I recently read a blog post on Slate, the first in a series called “If It Happened There,” that reported on the government shutdown in the tone usually reserved for articles about events that occur abroad. It was sadly amusing and highlighted the irony of the concept of American exceptionalism in light of of our government’s recent antics. It also caused me to reflect on the reasons I’m lately much more interested in reading articles about what happened “here” than those about what happened “there.”
Throughout high school and college I studied international politics and had little interest in learning about my own government. My coworkers are often surprised to learn that I never watched a Democratic or Republican National Convention before last year, and I knew little about the structure and function of my own government while in school (my current line of work has an exclusively domestic focus and often intersects with politics). The reasoning behind my reluctance to learn about my own government was pretty simple: I thought it was corrupt and dysfunctional, and didn’t want to be a part of it. Not that governments in other states weren’t dysfunctional, but for some reason I was more interested (fascinated, even) to learn about dysfunctional governments abroad than the one at home.
Not much has changed since high school and college—I still think my government is corrupt and dysfunctional (the events of late make that eminently clear). However, it is because of this dysfunction that I am now focused on domestic policy rather than international policy. I know from living abroad that the best solutions to any problem have to come from those who are personally affected by it, and who have a vested interest in ensuring its successful resolution. This does not, for the most part, describe the members of the U.S. congress—if it did, the shutdown never would have happened.
A friend of mine, a journalist from Spain, recently returned home when his visa ran out. He quickly acquired a new visa to come back to the U.S. and arrived just as the government shutdown was beginning. Many people joke that they can’t understand why he would want to come back to the U.S. in its current state. However, I imagine that he is intrigued, perhaps even amused, by recent events. As an outsider, you have the luxury of observing phenomena such as the U.S. government shutdown much like you would observe a play. Compared to events happening at home, you can analyze and comprehend them with a greater degree of clarity because they don’t generally affect you as directly. Just as it’s easier to recognize another person’s character flaws than it is to confront your own shortcomings, it can be tempting to focus on a crisis occurring “over there” rather than a the events unfolding right in your own backyard.
Obstructionists in congress know that their actions are hurting people, but only on an abstract level. Moreover, it is much more appealing for them to ignore the facts—like the polls showing that 70% of Americans disapprove of the GOP’s actions, or the news that millions of Americans visited the “Obamacare” health exchange websites despite the shutdown—than it would be to admit guilt and change course. It sure doesn’t look like they plan to face reality any time soon.