Thanks to several exchange programs, every year I have the opportunity to speak with dozens of journalists and professors from around the world who tour the United States to “increase mutual understanding, ” as the U.S. State Department’s “International Visitor Program” puts it.
This week it was two Indonesian professors. Before them, it was a Japanese professor, a group of Middle Eastern journalists, a delegation from Latin America. In the past five years, I have met with people from every continent (except Antarctica).
My job in these meetings is to answer their questions about U.S. media and politics, but the exchanges are truly mutual; I learn a lot about their countries. The most important lesson I have learned from these visitors, however, is about the United States and the crisis in our political system.
Every person with whom I have talked in these exchanges — and I mean literally every single one, whether from Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia, or Australia — has made the same two observations about U.S. society. They all were surprised to discover:
* how far to the right the political spectrum is skewed, and;
* how depoliticized the entire society is.
Most of these visitors follow U.S. politics and have watched the steady rightward shift, especially since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But when they travel in the United States, they develop a better understanding of this country’s increasingly reactionary politics. Few of these people are leftists themselves; they’re simply struck by the narrowness of mainstream U.S. political dialogue.
A number of them have told me that there are especially surprised to see how right-leaning the mass media and universities are. When I tell them that there is a widely accepted assertion here — repeated constantly by people on the right — that journalism and the academy are hotbeds of liberalism and even radicalism, they laugh. At first they assume I am joking; in many cases, I am the first leftist they have met on the tour. Then they look puzzled. In a country with such well-established legal guarantees of freedom of expression and political participation, they ask, how can left-wing political positions — which they consider to be important even if they don’t hold them — be so absent from the mainstream public debate?
Given those freedoms, they also want to know why there is so little political engagement in everyday life. People don’t seem to talk politics very much, they report. Local television news is more concerned with accidents and human-interest stories than public policy. The professional journalists and academics they meet seem curiously detached from political life.
I tell these visitors that the conditions they observe are not accidental. Conservative political forces have used coercion and public relations to achieve these results. The 20th century in the United States is the story both of the steady expansion of freedom through the actions of popular movements, but also the use of state and private violence to crush radical movements and the development of sophisticated propaganda to mold a society in which people don’t see active political participation as relevant to their lives. The United States also is an affluent society, I point out, which makes it easy for many people to ignore the political arena. There is, of course, grassroots political organizing going on, but it is largely ignored in the dominant political culture.
The most interesting reaction to all this comes from people who live in societies that have recently thrown off authoritarian regimes or still live without much political freedom. “Americans seem very cavalier about politics,” one Middle Eastern journalist told me. “Perhaps if they lived without free speech for a few years they would use it more often.”
U.S. officials constantly trumpet the success of democracy here, and there is much to celebrate about the U.S. system. However, formal guarantees of freedom are a necessary but not sufficient condition for meaningful democracy, for a system in which people can not only choose between candidates but be part of building a world through direct engagement with public policy.
Especially since 9/11, the Bush administration has tried to use public relations to get the world to view us as the good guys. But we could profit more by paying attention to how others see us. The international visitors I speak with are not suggesting that the systems in their countries are perfect. They offer their observations with respect and, often, admiration for some aspects of U.S. society.
Americans typically are eager to pay attention to the compliments; we would be wise also to take heed of their critique.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of the forthcoming “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” (City Lights Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.