In the last few weeks, several people have asked my opinion about how current social and political moment in the US looks to me as an American living abroad. Here are some thoughts and observations.
I grew up in Colorado and lived there until three years ago, when I moved to Kyiv, Ukraine. I came for an adventurous life change, to grow as a person while learning about a culture I knew very little about.
While living here, I’ve developed close friendships and collaborations while working on an original music project and contributing to a tech startup as a UX writer. Most of my conversations and interactions are with young, educated, internationally-minded people.
How I saw America before
Growing up in America, I knew our country was important in the world, but I didn’t know what people in other countries thought about our government and people.
When I was a teenager, I was embarrassed about America’s power. We were at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, what seemed the latest in a long history of meddling in other countries’ affairs. I was uncomfortable with the way our consumption-fuelled economy contributed to climate change, environmental degradation and sweatshop conditions in developing countries.
Before I moved abroad, I didn’t think much about the positive aspects of American power and culture on the world stage. I never knew how much people value and respect our exports of culture, expertise and the ideals of democracy.
I never knew that people in other countries know so much more about America than Americans know about other countries. America’s media exports show American life to the world while mostly showing Americans their own country. This creates a kind of one-way mirror, an American myopia.
A view from abroad
The current political and social turmoil in America is troubling to many people I speak with. They see a strong America as broadly good for the world.
However, the problems we’re facing are all too familiar to them. In Ukraine, they’ve had no shortage of corrupt politicians who do everything they can to keep their power, including lying and using the country’s institutions to maintain it.
As they speak, I hear recognition and empathy. They’ve been through this, but they thought America was above this kind of disfunction. They idealized America, with its promise of a better life, its inevitable democracy and march toward expanded rights and prosperity around the world. Now, it seems that America, while still exceptional, is exposed to the same human flaws that lead to dangerous, unstable situations everywhere.
They are hopeful that this moment will resolve peacefully, in a way that protects the world that America has helped build. Yet it no longer seems certain. Now it’s clear that democracy cannot be taken for granted. It needs constant attention and nurturing, protection from those who would rather gather and hold power at all costs.
My view of democracy
When I talk to my Ukranian friends about this election, I tell them that I believe in our democracy. I tell them about my experience engaging in it: how I lobbied my congressional delegation, using discourse and building relationships to push for legislation on climate change. I tell them about how the citizens of my hometown voted to form their own municipal power company after the state-sanctioned company refused to meet the city’s goals for using renewable energy.
Even now the American democratic system still has promise and power, and I hope it can heal what is stressed and broken now. I hope we will continue to expand access to our democracy and ensure that everyone can use their voice if they choose to.
Recent years have shown us that this system isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly not inevitable. It takes constant work to protect it, to spread the values of truth, respect and communication that allow it to function. It takes strong, fair frameworks and passionate people using their voices to improve the institutions and create change within them.
While many Ukrainians I talk to believe in a better future, many are frustrated with the ineffectiveness they see in their own political system. I remind them to look for the ways they can use their voice. As Ukraine showed during 2014 Euromaidan revolution People always have a voice, even in the worst situations.
Regardless of what happens in the US elections on Tuesday, I hope we can remember to use our voices wisely, to communicate, to seek justice, to pursue truth. The work of creating democracy is never finished. We’ll need everyone’s voice and continuous contribution to ensure that it continues.