Why Are Expats More Liberal?

April 20, 2012 By: erik Category: Musings, Politics, Travel 787 views

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A Large Group of National FlagsI will never forget the feeling of terror and exhilaration I experienced when I first moved abroad as a twenty-year-old IAESTE exchange student to Copenhagen, Denmark. I was so far from everything I knew, and was thrust into a society that had its own way of doing things. There were weekly meetings of other exchange students in which I could converse with other young people from Argentina, Brazil, Ghana, Turkey, Norway, Thailand, Japan, France, Spain, Germany, Russia, Scotland and Greece. It was incredibly mind opening.

The biggest lesson I took away from meeting all these people from around the globe was two-fold:

My way is not necessarily the best way.


Cultures can be different without one being better than the other.

For one, I was in a country in which everyone over the age of five spoke perfect English, but they chose to speak a different language to each other. You mean my mother tongue isn’t the inherently superior human language? It sounds stupid in retrospect, but I remember thinking that.

Look again at those two ideas. They are both inherently Liberal ideas.

Over the years, I have noticed that I am almost always in political agreement with other expatriates that I meet. We generally hold similar values on the left-right political spectrum, both in financial and social issues. I always attributed this to the unavoidable epiphany brought on by immersion in a foreign culture. It necessarily shakes any conservative patriotism you have to the core.

Just recently, in the past couple years, I’ve been reading about the psychology of decision making and politics, and I think I may be mistaken about why expats tend to be more liberal. The positive correlation between voluntary emigration and Liberal values is still very strong, but I think I may have the causation backwards. It’s not that living abroad makes you liberal; it’s that having a liberal mindset makes you want to live abroad. People on the left end of the political and moral spectrum are much more open to having new experiences and hearing new, possibly conflicting, points of view. Conservatives are much happier with what they know. It’s even right there in the meaning of the two words: Liberals are for change and rocking the boat, and Conservatives are for maintaining the status quo.

Here’s a TED Talk on the subject:

I just sent off an absentee ballot today for a state primary. Just as it’s in the Conservatives’ interest to make same-day voter registration difficult, which tends to disenfranchise poor and minority voters (who will always vote Liberal), it would also be in their interest to stymy the ballots from non-military expats, although I suspect there aren’t enough of us for them to care…yet.

  • Bawa

    It is interesting. Yet, when there is a certain scale of immigration, number wise, apart from sticking together, they also tend to be a lot more conservative in ideas. I do not mean necessary vote that way, but in their outlook – its like hold one desperately to any idea you have of home, however distorted.

    • Yes, that is very true. I was referring to lone expats or groups from mixed countries. But if you come with a group, it would be very tempting – and very human – to set up a little Chinatown-like cocoon in your new country.

      Good point. Thanks, Bawa.

  • aquariumdrinker

    Sooo… the more anti-American a person is, the more likely that he or she will go live somewhere else. Makes sense.

    • What? I have been reading this over and over, and I don’t get it.

      • That’s called trolling. It’s a pretty good one, too.

        Think of it as what Stephen Colbert would say if he read this post.

        • aquariumdrinker

          He’s right – I meant no harm. If anything, I’m more anti-American than Erik is!

  • I think you’ve hit on something for sure. I don’t tend to be overwhelmingly liberal, but much more so than most people I grew up with. I think I’m just a crotchety old lady at heart — I disagree with anyone who gets too obnoxious about their beliefs, which may be counterproductive, but it’s my personality. Mario has seen this. Ahem.

    I also liked when you said you realized cultures can be different without one being better. It sounds like, “Well, duh,” but it’s one of those things that people tend to unconsciously not believe in. Like, of course our over-politeness in stores is the RIGHT way, when it’s just a way. I have to remind myself of this when Spaniards bump into me without the slightest hint of apology … haha.

  • Interesting observation.  I’d never thought about it, but you may be right.  In my case it’s true, I was a liberal long before I got here.

  • Anonymous

    This may be an excessively US-centrc observation, but I wonder to what degree isolation from the indoctrination which seems so prevalent in the right-wing media allows the individual to shift towards a non-dogmatic position which may end up being to the left of mainstream America.

    • Or dogmatic hippopotomononstrosesquipedalianism. Sheesh!

      Sure. A centrist American that jumps straight up in the air will land left of where he started because the political terrain beneath him has shifted.

    • KilltheBank

      The right wing media? You really are the dumbest person Ive seen comment today.

  • It is said that “travel cures patriotism” which is something I have always agreed as I have never been patriotic or nationalist. Living abroad in a country as The Netherlands where I have met people of all the continents gives you makes your two statements clear as water. I think people should move around a bit more and share experiences with other people from different cultures, world would be a much better place.

    Very interesting topic by the way.

  • Slow This Bird Down

    All this talk of “liberlism”… does anyone really know what it means? I can’t stand running into other “Americans” who live abroad precisely because they are annoyingly and predictably liberal and Anti-American. It seems that too many of them are trying too hard to re-identify themselves with their “new” culture, and in turn they are simply leaching on to something else instead of living truly independent. In reality I can spot an American from a kilometer away regardless of how “liberal-minded” or “anti-American” they think they are. If anything, living abroad has made me more patriotic as I wrestle with inaccurate stereotypes and generalizations (which most expats themselves give in to). Besides, why do people have to choose sides? Liberals vs. conservatives, blue team vs. red team… c’mon. Labeling, categorizing, choosing sides… it’s not making the world a better place.

  • Neil Rasmussen

    Do you think you are living abroad because of conscious decision making on your part?

  • KilltheBank

    Let me get this straight, you arent happy with America because of what the liberals are doing to it so you leave. Then mail in a liberal vote.
    Glad you are gone.