LONDON -- Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a guided tour of Parliament. The building is only open to non-UK residents during the Summer Opening, when Parliament is not in session and the Members are away from Westminster. We followed the same route through the building that the Queen takes each year during the State Opening of Parliament.
Not only did our tour guide give us information about the formal opening ceremony, but she mixed in a detailed account of how the government runs on a day-to-day basis as well. On the whole, it gave me an amazing chance to step inside history and gain a clearer understanding of how the UK government operates. The information I learned on the tour also helped to explain a trend that I had been observing in many of my conversations about politics.
I would guess that in the month that I have been here, I've had students ask me about who I am voting for in the November election about every week and a half. Each time the conversation runs about the same. They ask me who I'm voting for, and when I tell them I am not discussing it (a wise piece of advice given by the Study Abroad Office) they immediately begin a rant about their perspective on American politics.
On the whole I try to remain a silent and neutral observer. I find it is much more conducive for gaining their unfiltered opinion. Always, I am left marveling at their immense interest in American affairs, especially in comparison to my perception that Americans (as a whole) are highly uninterested in theirs. At times I even feel as if they might know more about American politics than I do ... a fact that makes me pause and reevaluate my cultural awareness.
Each time the speakers bring up the election, they begin with the declaration that they would vote for Obama. To them, President Bush has completely messed up the American government, and to vote for another Republican would be like asking for four more years of the exact same thing. Now I realize that many Americans share this viewpoint of linking John McCain to Bush (indeed it is one of Obama's slogans), but the European perspective goes further then this.
British people do not separate the person from the party. For them, McCain and Bush are both Republicans and therefore exactly the same. Upon visiting Parliament and hearing the tour guide's explanation, I came to understand the underlying reasons for the different political assumptions held by people here.
In the UK they have three major political parties, as well as many more minor ones. As a result, the parties are more fitting to the political beliefs of the representatives and there are less gray areas within each party.
But with only two major parties in America, moderates often work within the system and run under the party they lean closest to. In turn, this produces more gray areas that Americans understand as part of our two-party system.
I believe that based on their understanding of Parliament, the British form a stricter association between our politicians and parties than the average American does. It is understandable, since I doubt they frequently brush up on the American Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
Now that I have a better understanding of the British government, I feel that I have a firmer grasp of peoples' perceptions and the global image of American politics.
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