Contributed by Grant Goettel. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
I am sure that I could get a similar experience in the United States, but against the backdrop of Serbia’s recent history, and its current bid for EU membership, the current times seem to matter a whole lot more here. With democracy only a couple of decades old, there is much more opportunity and need for positive political change. If elections go poorly in the US, most people’s day-to-day lives are not going to be fundamentally changed, and that has been true more or less for the last thirty or forty years. In Serbia today, voting for a more pro-Europe government might make EU integration faster, which in the case of one of my coworkers at the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence will fundamentally change his life. He will be able to get to America much easier to see his brother, who has been living in the States for ten years. His dad even went to the American Embassy with all of the proper paperwork to get a visa just for a vacation to the USA to see his son, but it was turned down. EU membership would be a huge step towards visa-free travel and the ability to see his son. Without trying to boil down such a complicated topic as possible EU membership to just visa-free travel, issues like that are much less common for US citizens, so the urgency is not really there.
Working at my company, I have seen opportunities for fundamental change in government in a way I did not expect. So many issues get politicized in America to the point that most of the big hot button issues will not affect my life, to the point that the role of government seems almost trivial. So many social issues no doubt carry importance to a lot of people, as they rightfully should, but debates over education reform, economic policy beyond “we should have high taxes” or “we should lower taxes”, or other issues important to the entire country, happen an absolutely tiny amount compared to debates over many trivial issues (like the Kim Davis case) that affect such a small portion of the population, but easily drum up media attention and partisan support. Basically, the discussions I see about politics have become a zero-sum game in America. Every topic has a winner (one political party) or a loser (the other). The issue of Common Core education in North Carolina, for instance, should not be a party-line issue, but somehow has turned into one. Here, though, as the people I have talked with are removed from the party system but still are exposed to many of the issues debated, the topic revolves around finding the best policy solely because of the merits of that policy, compared to America where party ideology determines the opinions on that certain policy. The same is true to a less extent of the politicians in America. The worst part about this system is that there is no imminent path to change.
I only stepped back and thought about this problem in America when a coworker of mine complained about how awful this is in Serbia. Again, in Serbia, this matters much, with the tone of political discussion still being set as the country’s political setup matures. I hear this complaint in America, but it is often mentioned only briefly in passing. But at my company, the dialogue feels much more relevant to life for everyone.
Now, comparing the dialogue in everyday life and on social media in America to the dialogue I have had at my political organization in Serbia is obviously not a fair comparison, and I only use that comparison to show the difference in my experience here. In the USA, I am sure that a similar discussion is happening somewhere (just definitely not through political Facebook posts), and my coworkers have complained about the dialogue amongst other Serbians in much the same way I just complained about the dialogue I see in the USA. At the same time, looking at both Serbian politics and American politics from a Serbian point of view has given me a totally different perspective. Many issues in America can have at least a similar impact on our lives as that of the path to EU integration to Serbians, but the dialogue surrounding those issues has to change. It has been amazing what I have learned about the United States just by coming to Serbia.