Despite America's move to the left under Obama, it's still assumed that Europe and America are fundamentally different: in their economies, societies and values. But this is a mythby Peter Baldwin / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Talk about upending accepted certainties! While Europe is now in the hands of right-of-centre parties (France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and David Cameron pacing restlessly in the wings), America has “gone socialist.” Nationalising the financial sector by the back door, considering massive subsidy of production industries, increasing state spending on healthcare and education, promising big investments in all manner of greenery, and limiting executive salaries: is Barack Obama beating Europe at its own game? “We are all socialists now,” Newsweek trumpeted in February, predicting that, “as entitlement spending rises over the next decade, we will become even more French.” General Jack D Ripper, Dr Strangelove’s nemesis, who fulminated against fluoridation of the water as another of communism’s nefarious advances, must be rotating in his Valhalla.
How quickly things change. It seems just a few months ago that the presidency of the younger Bush—unilaterally going to war, refusing to submit to international treaties, disparaging the seriousness of global ecological catastrophe—convinced bien pensant opinion that the gulf between the US and Europe was stark and growing ever wider. Indeed, old and well-worn mental ruts are hard to steer out of. It remains a staple of political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic that Europe and America are worlds apart. Everyone knows this.
The “wide Atlantic” thesis claims that there are fundamental differences between Europe and America. These are the contrasts: America believes in the untrammelled market, Europe accepts capitalism but curbs its excesses. Social policies either do not exist in America or are more miserly than in Europe. America’s lack of universal health insurance means that many people die young and live miserably. Because the market dominates, America’s environment is less cared for. Since social contrasts are greater in America, crime is much more of a problem than in Europe. Meanwhile Europeans are secular; Americans are much more likely to believe in God and accept a role for religion in public life. The two societies are thus divided along several faultlines: competition vs co-operation, individualism vs solidarity, autonomy vs cohesion.
This is all familiar. But is it true? With the Obama administration moving the US to the left there is a perception of the Atlantic narrowing again, to the dismay of American conservatives—being “too European” is a stick Obama’s opponents are fond of beating him with. But were the contrasts between Europe and the US ever as great as both…