Before I moved to Germany in May 2002, I was a lifelong Republican. I came from a family of political conservatives. I participated in Young Republican activities in high school and college. As soon as I turned 18, I registered as a member of the Republican Party of Virginia. I voted for Bob Dole over Clinton in the 1996 US Presidential election. I voted for George Bush over Al Gore in the 2000 election. But by 2004, I had left the Republican party, registered as independent, and began my journey towards becoming an extreme left wing liberal (at least by US standards), or as one Facebook quiz put my political views, “Practically in Marx’s backyard.” How did this happen?
First, I should probably start by saying I wasn’t the “stereotypical” Republican, many Republicans are, in fact, not “stereotypical”, to be fair. My beliefs mainly boiled down to “Less Federal Government is Better.” I thought most government belonged on a local level and the federal government should only be responsible for things that absolutely had to be done on a national level, like safety standards and the military.
I thought local jurisdictions could better decide how money needed to be distributed and would have better insight into the unique problems they faced. I felt taxes should mostly be local. As a resident of rich northern Virginia, I resented seeing the beautiful, wide roads in Richmond paid for by my parent’s and neighbors taxes, while the northern Virginia roads were (and still are) woefully inadequate.
However, I was also socially liberal. I believed in gay rights, gay marriage, and was pro-choice. I was also pro-gun rights. If you wanted to have a gun, as long as you didn’t use it to commit crimes, you should be allowed to. I thought the government had no business interfering in the private lives of its citizens. This was part of the whole, smaller, less intrusive federal government idea.
I disagreed with government-sponsored social programs to support the poor, mainly because I thought they just threw money at the issue without looking at the root problems. While I wanted to end welfare and medicaid type programs, I also thought every American had a personal responsibility to look after the less fortunate. I felt Americans should donate what they could (not just what they wanted to) to well-run local, national, and international charities. This included donating time. I participated in countless fundraisers in high school and tutored underprivileged children. I helped collect food and deliver Thanksgiving meals and Christmas presents to poor families in the area. In college, I joined a service fraternity, APO, where I regularly volunteered around 300 hours a year of community service.
I had plenty of liberal friends in college, but I stood firm in my beliefs, I was not to be swayed. So what happened? How did Germany change all that?
When I moved to Germany, I found a job with a company located in one of the poorer, predominantly Turkish sections of Berlin. I wanted to get an apartment in the neighborhood, since rents were super low and we could get a nice apartment then, but my husband refused to even consider it. He thought it wasn’t safe. By American standards, it was not in any way a dangerous neighborhood.
In Richmond, while in my freshman year in college, a corner a block from my dorm was said to be the spot with the most drive-by shootings in the United States the previous year. We’d dare each other to stand on the corner for five minutes at a time. Later, I lived in the nearby Oregon Hill neighborhood, where unemployment was sky high and alcoholism and social problems were rampant. Hearing gun shots wasn’t unusual and we had homeless living behind our house. If I left the math department after dark, I would call campus security to drive me the five blocks home. Berlin-Wedding seemed like a paradise in comparison.
We lived in Berlin-Mitte, the center of Berlin, and I felt completely safe walking around Berlin, alone, at 3am.
I think that’s how it all started. I realized the strict gun control and social programs of Germany were the reason for the safe streets. I also, from the beginning, saw through all the WMD crap the Bush administration was feeding the public to get Americans to support the invasion of Iraq. I knew they just wanted to invade Iraq, and out of the three “Axis of Evil” countries, Iraq would be the easiest to invade and was, in fact, the least likely of the three to actually be a threat. This soured me to the Bush administration and helped me choose to vote for Kerry in 2004.
In Potsdam, we lived in a neighborhood located next to a large government housing complex. I ended up joining a large dog walking group made up entirely of unemployed, welfare recipients. They were the ones who had the time to take their dogs on a two hour walk every day through the local woods. While the upper-middle class Germans in our neighborhood looked down on me (for being foreign) and occasionally gave me a hard time, my dog walking buddies and their friends were completely accepting.
I saw they weren’t just sitting on their butts collecting a check. Their children were studying hard, in college, some were doctors, another an engineer. They just had the bad luck of having been residents of the former East Germany and didn’t have up-to-date skills to allow them to find a job in the new Germany. The social system was working for their families. Their children were or would soon be highly contributing members of society. Sure, there were families where the children were not doing as well, but I didn’t see that as a failure of the system, more just the nature of human beings. I saw that the hard-working, down-on-their-luck people should not be penalized because of a few people who were happy to take advantage of the system.
All my arguments against social programs were defeated. I saw that government programs could be successful on a federal level. Maybe they aren’t all successful in the US, but that doesn’t mean we should just give up on them. I hear Americans say all the time, “Well, the idea is great, but our government is too corrupt to implement it.” Okay, so we should just give up and not try? What about trying to have the social systems and fighting the corruption instead of just accepting it as an inevitable part of the system?
I also felt that the free market would correct problems, so deregulation of industries was needed. However, as I got older and time went by, I realized that leaving problems to be solved by the free market assumes that consumers force corporations to comply to certain ethical standards or that the stockholders and board members make choices based not solely on profits, but on moral values as well. Unfortunately, the bottom line seems to win out most of the time. The majority of consumers want the best products and services for the cheapest prices, so of course jobs need to leave the US to find a cheaper workforce elsewhere. Stockholders want high profits. It’s not enough to make A profit every year, a company needs to make larger and larger profits. In order to achieve lower prices and higher profits, corners need to be cut somewhere. This has proven, to me, over time to not usually be in favor of the American public. I guess this part wasn’t affected by move to Germany, however.
Taxes are higher here, but I don’t see anyone suffering under too high taxes. Plus I don’t think taxes are really that much higher when you factor in the cost of health insurance in the US and the cost of college tuition there (college tuition is paid for by taxes here, students only pay fees).
So that’s where I stand now. I am fully behind implementing a strong social system in the US, and I think it can be done. We just need to cut a LOT of the fat in government. I like the idea of candidates getting tax money for campaigning and cutting out donations by corporations, interest groups, and individuals completely. I want earmark reform. I think these things would clean up a lot of unneeded spending and give America the ability to pay down the debt AND have strong social programs that support the needy.
Has living or traveling abroad changed any of your political beliefs? (I’m a little curious to see if any of my German or European readers have become more conservative upon traveling to the US too!)