The Perceptions Of America From a "Populist" in the Pub and an "Elite" In a Restaurant

On my trip I am meeting a nice mix of highly educated businesspeople / writers / academics (through my network) as well as the more "comman man" (in bars, restaurants, on beaches, etc). There are consistent contrasts in how they respond to me, an American, and America more generally.

In Barcelona my friend and I went to an Irish Bar one night. We have both studied Irish writers and I had a successful stay in Ireland a few weeks ago. Unlike many Irish pubs, this one was Irish owned, showing Irish football on the TV, and we happened to sit down next to an Irishman comedy-club/music manager who immigrated to Barcelona a few years ago. He was a fun guy but "doesn’t want to visit America anytime soon". He has a kind of unacknowledged split in how he views my country. On the one hand he adores some of its cities (New York and San Francisco, he mentioned) and enjoys many of its cultural exports. On the other hand he deplores George W. Bush, the War in Iraq, etc. His opinions are more emotional than philosophical.

In Madrid we had dinner with a private equity business guy named Luis, who Chris Yeh introduced me to. Luis is a Madrid-based investor who attended Harvard Business School for a couple years and thus has acquired a honed "pro-market, pro-capitalist" outlook toward the world, making him seem like an alien to his Spanish business colleagues. We had a great time discussing Spanish politics, business, media, and life. Unlike the guy in the bar, Luis has a more favorable disposition toward America. It’s less charged and more nuanced: he admires the American model but qualifies his support saying what works for one country may not work in another.


These are just two examples. It’s been healthy to interact with all kinds of people on my trip — in train stations, over dinner, in a park, at a tourist office. I’m not necessarily surprised that the businesspeople, scientists, and academics I’ve met have a considerably more enthusiastic view of the U.S. because they personally experience the country’s contributions in all those arenas. The guy in the bar isn’t employed by an American multinational, doesn’t collaborate with America’s science labs, doesn’t sell to the American market, and thus only bases his anti-Americanism on the America government as reported by European media.

I’m not big on "populist" techniques to learn about the world. I don’t buy the idea that "media elites" or academics are out of touch with "regular Americans." Heck, maybe I’m an elitist myself (ok, I confess, I am). But this doesn’t mean I should avoid the "bar conversations" altogether. Indeed, I would argue it’s the aggregate of thousands of conversations in bars around the world which together constitute the "public opinion" of a nation, a statistic so often quoted in newspapers. It’s this aggregate, not the "chattering classes" of academia, which is measured and is where one must influence minds.

3 comments on “The Perceptions Of America From a "Populist" in the Pub and an "Elite" In a Restaurant
  • Not to mention, there are vastly different perceptions about America from Americans themselves.

    Being of mixed ethnic decent (my father is Jewish, my mother is Mexican American) I can see two distinct different schools of thought coming into play.

    I have family members scattered throughout the US, from San Francisco to Dallas to Philadelphia to New York. Some of course are more conservative than others, but in general I don’t see any “red state” mentalities going on (whatever “red state” really means!)

    I’ve had some family members, mainly on my Mexican side, tease me about being elitist in some respects, though never in any truly derogatory manner. Many of them worked the same jobs for decades, lived with humble means and enjoyed beer and tamales more so than more artistic endeavors. My mother was the first woman in her family to achieve a post high school education and get a full time job in the business world, which resulted in bringing her here to the northeast.

    (And yes, some of them did vote for Bush in 2004– but after Iraq got started and a dear family member nearly got killed, their opinions changed)

    The ironic thing is that my Jewish side of the family, while being wealthier as a whole, is FAR less happy– some even downright depressed.

    I try to find a happy medium between the two best I can, and I’ve found I can equally happy seeing a Broadway show or playing darts and singing karaoke, though when it comes to the darts I generally limit myself to one beer!

  • Jason:

    Happiness research has shown that in general, those of Latin descent are happier than average. The research doesn’t show why, but my guess is that a predilection for enjoying life (including good things like beer and tamales) helps.


    Not sure if you had this in mind, but a post by Tim O’Reilly ( really speaks to your point about experiencing America’s contributions:

    “As for whether [people in Islamic countries] felt positive or negative about the US, three groups emerged. Those who had some direct or even indirect contact with American people felt largely positive about the US. Those with more distant contact thought of the US only in terms of its corporations, such as McDonald’s, and had a more negative view. Those with no contact at all thought of the US strictly in terms of its government, and had the most negative view of all.”

    Despite all the stereotypes of the Ugly American, when people get to know us individually, we’re not that bad.

    Ben, was it you that once suggested starting a cultural ambassador program for young people? Apparently not a bad idea.

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