international outlook.

Exposure to varied ideas, customs, viewpoints, foods, parenting, and languages changes how I see, interpret, and judge others. I'm more accepting, less judgmental, more flexible, and more accommodating of divergent views. I have direct experience with alternative policies, like European Health Care systems, that I previously only knew from second-hand reports. There’s also perspective that comes with distance: I struggle more with the provincial stereotypes that still populate US media and discourse.

However, there’s still another aspect of living overseas that pushes me towards being more liberal.

US conservatism resists government meddling through social policy.  But I’ve now lived in societies where governments do intervene, experimenting with alternative policies to drugs, health care, bank bailouts, or free speech. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but they learn and change.

And the world doesn’t end when a government policy doesn’t work, as Bill O'Reilly would have us believe in his famous video about the Dutch.

So, expat life has made me both more international in the cross-culturally accommodating way that Isabella describes, and more liberal in accepting that responsible government can have a role in setting policy to improve the common good. 

I agree with her, as well, that awareness of this effect has to govern repatriation choices.  I had this conversation with friends last night who were considering moving to Texas after decades overseas.  They concede it may need to be a two-step process with a stop at a more diverse waystation along the central east coast before diving into a very self-referential state like Texas.

No comments: