European Politics Have No Right Wing

Over at Aardvarcheology, Martin complains about US politics. This is bog standard European oh-you-benighted-Americans stuff, with a convenient one-sentence summary:

From a European perspective, US politics are an ongoing battle between the extreme Right and the middle Right.

This gets up my nose a bit, because as I commented over there, it would be perfectly equivalent to say “From a US perspective, European politics are an ongoing battle between the extreme Left and the middle Left.” It wouldn’t let Europeans feel all smug, though, so you don’t see it as often.

I don’t disagree with the basic statement in the least– American politics are conducted significantly to the right of European politics. I’d be much happier if we could shift the whole American political spectrum leftward a few steps (probably not as far as most Europeans would want it to go, but a bit left of where it is now).

What bugs me, though, is the “oh, you poor ignorant Americans” tone affected by most Europeans writing this sort of thing. And not a few Americans who echo the sentiment.

Yes, the American political spectrum is well to the right of the European center. This came about as the result of a series of historical accidents and contingent social processes that I’m sure you could mine for a couple of Ph.D. theses were you so inclined.

But the European political spectrum is the result of exactly the same sort of historical accidents as the American system. It’s not the result of any especially enlightened or rigorously scientific process, and there’s certainly no reason to think it’s morally superior to the American version of things. Other than, of course, the fact that Martin happened to grow up in the European system, and as a result it’s a better fit for his personal political biases.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 John Novak
    February 3, 2008

    What makes it oh so much more precious, though, is the lead-in, which I paraphrase with perfect moral accuracy as, “Hey, I’m not even interested enough in Swedish politics to learn much about my own small nation’s affairs, but I’ll go ahead and lecture you three hundred million louts on yours.”

    Yeah, that’s a great way to make me take you seriously.

    (Also, Chad, I quibble slightly: I don’t think we’re compressed any more than they are, for the ubiquitous “they” of Europe. We’ve got communists and they’ve got hard nationalists. To the degree we’re over-represented in what they consider the right, they’re over-represented in what they consider the left. Compared to, e.g., Russia, China, various places around the Middle-East, we’re just different locations in a larger civilization.)

  2. #2 zooey
    February 3, 2008

    Smugness is the national Swedish sentiment. Our socialist politicians, who have been running the country most of the time, don’t doubt that they have created the best society in the world, and every other country should follow once they see the our greatness and superiority.

    It’s a bit pathetic.

    On some issues, american politics really does look “weird” from my/our perspective – on the other hand, I’d say the same about swedish politics. It’s definately not something to uphold as an ideal.

    -zooey

  3. #3 Moshe
    February 3, 2008

    Here is a more interesting statement: from the viewpoint of American politics as was done before 1980, current political battle is between the right and the lunatic right. Not sure this is true any more, especially this election year, but at least it is possibly more interesting.

  4. #4 Hank
    February 3, 2008

    I think you read more into that blog post than is healthy.

  5. #5 raptros-v76
    February 3, 2008

    and why not describe politics in two dimensional terms, as in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nolan_chart ? (just thought i’d throw that out there for fun)

  6. #6 MartinM
    February 3, 2008

    But the European political spectrum is the result of exactly the same sort of historical accidents as the American system. It’s not the result of any especially enlightened or rigorously scientific process, and there’s certainly no reason to think it’s morally superior to the American version of things. Other than, of course, the fact that Martin happened to grow up in the European system, and as a result it’s a better fit for his personal political biases.

    Sadly, Godwin’s law prevents me from making the obvious rejoinder.

  7. #7 Pierce R. Butler
    February 3, 2008

    …there’s certainly no reason to think it’s morally superior to the American version of things…

    How many homeless, physically and mentally ill, millions of people do you see on European streets?

    How many European nations are abhorred around the world for running torture camps in support of illegal and dishonest wars of aggression?

    How many Europeans are refusing to join in even modest efforts against global warming, and even denying such a thing exists?

    How many European governments and corporations are publicly engaged in massive data-mining, wholesale warrantless wiretapping, and concealment of their own previously public information?

    How many European politicians are wrapping their own crimes in a thick blanket of meaningless but small-minded religiosity?

    How many European nations are bankrupting themselves by massive deficits while distracting their citizenry with scapegoating and fearmongering?

    The above questions could easily be multiplied by hundreds. We’re not just looking at a range of abstract ideological positions here: this country’s political situation is already ruining the lives and future prospects of millions of people, here and around the world. The fact that we can see multiple models of a better way to run modern societies, and fail to learn from them due to a deliberately contrived wave of xenophobia and national narcissism, only makes it worse.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 3, 2008

    Agree with thrust of #5.

    “… there are many dimensions to view someone’s political leanings on (besides just time). There have been a few that tried to expand the one-dimensional left-right into two or even three dimensional grids or cubes. Of course those views are biased by what issues they choose as the primary axes…”

    Besides the aforementioned Nolan chart (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nolan_chart)

    See also the Dr. Jerry Pournelle chart (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pournelle_chart)

    “The Pournelle chart, developed by Jerry Pournelle (in his 1963 political science Ph.D. dissertation), is a 2-dimensional coordinate system used to distinguish political ideologies. It is similar to the Political compass and the Nolan Chart in that it is a two-dimensional chart, but the axes chosen in the Pournelle chart are different from those in other systems.”

    “The two axes are as follows:

    * The x-axis, ‘Attitude toward the State’ (labeled Statism), refers to a political philosophy’s feelings toward state and centralised government. The farthest right is state worship, and the farthest left views a state as the ‘ultimate evil’, preferring individual freedom.
    * The y-axis, ‘Attitude toward planned social progress’ (labeled Rationalism)…”

    “… Since Pournelle himself has views not far from those of [Edmund] Burke, it is clear that the term ‘irrational’ is not intended as a pejorative. Pournelle noted that the belief that all societal problems can be solved rationally may not itself be rational….”

    Because I suspect that I know how much you love Jerry Pournelle’s Science Fiction and Politics;)

  9. #9 zooey
    February 3, 2008

    “How many homeless, physically and mentally ill, millions of people do you see on European streets?”

    In Stockholm, Sweden, actually suprisingly many, I see them every day. It has been an increasing problem since they shut down the mental institutions 15 years ago. Not millions of homeless and mentally ill, of course. After all, it’s a pretty small town and a small country. But still, nothing to be smug about there.

    The thing is, despite extraordinarily high taxes and a huge social welfare sector, mentally ill people don’t have a place to sleep. That’s crap, and shouldn’t be allowed to happen when tax money is pouring in (I guess the homeless simply aren’t an important group of voters – not even to socialists…). There’s no excuse for such lousy performance.

  10. #10 Tobias
    February 3, 2008

    The problem I have with the American system is that there’s so little choice. I just don’t like the 2-party system.

    But maybe that’s just the European inside of me talking.

  11. #11 Kieran
    February 3, 2008

    Having never lived in the USA, I used to wonder what the difference between Republicans and Democrats was – there didn’t seem to be much that I could see.

    Then I realised that when you live outside the USA, you only really see the effects of US foreign policy and, regardless of what party is in power in the USA, US foreign policy doesn’t really seem to change all that much.

  12. #12 JJ
    February 3, 2008

    European Politics Have No Right Wing ?

    Widely despised Le Pen still got 18% in France.
    Previous president of Spain, Aznar, was a huge Bush supporter on almost all issues.Including the decision to invade Iraq.
    Jeez, even the extremely far right “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” group had more than 20 seats in the Euro parliament.
    Add some right wing triumphs in Austria, Belgium. etc

    Compare that to a current US congress with 98% the Senators belonging to the 2 traditional parties and 2 “independents”( Lieberman and Sanders) which for all practical purposes can be counted as Democrats.

    I guess that is still nice to try some Euro-bashing from time to time especially when someone dares to criticize almighty-god-blessed America.

  13. #13 John Novak
    February 3, 2008

    Tobias, #10:
    The problem I have with the American system is that there’s so little choice. I just don’t like the 2-party system.

    That’s more a structural and procedural thing than something done by design. Parties, as such, don’t have the same formal, legal standing as in a typical European Parliamentary system. Here, votes are typically cast for a person rather than a party, even if there’s an Electoral College type layer of indirection to it. One natural result of that is the coalescence of a small number of parties, usually two. Another is the continuous subsumption of fringe parties into one or the other main party as soon as they reach a certain critical mass. In many ways it’s a bit of a stabilizer more than anything else, which helps insulate the federal government from being hijacked by extreme groups on either side.

    (Yes, I know all about what Nader did to Gore in 2000, but honestly, that’s rare, and has no equivalent in our legislative branch.)

    Kieran, #11:
    Then I realised that when you live outside the USA, you only really see the effects of US foreign policy and, regardless of what party is in power in the USA, US foreign policy doesn’t really seem to change all that much.

    Why would you expect it to? On January 21, 2009, no matter who is in office, the United States is going to have the same powerful military, the same powerful economy, the same geographical advantages, and consist of the same populace as it did on January 19, 2009. Likewise, it will have all the same challenges posed to it by the rest of the world.

    American foreign policy, just like European foreign policy, makes large changes when the problem space or the resource space experience similarly large changes, and those changes don’t happen over night. I see, for instance, changes in French and German foreign policy with the rise of Sarkozy and Merkel, respectively, but not vast, bedrock foundation-shaking changes.

  14. #14 Martin R
    February 3, 2008

    Thanks for linking!

    It’s not just a matter of position on a spectrum, it’s a matter of scope across it. The maximum difference of opinion between members of the US Congress is far less than the maximum difference between party lines in most European parliaments.

    John Novak said, “We’ve got communists and they’ve got hard nationalists.”. True, but the US has no socialists on Capitol Hill.

  15. #15 Chad Orzel
    February 3, 2008

    I guess that is still nice to try some Euro-bashing from time to time especially when someone dares to criticize almighty-god-blessed America.

    The best part of Euro-bashing is that when I inevitably get comments whose author has clearly not understood the point, I can assume that it’s because they’re not a native speaker of English.

    The claim is not that there are no right-wing politicians in Europe, which would be idiotic as “right-wing” is relative. The claim is that right-wing politicians in Europe have a certain symmetry with left-wing American politicians, when each is compared to their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. That is, a right-wing European politician would no more be a viable Republican candidate than John Edwards would be a viable member of a left-wing European party.

    Or maybe I missed all the stories where that free-market radical Sarkozy immediately dismantled the national health system in France, etc. I don’t read the papers as carefully as I should.

  16. #16 Chad Orzel
    February 3, 2008

    It’s not just a matter of position on a spectrum, it’s a matter of scope across it. The maximum difference of opinion between members of the US Congress is far less than the maximum difference between party lines in most European parliaments.

    Yes, and…?
    I still don’t see why this is objectively a Bad Thing. There are sturctural reasons why this happens, having to do with the fact that we have a two-party system rather than a parliamentary system.

    I might like to see a wider range of political ideas in the Congress, but that’s because I’d like to see a wider range of political ideas in the general public. Changing the system to give a proportional but insignificant number of seats to people well to the left of the current Democrats doesn’t strike me as a huge improvement.

  17. #17 Pierce R. Butler
    February 3, 2008

    Jonathan Vos Post @ 8: “… there are many dimensions to view someone’s political leanings on (besides just time). There have been a few that tried to expand the one-dimensional left-right into two or even three dimensional grids or cubes.

    Aw c’mon. Any model that could realistically aspire to map political spacetime would need as many dimensions as superstring theory.

    zooey @ 9: In Stockholm, Sweden, actually suprisingly many… mentally ill people don’t have a place to sleep.

    All those taxes, income from the Saab weaponworks, strong socialist traditions, and the state is too greedy to maintain a better facade? You’ve been Reaganized.

    How the hell do Stockholm street people survive winters?

    Kieran @ 11: … US foreign policy doesn’t really seem to change all that much.

    There’s an old saying (circa late 19th century, I think) in US “traditional wisdom”, to the effect that “politics stops at the shoreline”.

    JJ @ 12: … “independents”( Lieberman and Sanders) which for all practical purposes can be counted as Democrats.

    Lieberman lives in the Bush-Cheney camp ideologically – but of course so do numerous nominal Democrats.

    From my limited perspective, it would appear that the torch for progressive ideology is being taken from Europe by Latin America. Major rightist elements persist in both regions, but at least the Europeans have disarmed most of theirs.

  18. #18 Uncle Al
    February 3, 2008

    ll my life I have been OUTRAGED by the $billion (now $trillion) institutional stupidities and corruptions of Big Government. A huge bite of everything I’ve earned has been stolen at Federal gunpoint to munificently feed Blacks and Browns gratis, or outright burned to ashes. I was wrong and I admit it.

    Government is the way of God! Bring it on big time. Free healthcare for everybody! No more wars! End poverty with Federal disbursements! SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT! End hydroelectric dams, fossil-fuel burning power plants, and nuclear reactors. Burn corn – but don’t farm it. Reduce US carbon dioxide emissions to 1800′s levels. Nobody uses more than 50 m^3/year of water directly and indirectly.

    We can save the world! Think about it. I’m gonna give Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter a big wet smooch (with tongue). Redirect 100% of the National Science Foundation’s annual budget into Head Start. All colleges and universities must accept all applicants. The bottom 50% must be given full scholarships to compensate for past inequities.

    I’m reregistering Democrat in 2009 and signing up for Welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid while I can still find the far ends of the lines. Alcoholism, drug addiction, morbid obesity, insanity… I’M GOING TO LIVE BIG! All of you work hard! I’ve got insatiable appetites for every penny you earn, for every penny you are worth, and for every penny you can borrow. You owe me, for I want everything for nothing and offer nothing but more demands in return. WHERE IS YOUR COMPASSION? I want that, too.

    Barak Obama is assuredly the most Liberal Congresscritter. He’s a one-man Kremlin. He’d gleefully cut up anybody’s children to feed the more deserving. He knows jack shit about national defense, transportation, trade, information science, energy, economics, engineering, chemistry, physics, production, international policy and diplomacy, farming… anything large scale or real world. He has no professional political base of support (no death files on competitors; he’s no Lyndon Johnson). He could be a Muslim sleeper. His wife is a blue-collar sow.

    Bush the Lesser reduced America to a giant sucking chest wound. Barak Obama is gonna put both his shoulders into CPR. Watch the blood spurt.

    I’ll vote for Obama twice. He’s perfect. Tomorrow belongs to me.

  19. #19 John Novak
    February 3, 2008

    Chad,

    I’d quibble a little with #16, but on the whole I agree. I’m not a big fan of proportional representation for several reasons. Badly implemented it leads to fractious governments where stability is the exception rather than the rule– Italy and Israel, I’m looking at you. Even well-implemented (Britain, say) I have philosophical objections.

    Where I’d really disagree, though, is when you say that the general public doesn’t have the same range of discourse as Europe. I just don’t see that as being true. Just because there are very few sitting Socialist congressmen, or Senators from the (make up a name for it) hypothetical Death To Immigrants group doesn’t mean the opinions and discussions don’t happen. It doesn’t even mean they don’t influence– they get taken under one of the two major parties, usually, and influence from within. Witness the hard core Republican attempts to torpedo McCain over his transgressions from their party line.

    I’m kinda happy keeping the extremes at either end as fangless as possible.

  20. #20 HP
    February 3, 2008

    The terms “left” and “right” are specifically European. They don’t really relate to politics elsewhere in the world. There is no Universal Political Spectrum. Of course America has no left wing. It also has no right wing. This is to be expected, as we are not Europeans. We have no feudal monarchies in our past, no French Revolution, no Burke, no Marx, no Franco. America left the realm of European politics for all practical purposes at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. I love Europe and Europeans, but your ways are not our ways.

    American politics is best understood as progressive/reactionary or populist/authoritarian. Historically, the two major parties have mixed and matched these two sets of tendencies in various ways throughout our history. The Democrats and Republicans of 2008 are not the parties of 1958 or 1908, or, for that matter, 1858, when the Republicans were basically upstart progressive radicals. Any attempt to map the European politics of Left and Right to America will fail, just as a similar attempt to map the politics of Japan or China or Papua New Guinea or Tanzania will fail.

    “Left” and “Right” are not universal constants, and really only serve to describe the political climate in a large western peninsula of Asia that has, for historic reasons, been accorded an importance out of all proportion to its size.

  21. #21 Chad Orzel
    February 3, 2008

    Where I’d really disagree, though, is when you say that the general public doesn’t have the same range of discourse as Europe. I just don’t see that as being true. Just because there are very few sitting Socialist congressmen, or Senators from the (make up a name for it) hypothetical Death To Immigrants group doesn’t mean the opinions and discussions don’t happen. It doesn’t even mean they don’t influence– they get taken under one of the two major parties, usually, and influence from within. Witness the hard core Republican attempts to torpedo McCain over his transgressions from their party line.

    I don’t think we really disagree on this.
    What I’m saying is just that the reason we don’t have large numbers of American politicians whose views would count as “Left” to a European is that we don’t have large numbers of voters whose views would count as “Left” to a European.

    Our political parties are relatively close together for structural reasons. The center point of their views is well to the right of the European center because Americans are not Europeans, and the American public does not have the same distribution of views as the European public.

    In a sense, it would be a Bad Thing if we did have political parties that fit the European model more closely, because they wouldn’t do a terribly good job of representing the views of the people. And that’s the whole point, after all.

  22. #22 Barn Owl
    February 3, 2008

    How many European nations are abhorred around the world for running torture camps in support of illegal and dishonest wars of aggression?

    [warning: US game show reference] I’ll take “Ethnic Cleansing in the Former Yugoslavia” for $500, Alex. [/warning]

  23. #23 Johan Richter
    February 3, 2008

    Well, to defend us poor Europeans it is not like Americans never exhibit a certain amount of smugness or arrogance when talking about Europe. Or ignorance, like when they talk about Europe as if it were one homogenous culture.

    That said, I think your main point is absolutely correct.

  24. #24 Moshe
    February 3, 2008

    “Our political parties are relatively close together for structural reasons…”

    which is an excellent way to state the problem- American political system covers a narrow range of views well to the right of center, and the meaningful comparison is both to the range of view of the American public, and to the trends in American politics throughout the 20th century (I agree that comparison to the European system is silly). Just an example- there is an actual debate going on whether or not the rule of law applies to the executive branch, how many Americans would directly support such a view?

  25. #25 zooey
    February 3, 2008

    “How the hell do Stockholm street people survive winters?”

    Some charities have shelters. I guess municipal social workers make some efforts sometimes (or at least, I truly hope so), though far from enough. From what you can see, if you take walks late at night, some seem to walk around, ride on buses, sleep in places such as outside underground entrances (roof, but not much else), garage entrances etc.

    Walking around the outskirts of the city core (I walk a lot with my dog) you often find sorry little shelters, cardboard, matrasses, tents, and that they often take “advantage” of buildings (if you can call it that – sheds, rather) that are in decay or left as is.

    Also, they try to gain entrance to apartment buildings (that’s a “problem” we used to have in my building – we have 2 code-locked doors just to keep people out (not nice to have to deal with “remains” in different forms – use imagination). This is something that happens a lot, of course (though not in my building anymore…), since they have to get somewhere warm to rest. It’s just so sad. Some – or most – of these people are actually mentally ill.

    The number of homeless people might vary some from time to time, but still I think it’s a complete shame for a country as smug and prone to bragging and feeling superior as sweden.

    This winter has, btw, been relatively warm, but that’s not always the case.

  26. #26 John Novak
    February 3, 2008

    I’m… not sure if we disagree or not, but if we do, it’s not by much.

    I think we’re talking about four distinct distributions of political views: the spectrums of the public vs the politicans, in both Europe and America.

    I think everyone is in agreement that the peaks of the two European distributions are leftward of their corresponding American distributions. I think (with less confidence) that we agree that the breadth of the European government peak is more than the breadth of the American government peak.

    Where I think we differ is the implication about the breadth of the civilian peaks. I think you are saying that the American civilian peak is both rightward of and narrower than the corresponding European one. I’m not so sure that’s true, and I think that the differences in the breadth of the American civilian vs governmental distributions is a result of the actual mechanics of our voting system; we have no proportional representation scheme, instead tying virtually every national and even statewide office to individual men or women and specific pieces of geography.

    If we did have proportional representation, I think the two main parties would shatter like glass, and that depending on the threshold for representation, we’d very likely see parties wielding influence from the left of the Democrats today. (And, correspondingly, from the right of the Republicans.)

    By the way, as long as I’m writing, I’ll take this opportunity to say that I think HP’s note at #20 is also right on the money and very well written. I believe strongly that shared historical experience matters to the makeup of the electorate, but electoral mechanisms matter to the way that translates into the composition of a government.

    (And now I feel bad for spamming your blog. Should I take this as an indication that your hand is feeling better? And hey, shouldn’t you be watching football, or something? I heard there was a game on, today.)

  27. #27 Caledonian
    February 3, 2008

    The issue is not where your political opinions lie on a relative scale to the opinions of the people around you, or even the people around the world.

    The issue is where you are relative to genuine neutrality on the subject you’re using to define your spectrum (or subjects and spectra, if you’re brave enough to use more than one dimension for classification).

    What is the defining feature for your classification of ‘left’ and ‘right’? Where does neutrality lie?

  28. #28 Michael Norrish
    February 3, 2008

    I’m not a big fan of proportional representation for several reasons. Badly implemented it leads to fractious governments where stability is the exception rather than the rule– Italy and Israel, I’m looking at you. Even well-implemented (Britain, say) I have philosophical objections.

    You seem to be confusing parliamentary with proportional. They are independent of each other (though the latter tends to imply the former). Germany, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland all have stable proportional systems. Australia’s Senate is elected proportionally.

    The US could elect Congress proportionally, and then it would have a presidential (i.e., non-parliamentary) system that also included proportional elements.

    Britain has no proportional elements in the Westminster system (but still manages a non-trivial third party in Westminster).

  29. #29 Michael Norrish
    February 3, 2008

    As for Europeans (and others) holding forth about US politics. I can see why Americans feel aggrieved about this, but it’s a feature of the modern world: the rest of us don’t get to vote, but the result is still likely to make quite a difference to our lives, and so we naturally feel involved.

  30. #30 John Novak
    February 3, 2008

    Michael,

    Actually, what I confused was the method of elections in Britain, flat-out. (And I should have known better, since I learned it in high school, with enough historical development that I should have realized what I wrote made no sense.) Everything else was sloppy writing on my part which just made the matter worse.

    Entirely my fault.

    (And as for the carping, it’s a system of mutual hypocrisy that both sides engage in. The moralistic, irreflective chiding from an individual who admits to not even knowing much about his own system, however, rubs a bit raw.)

  31. #31 PeteK
    February 3, 2008

    How about merging the two continents, and having one universally-agreed constitution, party, government, balancing everything, one currency, one language etc? Or is that too futuristic? If states can unite to make a United States, and countries to form a European Union, why can’t more merging take place?

  32. #32 Chad Orzel
    February 3, 2008

    Well, to defend us poor Europeans it is not like Americans never exhibit a certain amount of smugness or arrogance when talking about Europe. Or ignorance, like when they talk about Europe as if it were one homogenous culture.

    Absolutely. And it’s wrong when people from my side of the Atlantic do it, too.

    I think you are saying that the American civilian peak is both rightward of and narrower than the corresponding European one. I’m not so sure that’s true, and I think that the differences in the breadth of the American civilian vs governmental distributions is a result of the actual mechanics of our voting system; we have no proportional representation scheme, instead tying virtually every national and even statewide office to individual men or women and specific pieces of geography.

    No, I think we agree with this.
    In fact, one of the main reasons this subject comes up is that there are a substantial number of Americans who are far enough left of the US center that they’d be much happier in Europe. The wish for the US political scene to be more like the European one is not so much a wish for a structure that’s more like the European structure, as it is for a population that agrees more with the political beliefs of a certain segment of the American left.

    (And now I feel bad for spamming your blog. Should I take this as an indication that your hand is feeling better? And hey, shouldn’t you be watching football, or something? I heard there was a game on, today.)

    The hand is slowly but steadily improving, and it’s halftime. Or, rather, halftime has just ended. Back to football.

  33. #33 David Wintheiser
    February 3, 2008

    I’m not convinced that it’s European ‘smugness’ that’s responsible for the belief that the political spectrum in the United States is so limited. After all, a cursory look at governments versus politics suggests the following observations:

    - The more recent a particular government’s formation, the more likely that government represents a very small segment of the overall political spectrum. (Example: a government established after a successful coup d’etat.)

    - The older a government becomes, and the more that government embraces democratic/parliamentary ideals, the larger the segment of the political spectrum represented within that government becomes.

    - Though one could argue that ‘American’ forms of government existed in North America as early as the 17th century, the current constitutional republic is only about 220 years old. Most European countries have parliamentary traditions dating back centuries prior to this, with a few having republican traditions dating back millenia.

    So what an American perceives as ‘smugness’ might just be a European’s way of saying ‘give them a few more centuries, and they’ll come around’.

    Granted, the above leaves a lot to be desired as a arch-theory of social political development. As a working hypothesis for further study (or as a PhD thesis), it has its virtues.

  34. #34 John Novak
    February 3, 2008

    How about merging the two continents, and having one universally-agreed constitution, party, government, balancing everything, one currency, one language etc? Or is that too futuristic? If states can unite to make a United States, and countries to form a European Union, why can’t more merging take place?

    Why… would we want this? The political objection is that each side seems fairly content with what they have. What is the motivation to change, and which system is to lead this union? I’m flatly unconvinced we can get a system that takes only the best of both systems, and even if we could it probably would be acceptable to fewer people than naively expected.

    More philosophically, though… why would we want this? I’m convinced that the United States has a better system than Europe. Am I convinced enough to want to make Europe a carbon copy of the United States? No, not even close. I would much rather have two (or more) parallel systems in peaceful co-existence improving their various systems all at the same time. I expect to see more, and more novel, solutions to social and governmental problems that way.

  35. #35 J
    February 3, 2008

    Remembrances from a sociology class that covered this:

    There was a powerful right wing in Europe back in the late ’30s and ’40s. The results scared them off a bit.

    The three other big factors appear to be a higher mean population density in Europe, an electoral system that favors rural voters over urban ones in the U.S., and (for poorly-known reasons) hot desert climate, at least in the Southwest, which is also correlated with conservatism (the Middle East is another example there, so was Franco’s Spain).

  36. #36 Ross Smith
    February 4, 2008

    Pierce R. Butler (7): We’re not just looking at a range of abstract ideological positions here: this country’s political situation is already ruining the lives and future prospects of millions of people, here and around the world.

    J (35): There was a powerful right wing in Europe back in the late ’30s and ’40s. The results scared them off a bit.

    Bingo.

    The problem with well-meaning but .. how can I put it politely … somewaht insulated people like Chad is that they persist in seeing the left/right spectrum as some kind of symmetrical game, where the only difference between the sides is the names on the ballot, and the only conceivable explanation for a large polity moving substantially to one side or the other is the vagaries of random historical accident.

    Europeans know better. They didn’t move to the left on some kind of whim. They moved becaue they learned the hard way — the very, very hard way — that the right wing are the bad guys. When they criticise Americans for not following suit, they’re not saying, “How dare you not follow our fads in political fashion?”; they’re saying, “How could you possibly follow those vicious, inhuman monsters?”

    And they’re right. Europeans aren’t intrinsically morally superior to Americans; after all, it took the most destructive war in history to teach them that lesson. But America still hasn’t learned it, and until it does, the rest of the world will continue to hate and fear it. With good reason.

    We fear the American Right because we can see where it’s going. We’ve seen it before.

  37. #37 G. Shelley
    February 4, 2008

    The best part of Euro-bashing is that when I inevitably get comments whose author has clearly not understood the point, I can assume that it’s because they’re not a native speaker of English.

    Typical cheap response. when someone doesn’t fall down and talk about how astute the writer is, it must be because they weren’t capable of understanding his writing. It couldn’t be because his original point was obscure and was indeed just a whine about people not worshiping American values.

  38. #38 johannes
    February 4, 2008

    > And they’re right. Europeans aren’t intrinsically
    > morally superior to Americans; after all, it took the most
    > destructive war in history to teach them that lesson.
    > But America still hasn’t learned it, and until it does,
    > the rest of the world will continue to hate and fear it.
    > With good reason.

    > We fear the American Right because we can see where it’s going.
    > We’ve seen it before.

    Ross Smith (36),
    one should not declare that liberal democracies or the parties that are part of the mainstream centrist spectrum of such a democracy – regardless wether they tend to the conservative or to the social democratic side of the mainstream – are identical with totalitarian states and parties, leave alone fascist ones. Godwins law doesn’t exists for nothing.
    Those leftists that considered liberals, conservatives or social democrats to be as bad or worse as fascists usually had to learn in a very hard way that they were wrong.
    Even marxism considers liberal bourgeoise democracy a necessary step toward socialism. To be feared and hated by things like the Burmese Junta is better than to be liked by them.

  39. #39 Pierce R. Butler
    February 4, 2008

    Ross Smith @ 36: But America still hasn’t learned it, and until it does, the rest of the world will continue to hate and fear it. With good reason.

    It’s been suggested (by cartoonist Tom Tomorrow) that the Bush-Cheney regime is the result of a hippie plot to discredit the Republican Party forever – the only problem being that so far not even Dubya biting the heads off kittens has sufficed to alienate the True Believers.

    Any ideas on how else to educate this nation, short of losing WWIII?

  40. #40 Dunc
    February 4, 2008

    What bugs me, though, is the “oh, you poor ignorant Americans” tone affected by most Europeans writing this sort of thing.

    Actually, I don’t see that at all in Martin’s post. He makes a number of simple descriptive statements about the breadth of mainstream political opinion in the US and Sweden, and expresses some of his personal opinions about the options available in the US. If you believe that the US political landscape is adequately representative, then there should be nothing to cause offence in his post. He’s not actually making any normative statements at all that I can see.

    This is, of course, yet another example of the usual American feeling that anything short of fawning praise is somehow an assault. [joke!]

  41. #41 Martijn ter Haar
    February 4, 2008

    I’d say that because of the American election system, American politics are not only to the right of those in Europe, but they are also to the right of the American electorate. Best example of course: Gore winning the popular vote. I think this is a real problem, maybe even more than the instability of the system in countries like Israel, Italy and Belgium. There you have to vote often, but at least you can be sure your vote will count for just as much as the other votes.

  42. #42 deang
    February 4, 2008

    In all the blog responses to the Swede’s post, as well as in a number of the comments, people continue to use the words liberal and conservative as if they aren’t just advertising labels, which is what they are; they do not reflect content, only a desired image. A few have noted that what’s considered right-wing in some countries is given the name “liberal” (Australia and Sweden, for instance) while in the US right-wing policies are of course called “conservative,” and hence, unfortunately, thought by the population to represent wise caution and stability. It’s also annoying to see people trying to argue their points by starting with these adjectives and enumerating the nuances of their meanings, as if they bear some relation to the policies they’re providing packaging for. Advertising labels like the words “liberal” and “conservative” are arbitrarily chosen to deceive; they do not reflect content.

  43. #43 deang
    February 4, 2008

    “This is, of course, yet another example of the usual American feeling that anything short of fawning praise is somehow an assault. [joke!]”

    You may have been joking, but it’s largely true.

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