Americans abroad can thank George W. Bush for sharpening our survival skills. We have weathered a sea of anti-Iraq war protests and had the intelligence of our president and those who voted for him questioned more times than we care to remember.
In my hometown of San Francisco, Bush supporters are called all sorts of names, and I rarely bother with defending them. When abroad, however, I feel a patriotic duty to try to explain the political views of those with whom I adamantly disagree.
Over the years, I've grown skillful at mounting semicoherent explanations of support for the invasion of Iraq, though I do a less stellar job when it comes to explaining his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.
Living in San Francisco has ill-prepared me for playing devil's advocate. It is not just because the city is overwhelmingly Democratic. The real problem is that the Democrats here are often closed to having a constructive debate.
Opponents of affirmative action are dismissed as "racist," and the Iraq war is immediately labeled "criminal." This neither helps Democrats understand the views of Republicans, nor change them. More often than not, the conversation either abruptly ends or escalates into a meaningless shouting match.
The anger is real and its roots are varied. The 2000 Florida election debacle ensured that the Bush administration was not going to bask in Democratic goodwill. The war in Iraq, meanwhile, ensured that many Democrats are literally counting down the days until a new president takes office.
Many reasons for the animosity, however, predate Bush.
Take the cultural and social transformations of the 1960s – and the backlash against them – or the history of political calculus by the two parties to gerrymander districts along ideological lines.
The rise of the Internet has at once broadened access to different news sources but also made it easier to turn to only those confirming our beliefs.
In our bitter political climate, nothing is sacred when it comes to taking aim at the candidates or each other. No rumor, no matter how baseless, is left unrepeated and no gaffe is left unwatched at least several hundred thousand times on YouTube.
Voters' complex lives have been reduced to ludicrous stereotypes. Latte-drinkers are liberals, while NASCAR fans are conservatives. The former buy bulk at Costco and hug trees while the latter fill their carts at Wal-Mart and hug guns.
I can't think of a single reference to "latte conservatives," although I have certainly witnessed Republicans and independents enjoying the coffee beverage.
Explaining the complexities of America's little red vs. blue war to foreigners isn't easy and when I get tired of it, I always have an out: I wasn't born in the United States and came here as a child from Soviet Ukraine.
People sometimes don't realize that I am an American in the first place because of my Russian accent, while others assure me that they don't count me as a "real American" when talking in less than glowing terms about the United States. Like many hyphenated Americans, however, it is when I am abroad that I feel most American.
It is natural to feel defensive when something you love is being criticized, even when the criticism is justified. My deep unhappiness with the current administration, however, hasn't influenced my appreciation for my adopted country's rowdy democratic system of government, the incredible social mobility it affords to those without connections, and its ability to successfully integrate immigrants from all over the world.
Americans are rightly known as a hopeful bunch. And so, come this election season, I hope that regardless of the outcome, fierce partisan debate won't preclude bipartisanship.
We can begin to transform the caustic political climate by choosing our words of criticism more carefully and realizing conservative and liberal common ground on issues such as electoral college reform.
Many of us may be breathing a sigh of relief because Bush will soon be out of office, but we need to keep the survival skills he helped traveling Americans sharpen, and use them at home.
From the war in Iraq to the environment, the stakes are too high for a political stalemate at home or the failure to engage our allies abroad.
Nonna Gorilovskaya is a researcher for the Nieman Watchdog Project. She is a former assistant editor at Moment magazine and editorial fellow at Mother Jones magazine.