Author: Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Travel Turns You Into a Liberal Democrat

Apparently, travel makes you a liberal democrat.

It’s true.

Or, so it seems. I came across this interesting set of comparison maps a while back. One represents the percentages of passport holders by state: Mississippi being at the bottom of the barrel, with only 18% of residents holding passports; New Jersey being at the top of the list with 62% of the population carrying one. The national average, in case you’re interested, hovers around 45 or 46%.

The second map breaks down which states voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 elections, and which voted for President Obama. I’ll admit that I sat staring at those maps for more than a few minutes while my brain whirred. It was a correlation I’d never considered before, and yet, there is an unmistakeable overlap.

passports and money

”There are some good reasons not to travel, no doubt; but not enough to keep over half of the population at home.”
It’s appalling to me that more than half of the citizens of one of the powerhouse countries on the planet cannot (yes, cannot, no passport, no dice) cross beyond their international borders and see what else is out there.

I understand that there’s a lot to see at home; I’ve been to all fifty states. I know that not everyone wants to travel extensively. I get that in many cases, people who do want to simply cannot afford to. It’s pricey to get off of the continent. I know. Airline tickets, times six, are our family’s biggest liability. There are some good reasons not to travel, to be sure; but surely not enough to keep over half of the population at home.

Americans are the butt of many jokes abroad. Some of them deserved; some of them unfair generalizations. The punch lines of many circle the well-known reality that many, dare I say most, Americans are geographically and culturally unaware, if not ignorant. They don’t know where things are, who runs what, or why it matters.


This particular dig is a fair one. America continues to rank embarrassingly low in worldwide educational rankings, particularly those where geographic knowledge is assessed. Those t-shirts that joke about kangaroos being in Australia, not Austria: aimed at Americans. There’s no excuse for this lack of general knowledge. Information is out there and can be obtained without ever leaving the country, even if it’s more fun to learn by owning and using a passport, exploring the world one country at a time.

“My husband is American…He’s learning geography by braille, feeling his way around the continents.”

My husband is American. I bought him his first plane ticket. He would tell you that he’s a kinesthetic learner, where geography is concerned. If he hasn’t been there, he’s hard-pressed to tell you where it is. He’s learning geography by braille, feeling his way around the continents. Once he has been somewhere, he owns it. For life.


I think a lot of people are that way. It’s hard to imagine someplace that you can’t really imagine. It’s difficult to figure out in your head why shifting the Thai border south, down the Malay Peninsula, after WWII, caused the political upheaval that the region still suffers from – until you go there.

world map travel
Once you go, once you’re there and learn more, it’s obvious. Thailand is primarily Buddhist. Malaysia is Muslim. Oh that. Yeah. It matters. He gets it now. He also knows that Jakarta is on the island of Java, that Laos borders Vietnam, that Marseille is on the Mediterranean and that Rome is a long damned way from London by bicycle. He also used to vote Republican.


Let me say, right up front, that I’ve voted on both sides of the aisle (I hold dual citizenship, so I can vote in the USA, too), but anyone who knows me knows that I lean left, way left, on most issues. Travel has only served to underscore those convictions.


It may be that traveling opens your eyes to social justice issues in a way that staying home doesn’t. Or that one comes to see the value in a broad social contract over straight up capitalism by spending time living in countries that subscribe to a more socialist approach than the USA does. Perhaps it’s as simple as receiving good health care, for a fraction of the cost as you would in the other parts of the world that makes a person question the obvious.

“The rights of women become more important when you live with women who lack them. Equality for minorities is something you become passionate about when you become a minority for a period of time, no matter how brief.”
Without a doubt, seeing the long-term results of the military might of the American forces and our strong-arm tactics abroad give a person pause and tends to clip the most hawkish wings. Beginning to gain an appreciation for the economic impact of the United States on the rest of the world is sobering and has caused me to consider more deeply our role in the world economy and our responsibility to drive it in directions that we haven’t yet.


The rights of women become more important when you live with women who lack them. Equality for minorities is something you becomes passionate about when you become a minority for a period of time, no matter how brief. Religious freedom and freedom of religion become important when you’re forced into a burka repeatedly across countries run by despotic governments.

Travel is eye-opening

Does that sound arrogant to you?

Forgive me, it’s not meant to. It is simply a truth. Watching the Travel Channel isn’t the same. Reading library books isn’t the same. It’s a start, but we all know only what we know. When our experience is limited to our home culture, it’s very hard to see beyond the borders. That’s not a judgment against anyone who doesn’t travel, it’s just reality, as I’ve lived it.

thai field workers
“Travel humanizes the rest of the world.”

This is why I find that map comparison so fascinating. Travel humanizes the rest of the world. It makes people we see on the evening news our friends. It turns sanitized, carefully edited documentaries into hot, sticky, spicy, tasty, uncomfortable, beautiful, noisy, colorful realities with complexities that aren’t summed up nicely between commercial breaks. It also allows us to see ourselves differently, through the eyes of the people on the other side of that border fence.


We were having dinner with our friends Edwin and Michaela the other night. They’re Mayan, and they run the best pizza joint in our village. Edwin was firing up the wood oven. Michaela and their daughter Evelyn were building pizzas. Jake, their three year old firecracker, was climbing over my boys like they were his own personal play things. We were laughing across three languages as the first rains of the coming wet season played music on the tin roof. Two men grumbled at a nearby table and eventually got up to leave without ordering.

“You know, the food here is great,” I smiled. I’m always trying to get people to eat at Edwin’s.

“Well, if I could get someone who could translate properly maybe I could understand something,” the older man grumbled. I know that frustration.

“I’m happy to translate for you. What do you need?” I asked him.

“Well, they don’t speak any English at all, and that’s ridiculous,” he pushed.

I smiled, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, “Well, it is Guatemala,” I playfully teased, with a wink.

“And they don’t have proper tacos here. The tortillas are corn and they’re all floppy and they don’t cook them. They’re not cooked! They’re not even crunchy!” He held his hand up to represent a Taco Bell style U shaped shell. “And these people are impossible. Of course it doesn’t help that I’m traveling with an idiot!”

He gestured toward his friend who had walked down the path without him, obviously disgruntled, as he stepped out into the rain and darkness and disappeared.

Edwin was pretending to stoke the fire, watching out of the corner of his eye. I wondered what he was seeing, and what he thought of Americans in that moment. My Canadian intern was picking her jaw up off of the floor. My husband had his eye on the guy’s G.W. Bush T-shirt. My boys were laughing and blowing soda through their noses, wondering if this guy was joking or serious.

Talk about the universe providing “Exhibit A” for my article this week. This is why the American jokes are a thing. Guys like that. I’m still shaking my head, but I’m encouraged by two things:

  1. At least he has a passport.
  2. He’s out there trying, even though we caught him on a bad day (at least I hope that was a bad day!)

And maybe he got the t-shirt off of a clothing truck at the market, and it was simply what fit instead of the political statement it appeared to be.

It’s not that travel is some kind of magic (or witchcraft, depending on which side of the political spectrum you’re reading from) that the liberal democrats have come up with to ensure their guy gets elected. Although the White House did just launch their Study Abroad initiative, so maybe it is all some big insidious liberal democrat conspiracy to harness the hearts and minds of the next generation for their political purposes by sending wide eyed twenty-year-olds to Switzerland for a semester.

“It’s not that travel is some kind of magic or witchcraft.”
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but it could happen. All I know is that data made into maps slapped me in the face with what I’ve long felt, intuitively: that travel tends to challenge our conservative tendencies, and it forces us to acknowledge the liberal idea that there are lots of ways to live life, and a multitude of cultures, religions, and political processes that are as valid as our own… and sometimes, we find, even better.

The Take Home Message

Travel is dangerous, in more than one way. It’s going to open your mind and expand your experience and dissolve the nice, tidy, black and white, us vs. them propaganda that keeps everyone neatly within those borders and makes broad sweeping generalizations an easy way to see the world. If you’re a Republican and want to stay that way, the maps seem to indicate that you shouldn’t get a passport. It’s a slippery slope that slides into liberalism!

You might even turn into a liberal democrat!

Read more about the ways travel is transformative: