Over the weekend, ScienceBlogs was treated to a view of how at least one European views American politics. Archaeologist Martin Rundkvist looked at our spectrum of political belief and compared it to normal politics in his native Sweden. From his perspective, all of American politics is right-wing. Even the Liberal Party, he tells us, is part of the political right in Sweden – and not because they are advocating for things that are all that different than liberals do in America. Lest you think that this is just a European perspective, Australian John Wilkins agrees that the range of acceptable political choices is much more compressed in America than it is elsewhere in the world.
American Chad Orzel took exception to Martin’s description. In politics, the physics professor argues, there’s no such thing as a privileged reference frame. Instead of claiming that all of American politics falls on the right side of the European spectrum, he points out, one could just as easily argue that all of European politics falls on the left side of the American spectrum. Had he stopped there, I probably would have sat this argument out. But he didn’t. Chad went concluded his post with an argument that reflects a very dangerous, and all too-common belief about the political landscape:
What irritates me about this is not just the fact that the reverse comment– “you Europeans need to become more conservative”– would be (and is) met with high dudgeon by the same people who will happily tell Americans how to re-shape our political system. It’s that the whole thing is completely pointless.
Noting that American politics takes place in a compressed range of ideology relative to the European system is about as productive as noting that European geography takes place in a compressed range of latitudes relative to the United States. It’s a fact of the landscape, and you work with it as best you can.
When viewed on the scale of human experience, geography is fixed. If you don’t like the mountain that’s blocking your view, your only choices are to learn to live with it, or move. Unless you are a major corporation that mines coal, moving the mountain is not an option. The same is true for many other features of geography. It’s not true for politics.
Political landscapes can move, and they can often move rapidly. That’s certainly been true in Europe over the last century, and it’s also been true in America. Groups – even small groups – of committed individuals can create a great deal of change. If you don’t like the political landscape in the United States, learning to live with it as best as you can is not the only option. It’s just the easiest one.