February 1, 2012

America vs. Europe

Republican candidates for the presidential nomination don’t love Europe. Especially Mitt Romney and his chief rival, Newt Gingrich. The two in fact have spent the past few months arguing that the current US president wants to turn the U.S. into a “European welfare state.” At a weekend appearance in New Hampshire, site of a crucial primary vote, Romney said, “I don’t believe in Europe. I believe in America.” His message, as he never tires of delivering it, is very clear: “I don’t think Europe is working in Europe. I know it won’t work here.”

As for Gingrich, one of his three key tenets is American exceptionalism. In his view, America—rooted in Democratic Capitalism—defines itself by equality of opportunity, while Europe—rooted in Social Democracy—defines itself by equality of results. And the 2012 election likely will determine whether America remains exceptional or, finally, is, culturally, reconquered by Europe.

Rick Santorum, in turn, is more articulate, or better still, less “philosophical” and more concrete: he argues that the cost of Europe’s massive welfare states made it too expensive for young people to have families. That’s why many European countries, he says, with plummeting birth rates, have resorted to “baby bonuses” to try to reverse the tide, but the demographic picture remains bleak, while the costs of entitlement programs have exploded. “Who are benefits promised to, overwhelmingly? Well, they’re promised to older people. And if you have a society like Europe that is upside down where there are a lot more older people than younger people, you have economic calamity,” he says.

But how did Europe-bashing become such an issue in the U.S? asks this BBC article. The answer, according to the author of the piece, is very simple: “Accusing Mr Obama of wanting to follow the same path of ever-growing welfare budgets and high taxes that supposedly led the EU nations to this pass will strike a chord with many voters.” But clearly this only postpones or defers the question rather than addressing it. If Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, etc. are convinced that bashing Europe would strike a chord with so many voters, and if we assume that they are neither naïve nor gullible, we have to ask ourselves why and how this has come to be. Doesn’t all this mean that many Americans still believe in American exceptionalism and that “America” is something worth fighting for and preserving? And if this is so, why is it so? As a fan of the American “exception,” I could provide some simple answers to the above questions, but I think it would be a lot better if we focused on a different aspect of the issue: Is the European model exportable to America? And, conversely, is the American model exportable to Europe? Perhaps, put in these terms, the issue would be a bit less black and white. And for both of these questions the answer would be, “probably NO.” Unfortunately for us, fortunately for them, or the exact contrary, but that’s the way things are. History is not an independent variable. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” Nobody should forget that.