Return to Blog

The Devil is in the Details

Tags: American Council of Young Political Leaders

Jeff Hopfenbeck

Growing up in the United States you tend to assume a lot of things. You assume a stable political system. You assume frequent and fair elections. And, as my colleague Stephanie South discovered, you assume certain values.

Many of these assumptions are debunked as you grow up and learn more about the world. You learn about injustice, both here and abroad, and your worldview is broadened. But what about the details we take for granted? What about the seemingly small things that go unquestioned, yet make a big difference in how our political structures function?

When eight delegates from Croatia and Romania arrived in Colorado for the final week of a two-and-a-half week ACYPL visit last month, I knew I would learn a lot. I knew I would discover many differences between our political systems, yet what surprised me the most were the small things.

For example, the delegates were amazed that here in Colorado we elect our attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer. Moreover, when they heard about the length of our 2008 ballot they were astonished at the number of initiatives the voters get to decide on every election cycle. And they were shocked by our state’s strict open meeting laws that push all dealings, backroom or otherwise, into the public eye.

Through our discussions I feel I gained an appreciation for the very real differences that exist between democratic societies. While we may share the same values, and usually respect the same things, the subtle details between democracies have an enormous impact on how our societies function. Tax policy, for example, becomes a more difficult proposition (pun intended) when voters are given the ultimate up or down vote. Free and fair elections look different when the secretary of state is elected, rather than appointed.

For me, the discussions provided some insight as to why seemingly similar societies often disagree. Whether a result of culture, economics, or just happenstance, the innumerable small details that make up our democratic structure impact the way we think about and perceive the world. We, as Americans, might feel frustrated at a decision made by the European Union, or by a particular European country, just as our European counterparts may be frustrated by us. Do these disagreements mean that we do not equally value democratic society? Obviously no. Rather, they demonstrate the subtle distinctions in how we practice democracy.

My experience on the delegation also showed me how important programs like ACYPL are for building understanding among diverse cultures. If difference is perceived as exactly that—difference—rather than something to be despised or fixed, it is a lot easier to start to understand one another. Furthermore, by having an opportunity to see, understand, and appreciate the subtle differences between societies, it becomes easier to get beyond the small things that ultimately hold us back.

Through the connections I witnessed, and those I made myself with the delegation, I was provided with a tremendous opportunity to see ACYPL’s mission in action. By learning about our differences, cultivating understanding and respect, and making some friends in the process, the delegation was an opportunity for all of us to learn why we sometimes disagree, and recognize our shared interest in going forward, together.