Having lived in the US for 8 years but having business interests in New Zealand that bring me back home frequently, I have had a good ringside seat as to how Kiwis view America. It has been fascinating to witness US and world events through an American media slant and how my friends, family, business compatriots and my local community in the US see things and then see how the same events are portrayed in the NZ media and perceived by NZ friends, family and business contacts. The differences can be quite marked. This essay seeks to explain why and covers six key areas:
1 – Media
Public opinion is still largely shaped by media although the rise of blogs like this has blunted the power of the mainstream media. We all know what is meant by the term “mainstream media”. Amongst those on the centre right, it is a code for the left leaning or liberal tendencies of the old legacy media (in the US: NYT, WaPo, LAT, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and NPR along with establishment journals like Time, Slate and TNR augmented by left leaning blogs: Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos and even supposedly neutral political online sites like The Hill and Politico). These outlets dominate elite thinking in the US and are almost exclusively are the feeds and sources chosen by NZ media when reporting on the US. NZ media then apply a filter that interprets US news through the same lens that non US establishment elites apply to the US in Europe (Reader’s Digest version: that the US is a predatory economic superpower that throws its weight around the world as the world’s self-appointed policeman). The NZ public are served up a left leaning US MSM world view filtered through a mildly anti American kiwi media lens. This process by-passes the extensive right wing media alternatives that have grown strongly in the last 20 years at the expense of the legacy MSM (Fox News, talkback radio, NY Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, The Blaze, National Review, National Standard and Commentary magazines and the rise of several key centre right blogs such as Hot Air, Powerline, Red State, Breitbart, Pyjamas Media and Real Clear Politics). In terms of aggregate audience and nationwide reach, particularly into heartland America, the collection of right leaning media either matches or exceeds the audience of the legacy MSM. NZ media consumers are rarely exposed to both sides of the robust, intense and often partisan political debate that is a strong feature of American political life unless they go out of their way to read centre right US blogs or watch some of Fox News. There is universal opprobrium of centre right US news sources by most NZ media commentators and a blanket extremist tag is placed on every and all sources lumping the moderate Brit Hulme with the more right wing Glenn Beck. US media consumers, especially those on the right, are able to separate out the various conservative media and ‘rank; them for quality. Similarly rather than apply an ideological blanket over Fox News, US viewers know for example that Fox News’ hard news team (Brit Hulme, Shepherd Smith and Chris Wallace etc.) are highly regarded as more neutral highly professional news guys whereas the nighttime line up on Fox features more conservative commentators with far less hard news who view the political news of the day though a much more right wing partisan lens. More moderate right leaning contributors like Fred Barnes, Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer are assumed to be the same as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Glenn Beck when they most decidedly are not.
NZ media consumers are pretty much shut out from not only the bulk of centre right commentary from the US but are less able to weigh the quality of what little content is reported on. This means most US affairs reported on in NZ are done so through a mostly left wing lens with virtually no attempt to even report what the right is saying let alone applying any qualitative analysis to what the US right says. This renders making truly and deeply informed opinions about US politics and US responses to global affairs more difficult in NZ.
2 – Political systems
To most kiwis the American political system seems chaotic and messy. The American system does indeed involve a level of complexity rarely seen in other democracies: its unique division of powers at the Federal and State level, the primacy of the Constitution, the frequency of elections, the states being like 50 countries and then add in counties, cities and countless ballot initiatives (referenda) and you have a mélange of governments, elections and competing interests. In NZ we have triennial elections of Parliament and a similar staggered triennial cycle for local bodies and that’s it. It is easy for kiwis to assume that less is better and to dismiss America’s version of democracy as an almost excessive indulgence especially when outsiders consider the vast billions expended in each electoral cycle especially at the Presidential level. When assessing the US political system, here are some things for NZ observers to consider:
- America was founded on a political experiment to do things explicitly differently from England whereas NZ’s Parliamentary tradition is a direct Westminster clone albeit with modifications over time (e.g. abolition of the Upper House)
- America’s political system stems from its founding document the Constitution whereas the British system has evolved over time. For example the Constitution dictates when elections are held (first Tuesday in November depending on what office/body being elected) whereas the NZ system gives the governing Prime Minister the power to decide the exact election date (within the three year term limit). Both systems work fine. Both systems make it difficult to change electoral law without strong bipartisan consensus (the Constitutional amendment process in the US and the entrenchment provisions of NZ’s Electoral Act)
- America was a collection of separate colonies that chose to federate – NZ was one colony that had separate provinces that were abolished early on in its history. NZ has a unitary government administering almost all executive governmental functions in a unified manner across the country. US states are sovereign and the Constitution specifically limits the role of the Federal Government leaving all unspecified matters to the States. Thus a huge amount of law and administrative/governmental processes and procedures are decided at the state level leading to considerable differences in laws between states. When it comes to education, this is decided at an even lower (city) level with large metro areas having multiple separate school systems. All schools in NZ take the same holidays at the exact same time whereas in the US, each district decides their own system. I help coach a high school aged club rugby team that straddles three city school districts and they all have their own spring break and not at the same time!
- Electoral laws are decided at the state level leading to quite different election procedures in each state such as: when special (by) elections are held, how lieutenant governors are elected, who can participate in primaries and when primaries are held and who/how boundaries are redrawn. NZ has codified such matters in the Electoral Act or designated administration to quasi-independent bodies such as the Representation Commission or the Electoral Commission.
- American voters get to have a much greater say on governance matters than their kiwi counterparts. A larger number of officials who preside over voters are subject to voter approval such as a variety of state wide offices and judges. More matters can be put to referenda due to lower petition thresholds, some states make the results binding on legislatures and in all jurisdictions, bond issues and sales tax increases are always put to voters via ballot initiatives. NZers are only able to express opinions on these matters indirectly through the election of the national (note the small n) government.
Politics in NZ is most definitely simpler but American politics is more rich and varied and American voters, notwithstanding the noise, expense and confusion, have a far greater say in their destiny.
3 – Business
Calvin Coolidge (the 30th American President) once famously said that the business of American is business. This is an accurate statement. Big business built America. The oil, steel, railroad and coal barons catapulted America to the world’s largest and wealthiest economy in a single generation in the late 19th century. Having done business in the US, NZ, Australia, Canada and a bit in Europe I find Americans are the easiest to do business with. They analyze deals the quickest, they get to the nub of a deal quickly, they are usually polite and professional, they are self-assured and firm in what they want, they are better at assessing and taking risks and they have unrivalled access to capital. Starting businesses and being an entrepreneur is in their blood – entrepreneurship is the life blood of the modern US economy and it is considered universally as an honourable and revered career pathway. It is not quite the same in NZ.
NZ was built by big government because only government had the sufficient access to capital to build infrastructure and business. NZ pioneered various key welfare state provisions and have only gradually and carefully given some of them up. Many big businesses could only thrive with government protection (tariffs) or subsidies. Government interventions in NZ are more welcomed, expected and tolerated. More kiwis see business in a less than positive way. The hard socialist left (those who detest and publicly oppose capitalism) comprises barely 1% of the US electorate – when you add the Greens, Mana and the left wing of the Labour Party, fully 15% of the NZ electorate are largely hostile to capitalism. This negativity towards business, free markets and capitalism bleeds into wider NZ societal views. NZ’s experience with freer markets is barely 3 decades old so the culture of entrepreneurial business startups and seeing them as the backbone of a vibrant growing economy is in its infancy.
This divergence of views on business between the US and NZ can be illustrated in my observations of how each society views business success and failure. In America successful business people are mostly admired, respected and followed whereas in NZ there is a vocal and sizable minority who consider successful businesspeople through a negative lens assuming that they have somehow ripped people off to “get rich”. This same divergence is evident on the flip side: in the US if you fail in business most people are sanguine and nonjudgmental and the widespread view is to encourage those who fail to get up and have another go and not give up citing the various successful businessmen (e.g. Steve Jobs at Apple) who failed before they succeeded. In NZ the attitude to failure (outside the small enclave of successful small/medium business entrepreneurs who see failure like most Americans) is to judge the failed businessperson in such a way as to leave somewhat of a black mark on their reputation sometimes for decades especially if the failure occurred in smaller cities.
4 – Religion
In no area do kiwis misunderstand American culture more IMO than over religion. The gulf between the percentage of Americans who attend church regularly and the same percentage in NZ is huge and this gap explains why many kiwis are baffled by the very large role faith plays in American life. Roughly 85% of Americans profess belief in God – a figure double the equivalent in NZ. Over 50% of Americans attend church regularly compared to only 10% of the NZ population. These figures only tell part of the story. Belief in God is widely accepted in most parts of America (exceptions being the east and west coast progressive enclaves) and with that comes an acceptance of prayer, of mentioning God in public, of invoking God in public speech and discussion of, and hope for, miracles. Such pronouncements of faith occur despite concerted efforts by atheist litigants to sue various persons and groups who show public displays of faith. Such displays are almost unheard of in NZ and those who participate are usually ridiculed off the public stage. Nowhere is this gulf more apparent than in politics. In America, politicians routinely invoke God’s name, the most common saying being the almost obligatory “and God bless the United States of America” at the end of speeches, many openly profess a belief in God and tout regular church attendance and belief in prayer all of which are seen as electoral plusses. Indeed the number of professed atheists in elected office at ANY level in US politics runs in single digits – a miniscule number compared to the many thousands of people who hold elected office. Being an atheist is such an electoral negative that even people who really are atheists hide their atheism and nominal Christians like Obama, even if they have ceased to be regular church goers, will go through the motions of church attendance and at least give the impression they believe.
In the NZ the exact opposite is the case. To admit to a belief in God, to attend church regularly, to confess to regular prayer and belief in miracles would be electorally toxic in all but the safest National electorate seat. Being an atheist is common place – NZ’s last two Prime Ministers professed no belief in God and suffered no electoral backlash for this. What is thoroughly mainstream behaviour in the US is considered ‘godbothering’ nutter fringe territory in NZ. This gulf causes NZ observers of the US to assume that there is something slightly odd and weird about America because so many believe in a Deity. It enables stereotypes of rednecks and backwater hicks to be exaggerated and for the mocking to take on an almost anti-Christian tinge to it as the now mostly secular average kiwi struggles to make sense of why God, church and the Bible play such a large part of US life particularly in the heartland regions. Some NZers tend to favour discussion with secular Americans and become a little nervous coping with Americans who do profess faith and belief because such beliefs are extremely rare in polite society in NZ.
5 – The military
It has been many decades since New Zealand was on a genuine war footing with many of our young men enlisting to fight in a war. New Zealand is far from the world’s hot spots and our military involvements since the Korean War have been modest and limited with the recent SAS assignment in Afghanistan being one of our longer deployments. For this reason military culture has faded from prominence in most of NZ society. For many years military enlistment was a more prominent part of Maori family life with so many Maori joining mostly the Army. Deployments in Singapore and NZ Peace keeping efforts overseas meant Maori families were proportionately more impacted by NZ’s military commitments.
In the US, the impact of the military on everyday American life is far more pronounced and reaches far deeper into the fabric of US society. US per capita spending on defense, whilst a lot lower than it has been, still far outstrips similar per capita spending in all other first world democracies. Such is the sheer size and scale of the US military that there is barely a single Congressional district in the country that does not have some kind of military installation or base. The overseas deployment of US forces, either in peace or war, has a far more pronounced impact on US society than in NZ. Many many more families are impacted particularly in heartland areas of the US where enlistment rates are far higher than the more liberal urban west and east coast enclaves. Americans understand the vagaries of the military, the arbitrary transfers, the odd hours, the threat of death or disablement due to American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the primacy of the command structure and the loyalty to one’s country that is needed to serve in difficult circumstances. There are significantly fewer NZers who appreciate the sacrifice made to serve one’s country in the military. Regardless of what people may think politically about America’s wars and America’s foreign policy, it is much more difficult for kiwis to see things as Americans do when it comes to war and the military because we are so much more isolated from both matters. Meeting serving and former Marines who have served in wars is a sobering experience as they talk about what war is really like. Almost to a man they served with bravery and distinction and are proud of what they did for their country. Hardly a family I know in my community does not have someone in their extended family that either is serving or has served in some branch of the military. When former servicemen die, active duty members of their service arm attend their funeral in uniform, reverently fold the US flag in an elaborate ceremony, and give the flag to the widow or other close family member with care and always with the words “on behalf of a grateful nation”. I must confess to being quite moved by such burial services especially the 3 (or more) volley salutes always given at the graveside. Few kiwis are similarly exposed and this makes understanding of US foreign policy decisions harder to understand.
6 – Guns and Crime
Non Americans love to criticize the American love affair with guns. For a good percentage of the lives of most NZers, America has featured a high crime rate particularly of gun related homicides. And for any kiwi over 40, we lived most of our lives in a relatively crime free world and with an unarmed police force with very few gun related homicides. When this reality was the norm, it was very easy for NZers to look askance at America and judge that the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms was a foolish anachronism. In the last 20 years roles have somewhat reversed. Property related crime (burglaries and car theft) soared in NZ as did assaults and rapes and murders increased markedly as well. At the same time, many US cities adopted the famous New York City broken windows/crime hotspot management approach to policing with dramatic reductions in all forms of crime but particularly homicides. Whilst all reported crime in NZ has come down off the highs of the mid 2000’s, it is still true that, if you take homicides out of the equation, most US states have a lower crime rate than the US. This new reality does not prevent old stereotypes of NZ being safe with a low crime rate and the US being violent with a high crime rate from dominating some kiwis’ perception about the US. In fact if you took out of the US stats, the crime rates of five key crime ridden metro areas (LA, Chicago, Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia), US non homicide crime states would be even lower than NZ.
The issue of guns and gun laws suffers from the same perception fate as the crime rate with NZ observations of America. Most kiwis see the mass shootings as evidence of the folly of the US right to bear arms. Few realize that gun related crime has dropped dramatically as has the overall US homicide rate over the last 20 years and that the mass murders are incredibly rare but highly publicized events. The real picture is even more nuanced because recent statistics prove that violent crime rates in states where they have what are called concealed carry laws (the right for properly licensed private citizens to carry a hidden handgun in public) are lower than in the states that have more restrictive gun laws. Chicago and Washington DC stand out as two of America’s most violent cities and both sport the most restrictive gun laws. The issue is complicated by the reporting of high profile murders by the liberal media who are known to strongly favour more restrictive gun laws and they work very hard to promote events that favour this narrative. What is RARELY reported (at least in the national media) are the numerous incidents of violent crimes averted by a private citizen brandishing or using their concealed carry weapon scaring off the gun toting person who could commit a violent robbery or even mass murder. A potential major crime averted is never as big a story as school child shot by a gun toting madman.
Kiwis are prone to see America as a violent place riven with crime perpetrated mostly because so many Americans own guns. The reality is actually quite different but such perceptions strongly shape some kiwi perceptions of American life.