The Europeanization of the United States

Monday, April 30, 2001

When Joe DiMaggio died, a cartoon carried in newspapers around the country depicted, above the line "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" a baseball diamond, empty except for a little kid kicking a soccer ball across the pitcher’s mound. Soccer, an egalitarian, everybody-wins school activity, is a notable indication of creeping Europeanization, but the significance of the trend goes deeper.

The United States was deliberately designed, as Tocqueville discerned, to be an "anti-Europe." But history includes a series of attempts by various exasperated activists and frustrated movements to remake the nation into one more European-style social democracy.

The Founding Fathers read the classics of political thought and were determined to avoid the flaws and failures that afflicted democratic Athens, republican Rome, and popular revolutions of the early modern age. Direct democracy and the single-chamber assembly contributed to the chaos that engulfed Periclean Athens, so, they determined, American democracy would be representative and bicameral. Rome’s fate demonstrated that a republic could not bear the weight of an extended empire, so "Publius" set out a formula in The Federalist Papers that would turn the country’s size and contentious factionalities into positive factors for the preservation of individual liberty. With ancient Rome’s "mixed constitution" reworked into checks and balances and separation of powers, the United States emerged as a complex, layered political system, even as the Europeans and British hurried to simplify and centralize state power.

Even more distinctively, Americans rejected Hobbes and Rousseau’s version of the "social contract" under which each person relinquishes her or his rights to the sovereign in exchange for security and social welfare. Under this concept, the state holds all rights but may give some back on loan to the citizen—as in a "patient’s bill of rights." Diametrically opposed was the view that individual rights were, as Jefferson declared, "inalienable," beyond the grasp of voracious government.

As a unique political society, self-defined in deliberate contradistinction to Europe and modern Britain, the United States has perennially baffled, perplexed, and annoyed Eurocentrists. Without centralized state power, they aver, the United States cannot be regarded as progressive and politically rational.

John Maynard Keynes observed that "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." A look at the American intellectual scene over the past few decades reveals how heavily movements to transform America have relied on defunct European thinkers.

The "New Left" of the 1960s, which tried to make a post-Stalinist socialism acceptable to Americans, emerged from the Frankfurt School of Social Research. The New Leftists revived the far left’s assault on FDR’s New Deal as a "corporatist"—indeed, fascist—means of preventing America from taking up a European-style socialism as the only rational system for an industrialized society.

The style of the 1960s New Left sprang, unacknowledged, from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a Nazi Party academic who profoundly influenced the way the American far left views the United States. As the Woodstock generation and the followers of the Grateful Dead, they seemed, in rhetoric and behavior, to enact Heideggerian themes: a primordial earth consciousness, derived from Nietszche’s ideal of a new religion that exalts loyalty to the earth, revulsion toward Western civilization, and rejection of technology. This political-cultural line erupted again most recently in the 1999 assaults on the World Trade Organization in Seattle and in the "anticorporatist" 2000 presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, whose decision to adopt the Green Party—in name and ideology a movement of European origin—is worth noting.

Nader’s counterpart on the other end of the political spectrum was Pat Buchanan, who has been labeled as a European-style Christian Socialist. During the 2000 presidential campaign, even Vice President Gore took up the New Left rhetoric about "powerful forces" in the form of "big corporations" preying on the American people

Although the Bush White House certainly will not wander down this Europeanization path, the trend has taken root among America’s "intelligentsia" (to use a Euro word). The leading political theory of the past decade has been "communitarianism." Based on the conviction that America is beset by an individualism raging out of control, it is most vividly depicted by Harvard’s Michael Sandel, noted for coaching a children’s soccer team on which everyone plays, no numbers are worn on jerseys, and no goals are scored, so that "everybody wins." Communitarianism’s godfather is Canadian professor Charles Taylor ("We are all simply fragments of the social process"), one of the founders of the New Left in Britain.

Today a hot new topic among academicians is the "utilitarian" ethics promoted by Peter Singer, an Australian professor recently lured to Princeton. Singer’s justification of infanticide and other steps required to bring about "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" comes from the British social philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who considered moral considerations a "blot on the face of science." And college courses and scholarly works on "distributive justice" continue to proliferate in tribute to Karl Marx, who can be recognized as he prowls the campus today, although he wears a mustache instead of a bushy beard.

Recognizing what is going on is the first step in doing something about it. Some commentators have pointed out that the 50/50 presidential race was on a deeper plane a contest between Alexis de Tocqueville’s America—individualist, religious, patriotic—and Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s characterization of life as a matter of class warfare between "the marginalized" and "the privileged."

But even more is involved. Over the past half century the Europeanizers, no matter how often rebuffed, have surfaced again and again in different times, places, and cultural settings. During the Carter administration, when Vice President Walter Mondale proposed abolishing the Electoral College, Ronald Reagan reminded his listeners in a 1977 radio broadcast that the United States was a federation of sovereign states and that its Constitution recognizes that certain rights belonging to the states cannot be infringed on by the national government. Today we can expect—indeed, Senator Hillary Clinton has promised—another effort to abolish the Electoral College, that bulwark of American, as opposed to Athenian, democracy. Although the promised assault is likely to be turned back, in case after case in the courts we will see continued efforts to create a widespread sense that democratically elected representatives do not represent the will of the voters—as was alleged in Florida in the aftermath of the presidential election.

There is always a small but vocal minority pushing for European-style centralism in this country.

This view underlies what is perhaps the most significant political development of the Clinton years: the displacement of Congress as the primary representative of the people by the president as a sort of "Great Legislator" in Rousseau’s social contract. The failure of the Clintons to put across their massive, European-style national health care program spurred the president to turn to governance by executive order. Under this political theory the president simply ignores Congress in order to reflect "the people’s will" as only a Great Legislator can (in every respect "an extraordinary man," says Rousseau, "in a position to change human nature, to transform each individual"). Thus each American citizen might get the sense that President Clinton could design a federal program just for him or her, a kind of designer socialism. This accounts for Clinton’s unprecedented 2000 State of the Union address and Vice President Gore’s convention speech (described by columnist David Broder as unlike anything he had ever seen in four decades of covering American politics: no vision, no direction, just one microprogram after another). As a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, "Any hyperactive type like Bill Clinton or Al Gore who gets control of the federal bureaucracy doesn’t much need an appendage like Congress to drive the country in whichever direction he chooses." Fortunately for the country, Al Gore did not pursue this course to its fullest possible extent, choosing instead late in the campaign to revert to the New Leftism of his Harvard undergraduate years.

So far, the big challenges to America’s uniqueness have been met and overcome. But encroaching Europeanization continues, and symbols matter. There are two current examples. First is the construction of the World War II memorial on the Washington Mall. The issue is not whether a memorial should be erected, but where. The mall is a symbolic whole, from the Capitol Dome, representing the American people, to the Washington Monument, honoring the founding of our nation, to the Lincoln Memorial and the Robert E. Lee Mansion across the Potomac, evoking the struggle to preserve the Union.

This is our national story. Foreign wars have contributed to that epic and none more nobly than America’s participation in World War II. But to place that tribute athwart the vista of the mall would be the act of a country that no longer understands its own history.

The other symbolic shift came starkly to mind at George P. Shultz’s 80th birthday party. There, projected on the wall, was an enlarged photograph of the former secretary of state as a marine in the South Pacific in World War II. What if, instead of the jaunty "overseas" cap he was wearing, Shultz wore a European-style beret? That’s what lies in store as U.S. Army headgear changes from the current green "envelope" caps to black berets, starting this year. With the new Bush administration we may expect that the effort of the past decade to scant the defense budget in favor of more social programs—thus rendering the United States as incapable of acting unilaterally as the Europeans—will be halted and reversed, and maybe the beret idea will be put on hold as well.