Having lived almost 15 years of my professional life overseas – half in Europe and half in the Pacific and Asia – I always wonder what people there are thinking about America and Americans, especially based on what they are getting from the media.
While foreign audiences have traditionally been mostly critical of American influences, they also know we are the center for many, positive political, ideological, scientific, technological and economic ideas. However, despite our traditional societal transparency, most foreigners really don't know much about us. Here are some examples.
Most foreigners from democratic countries have parliamentary forms of government, so there isn't the drama of a "divided" government such as we have most of the time. Historically, it's the way we chose to limit the power of our central government. As such, Washington D.C. is definitely not the center of all American political influence, despite what people who live and work there might think.
As a former speaker of our House of Representatives said, "all politics is local," and surprisingly few Americans in the rest of our large country care much about what goes on in Washington, with the possible exception of the scandals. In short, Washington politics are mostly an embarrassment to most Americans.
Washington D.C. is a "government town" and always has been, so most everyone here is connected – in one way or another – to what the government is doing and how it spends money. So naturally, people think that whatever goes on here is really important. Likewise, Washington is a town of "causes" – every one of them you could ever imagine, pro and con (and many more you can't imagine) is here and they all are trying to influence the special interest politics that affect them. It's everyone talking at once.
America is huge geographically; this is the uniform reaction of foreign visitors from most countries – keep in mind that their countries are often much smaller than one of our smaller states, and the very idea that one can drive thousands of miles, all across America, and never encounter a border boggles the mind of most foreign visitors. It's the one thing you hear from most visitors here.
Politically, America is – especially compared to other democracies in the world – a rather conservative place, preferring the private sector to the public sector in most activities and industries. Some examples – which would perhaps surprise both Americans and democratic foreigners – are telecommunications, oil and gas distribution and rail transportation. Here, most everything that can be commercialized is, while overseas many more infrastructure activities are state owned and operated.
Our latest experiment in health care insurance is a living proof example of how different we are from, say, European nations, which mostly have state run or managed health care systems. The closest thing we have to a European health care system is Medicare, a single payer system for most people over 65. However, our new "Obamacare" system attempts to use our existing private health insurance carriers (regulated by our individual states) to require everyone to pay for health insurance - except those who can't pay and will be subsidized by those who can.
While actuarially such an approach might be able to sustain itself, that depends largely on the contributions of younger, healthy people who will pay in but have fewer claims – and premiums will be based largely on how much money is needed to pay subsidized claims rather than the individual health of those paying into the system.
Also, if a young, healthy, fully employed person – for example - decides he doesn't want to pay for health insurance, he will be penalized an amount roughly equal to the part of their premium that would have gone to the subsidy for people who can't pay their premiums.
This is the part of our new system that will no doubt have the most grassroots political reaction throughout the country. In most of the rest of the democratic world, people simply pay taxes to fund their health care, which is largely subsidized by the government, and administered through a system of state run or regulated providers – and called "socialized medicine" by critics.
Despite the fact that America is a center-right country with small and very vocal factions on each end of the political spectrum, a foreigner could never conclude that by reading, listening to or watching our so-called "mainstream media." For a number of reasons and political agendas, our media – whether witting or not – seem most always to tell the story from the political perspective of the left or left of center. And, over the last decade or so, this tendency has gotten more and more pronounced, to the extent that even the state-run European and Asian news agencies have a refreshingly neutral sound about them.
And, of course, we allow most anybody to broadcast their state-run "public diplomacy" here, the content of which is uniformly critical of the United States, often using American commentators who simulate great wisdom, but who nevertheless stay on their anti-U.S. message. Just watch the commentary on "RT," the Russian channel, for example.
In sum, a foreigner will never get a true picture of America or life here unless they actually come here and see it for themselves. Then, they will learn how very little Washington affects our everyday lives – unless they live in Washington. They will also marvel at our size, the major differences between our infrastructures, how opinionated our media has become and how very controversial "social legislation" is in America.
Last, foreigners will be amazed at how much state sponsored propaganda we allow to be broadcast here – such is perhaps the true measure of our Constitutional form of government and commitment to freedom of speech.
Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.