America and Europe are more similar than they think
Janan Ganesh: Gun ownership and showy patriotism are points of difference, but what else?
Moe the bartender in The Simpsons: cute questioning. Illustration: Fox via Getty
In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, Moe the bartender asks some European visitors about life in their faraway continent. “To be honest,” says a goatee-bearded chain-smoker called Gunter, “we are adrift in a sea of decadent luxury and meaningless sex”.
Leave aside Moe’s less-than-scandalised response (“Where might this sea be located?”) and note the date. Twenty years ago, before the Iraq war, before Robert Kagan wrote of Europe as Venus and the US as Mars, the loucheness of the Old World was well enough established to be satirised as cliché.
And still the cliché lives. Some US conservatives think Europe is lost to Muslim immigration, low birth rates and bohemian ennui. In turn, European liberals look at Donald Trump and Alabama’s abortion law and see a kind of counter-Enlightenment. Such is the western alliance: a continent where nothing is sacred and a country where all too much is.
What neither side perceives is the cultural convergence underlying all this. Even as they divorce geopolitically, Europe and America are becoming more and more alike.
The idea of a fecund, God-fearing US and a sensualist, postmodern Europe always masked some inconvenient details
Last week, the National Center for Health Statistics confirmed the decline of US fertility. In 2018, fewer children were born than in any year since 1986. The financial crisis is partly responsible, it appears, but the purring economy of recent years has not begun to reverse the trend. Women in the US have an average of 1.7 children over their lifetime. The EU figure is 1.6.
Paralleling this decline – or, more likely, prompting it – is the waning of faith. Almost a quarter of Americans, according to Pew research, are now atheist, agnostic or aligned with no particular religion. These “nones” account for more than a third of millennials. Out-and-proud disbelievers remain almost non-existent in Congress, but politics trails society in this regard.
The idea of a fecund, God-fearing US and a sensualist, postmodern Europe always masked some inconvenient details. The pronatalist policies of France and Sweden, for example. But now it is less and less true, even in general terms. And this is to say nothing of other areas of convergence. A majority of Americans now do not just support universal healthcare – which could mean almost anything – but a system in which everyone is covered by one government plan. After a loosening of the law, the sagey whiff of marijuana is as common in some American cities as in any European one.
And if this seems a one-way process, the Europeanisation of the US rather than the other way around, consider the resurgence of the nation state in Europe. Kagan described a continent that favoured inter-governmental technocracy and a US that still believed in old-fashioned sovereignty. That gap has narrowed. Nationalists prosper from Britain to Hungary. The Russia-Ukraine war and the meltdown of Syria has also drained European confidence in the inevitability of peace and reason.
The north Atlantic is an increasingly common culture, even as it ceases to be a coherent political project
Having been offered pistol lessons by a sweet old couple in Texas, I do not pretend that the US and Europe are nowadays indistinguishable. Gun ownership is only the most famous point of difference. Conspicuous patriotism is another. But these are outweighed by the growing commonalities. If we fail to notice them, it is because of the diplomatic froideur between the two sides.
This month, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo cancelled a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel due to “pressing issues”. The geopolitical divergence of Europe and America is unmistakable and probably unavoidable. They were brought together by common enemies (the Nazis, the Soviets) that no longer exist. Their relations were often tense even under the three US presidents before Trump. European descendants are a shrinking slice of the US population.
But if the underlying mores of the two places are merging, that is some consolation. The north Atlantic is an increasingly common culture, even as it ceases to be a coherent political project.
And this process is captured in the person of Trump. In many ways, he is a more European figure than, say, George W Bush ever was. He is, for want of a better euphemism, of the material world. He does not suggest his country is on special terms with a higher power, if he even believes in one. He conforms to a continental type, the playboy politician, embodied in recent decades by Silvio Berlusconi and Bernard Tapie.
That cultural conservatives in the US back him is said to show their hypocrisy. Pershaps it just shows how limited their options are in a changing country. In Moe’s tavern, Gunter would not stand out quite so much now. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019