After WWII, the political was banished from the European Continent. It had caused too much harm in European hands. Lively debate was subdued, and technocratic administrators took charge. Europeans were left to project their fantasies of a real political debate on America. And so a cross-Atlantic homogeneity has taken root, with the American Left’s cultural dominance in the U.S. extending to Europe.
But a homogenous West means a stagnant West. As the ideals of classical liberalism are once-again being challenged, we need new ideas and a diversity of approaches to reinvigorate and reinvent liberalism. It might be time to reassert the political in Europe and wake the Continent from its stupor.
The European Obsession with America
It is hard to overstate the European fixation on America—and American politics in particular. I can report most accurately from Germany, since I grew up there; but from what I hear, the situation is similar across the Continent.
The recent American election provides just one case study. The presidential race absolutely dominated the news and public debate in Europe. German media probably spent more time covering the American election than a domestic general election. For weeks, German politicians were reduced to mere political pundits, blaring their shallow analysis of American politics in never-ending TV coverage.
And it wasn’t just 2020. When Barack Obama came to Berlin in 2008 as the freshly minted Democratic nominee, he drew a crowd of over 200,000. No German politician could hope to draw a crowd of even 10,000.
To be sure, because of America’s global power, an American presidential election can be highly consequential for European affairs. But the fixation with American politics extends to domestic political controversies without direct foreign policy consequences. The nomination and confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, for example, was covered endlessly. At this point, I am pretty sure that a far greater proportion of Germans would know who Amy Coney Barrett is than could identify even a single judge on the German Constitutional Court.
Or take this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement. The protests in the U.S. quickly swept over to Europe, with scores of (mostly white) German youth taking the streets. But these protests weren’t about trying to confront German problems; they weren’t about the distinct challenges of rampant racial discrimination in Germany. Rather, they were mostly about showing support for an American political cause.
The Dearth of Politics in Europe
What is the cause of this extraordinary European obsession with American politics? I think it has to do with a underlying, perhaps subconscious, yearning for democracy—not in the nominal sense of having elections, but in the more visceral sense, the sense that the body politic’s destiny lies in the citizen’s hands.
On the surface, German conventional wisdom decries the political divisions in the U.S.; it trumpets the supposed moral superiority of the German way over the American health care system or American foreign policy; it holds German democracy to be infinitely superior to American democracy (which, if you believe German media coverage, is on the verge of collapse and paralleled only by the Weimar Republic in 1933). But what this arrogance masks—and perhaps is deliberately intended to obscure—is the underlying reality of European “politics”: namely, that it is bereft of politics.
For the German voter has basically no say over his country’s fate. Sure, he may cast a vote in an election for parliament. But in the end, the same centrist parties seem to hold a majority in parliament, the same centrist parties form a coalition government, and the same party leaders remain in charge, making policy mostly through backroom deals rubber-stamped by the parliament. Besides relatively minor policy tweaks, the elections don’t seem to matter much.
And for all the German media’s handwringing about a “peaceful transfer of power” in the U.S., most Germans under, say, 30, have never witnessed a transfer of power in Germany! It’s always been Merkel. And really, the guy before her—even though he was from the opposing political camp—wasn’t all that distinguishable.
To be sure, there are exceptions to this; the rise of the German Green Party in the 1980s, for example, was a real disruption to the staid political system. And there is much to be said for the virtues of compromise and moderation. But mostly, the result of the German political process is not a worthy “best of both worlds” compromise, but rather complacency and stasis and passivity and, ultimately, the nation’s continued fall into irrelevance.
The situation on the level of the European Union is even more dramatic. The EU has arrogated ever-more power over people’s lives, in particular in the realm of economic policy. But there is no EU presidential election in which the voters are offered a clear choice about the future of the EU. The European Parliament elections that do occur are mostly irrelevant to the political outcomes, which are dictated primarily by the backroom negotiations of European prime ministers and the machinations of technocracy.
The contrast to the recent American presidential elections could not be starker. There was a crystal-clear choice offered to voters. And the election was ultimately decided by a fraction of a percent. Every vote really mattered. Voters could reasonably believe that the course of world history was in their hands.
That the citizens had this real choice is the other side of the often-decried political division. Yes, a wide-open, lively politics can yield someone like Trump—but it can also yield someone like Obama. Someone like him, with a father from Kenya and promising hope and change, would likely have no chance of rising the ranks of German politics.
The Cross-Atlantic Reach of the American Left’s Cultural Hegemony
We have noted how American politics dominates the European media and public square. Of course, America’s cultural hegemony goes far beyond that: Europeans watch American movies and TV shows, listen to American music, spend their days using American tech companies’ products, take advice from American scholars, and read American authors. Even trick-or-treating on Halloween, once a distinctly American practice, has conquered the Continent.
At this point, it behooves us to get a bit more precise about America’s cultural hegemony. For the hegemony is not one of America generally, but one of the American Left.
The Left has achieved a suffocating cultural dominance in elite America. Newspapers, television stations, Hollywood, universities, tech companies—they have all become a one-party state, so to speak. The main political controversy within these institutions seems to be between the mainstream left and the radical left.
But those are exactly the institutions to which Europeans look. One of the main newspapers read by the Berlin political class, for example, essentially plagiarizes a substantial fraction of their articles from the New York Times. So whatever the New York Times writes, whatever political viewpoint underlies their reporting, becomes the operating premise of the German political class. European youth idolize American stars. So when those stars “courageously speak out” on a political issue (i.e. endorse the Left party line), European youth take the cue. The preeminent public intellectuals Europeans follow on Twitter are mostly American. So as wokeism ascends in American academy, it seeps into the European mind as well. The Left’s cultural hegemony in elite America thus becomes cultural hegemony in Europe as well.
This cross-Atlantic monoculture is a deeply unhealthy state of affairs. At the core of Western classical liberalism is a commitment to a diversity of ideas that compete in the political marketplace. Only such a robust and wide-open debate can ensure dynamic and lively political understanding. As much as this diversity of ideas is essential within a country, it is perhaps even more essential across countries. As liberalism itself is once again being challenged by rising authoritarianism, we need different nations with different approaches to reinvigorate and reinvent liberalism. But in a monoculture, without new ideas, competitive pressures, or the benefits of trial-and-error, liberalism will wither.
This should ring true to even the most ardent followers of the American Left. After all, it is the ideas of European social democracy—ideas that developed independently on the Continent in the 20th century—from which the American Left often draws their inspiration. A monoculture across the West stifles exactly this kind of innovation in political thought.
Perhaps this homogeneity among Western elites is why Asian countries are increasingly outcompeting the West. When the coronavirus emerged, governments in South Korea, Taiwan, and, yes, China, didn’t listen to the Western elite consensus that said, at the time, that travel bans were bad, masks didn’t work, and a pandemic couldn’t be contained anyway. And, as it turned out, the Western elite consensus was dead wrong; by ignoring it and trying their own approach, these Asian countries were able to contain the virus effectively. The West ultimately caught on, but way too slowly—the elite consensus had smothered independent thinking on the virus for too long. By the time the West changed course on the virus, it was already widespread in their communities, trapping them in a cycle of recurring shutdowns. Ultimately, the West catastrophically failed where even quite poor countries like Vietnam succeeded.
This cross-Atlantic monoculture is deleterious to America’s own political debate as well: it means that American culture wars become global culture wars. For instance, whether American elites—say, the New York Times or American scholars—conceive of America as an exceptional nation or as a fundamentally flawed one ultimately determines how global elites see America. It constrains American political debate when internal discussions have such far-reaching global consequences.
Waking From the Stupor?
It seems as though it might be best, not just for Europe, but for the West as a whole and liberalism itself, if Europe awoke from its stupor and revived its own politics.
To be clear, at least in the German case, the banishment of the political was partly a deliberate choice. After the horrors of WWII, horrors that had emerged from the contentious politics of the Weimar Republic, the post-WWII West German state, the Bonner Republik, was meant to be as boring as possible. To this day, most German politicians resemble bureaucratic administrators more than visionary leaders. The “political,” at least in the way defined by Carl Schmitt as that existential distinction between friend and foe, was to be excised from Germany—for the political in German hands had caused too much harm.
Perhaps, then, the Western monoculture is the price we pay for peace. This is worth taking seriously. But the Germany of today is not the Germany of the early 20th century; the Europe of today is not the Europe of the early 20th century. The Continent has been reshaped along liberal lines. It is now a stalwart of the ideals of liberty and peaceful coexistence.
The banishment of the political was intended to subdue the impulses of nationalism and demagoguery. But if the European mainstream continues to deny the citizenry a true democratic debate, that may well pave the way for an authoritarian strongman who promises the citizens renewed control of their nation’s destiny. We already see inklings of this in Poland, Hungary, France, the Brexit vote to “take back control,” and a resurgent far-right in Germany that is blasting open the previously narrow confines of political debate. The Continent is ripe for awakening. If liberalism does not lead this charge, illiberal authoritarianism will. (German politics in particular is open for disruption, in my opinion, a subject which I hope to return to in a later post.)
Of course, much of the homogeneity of thought across the West is perhaps irreversible. We are now all on the same Twitter and read the same newspapers online. The forces of the internet and globalization continue to press ahead. But if the West is to prevail, if liberalism is to flourish in the 21st century as it did in the 20th, we must try to reinvigorate an independent and spirited politics in Europe.