This September, I was one of the thousands of 18-year-olds piling up all their earthly possessions and moving into university. In my case, however, the process of sorting painfully through mountains of junk happened not in the dorm room -- as happened to many freshmen when it became apparent that no first-year accommodation could fit three chairs and a beanbag in it -- but rather on a blustery London morning, when I compressed nearly two decades of accumulated stuff into two airline-spec suitcases. It was for the best that I had little to worry about in the unpacking department when I arrived at Stanford University from the UK, too. The car salesperson's references to the 'trunk' capacity of the 'sedan' we were renting was enough to throw me off my cultural balance. Entertaining mix-ups over 'pants' and trousers and 'coupe' being something you drive rather than keep chickens in instilled in me that quintessentially British fear of attempting 'humor' and turning a previously smiling American face completely blank.
What was more a shock than the cultural transition, though, was my first evening watching U.S. news. In the UK, the BBC announced things that have happened in the world over the course of the day. In America, Fox News spent nearly half an hour laying into the President, and ran parallel to MSNBC, which spent nearly the exact same period laying into John Boehner. What happened that day seemed to be somewhat secondary to who might be to blame.
The U.S.'s right-leaning political median became rapidly apparent, too: both British parties support abortion and gay marriage, and social issues feature significantly less in political discourse as a result. In America, these debates, which I thought had been put to rest in my childhood, were still very much alive. I thought I was right-wing in the UK -- after all, I support the British Conservative Party -- but the British Conservative platform includes policies like single-payer healthcare, a ban on guns, and a 45 percent tax rate on people earning over $250,000. In fact, I'd guess most red-state Democrats run to the right of our right-wing party (I dread to think what would happen if the UK's left-wing Labour Party proposed its price freezes, wealth taxes and rent control in the States). The ideological opposition so many hold to any policy change on gun control, economic policy or healthcare seems especially bizarre to someone not brought up in a culture like America's, where potential discord with the Constitution counts as a reason never even to consider an idea, despite the merits of the idea itself.
Of course, at the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford is hardly in grassroots Tea Party territory. In fact, life here constitutes an odd dichotomy between a conservative country and a super-liberal campus that now wants Stanford to divest from all fossil fuel companies. It's refreshing to see activist issues on campus like sexual assault discussed so powerfully amongst people who genuinely care about reform, and the diversity of backgrounds from which people come has led to some fascinating conversations over perspectives I had never previously considered.
However, the unrelenting liberalism here, and in other parts of the US, has its downsides. It probably isn't productive for people to roll their eyes intuitively whenever a conservative comes on TV, when a significant proportion of the country agrees with those sorts of views. Driving a wedge between political ideologies backfires when the people you ostracize feel cut out and move further away from the centre than before.
This lack of openness to others' opinions also risks making people's own beliefs less nuanced and rounded. Most noticeably, almost everyone I talk to on campus, and a lot of online commentators, think single-payer healthcare is a policy panacea, when my own experience with Britain's National Health Service suggests the need for a more considered debate on the costs and benefits of total nationalisation -- where consolidation becomes a political football and sick patients are made to wait in ambulances to massage statistics -- rather than unconditional embracement. The polarization of U.S. media, and the decline in American open-mindedness caused by that polarization, makes sophisticated policy discussion and political consensus much harder.
The passion Americans have for politics, even when so many express disillusion, is empowering for someone whose country tends to remain ideologically silent and express its preferences twice a decade at the ballot box and no more than that. Crucially, though, that passion works best not when it turns a community into an echo chamber, demonizes the opposition, polarizes regions or slows policy solutions, but rather when it gets people engaging in fruitful discussion on issues that matter. It's wonderful to see people with a genuine interest in making their country a better place, but policy can only move forward when people are willing to engage in dialogue with others, and use that discussion to make better decisions.