Our Dance With Europe

Published August 8, 2011

National Review Online

Obama downgrade or Tea Party downgrade? On substance, of course, the answer is “Obama downgrade,” as NR’s editors show with admirable clarity. Although the best argument may not always win out, in this case it surely will—because there is Europe.

More than ever, we are locked in a kind of dance with our continental friends. To the American left, Europe is the model—a concrete socialist welfare state (or “social democratic,” for delicate sensibilities) to point to as an example, without having to avow the ideology at play. For the right, Europe is the ultimate object lesson—a warning of lost liberty and fiscal sanity when government is allowed to run wild. Nowadays, it’s no contest. Europe’s welfare state and its chimerical post-national dream are collapsing in tandem, along with the “democratic deficit” even Europeans admit is a part of the arrangement. With America now studying Europe’s meltdown on a daily basis, “Obama downgrade” is sure to win, hands down.

There is no Tea Party in Europe—not yet, anyway. Downgrades, on the other hand, Europe has got in abundance. “We’re becoming Greece,” is already a byword for American conservatives. The Nation, that pillar of the left, did themselves no good at all when they lent their editorial voice to Frances Fox Piven’s call for Greek-style protests (i.e. riots) here in America. That only solidified the sense that Europe’s debt crisis foretold our future. Under these circumstances, it’s tough to shift blame from debt creators (Obama and the Democrats) to debt-crisis whistle blowers (the Tea Party). Now that the object lesson has expanded from Greece, to Spain, to Italy, and thence to the entire EU, it’s impossible not to see that the teetering welfare state itself is the issue.

And that is what really galls the left. During the debt ceiling debate, leftist websites were filled with outrage that entitlements had become an object of debate at all, rather than the supposed need for another stimulus. Now, the combination of the S&P downgrade and the super-committee solution means that the debt crisis will remain the central political issue in the country for months. Supposedly, Obama’s major victory in the debt ceiling negotiations was to put the issue off until after the 2012 election. Thanks to S&P, that achievement is now in ruins.

This is why the left has turned more wrath on S&P than on the Tea Party itself. The extent to which the left does not even want to recognize the entitlement crisis as a danger can scarcely be exaggerated. Yet, with the parallel and interlocking European and American debt crises now guaranteed to be on the front pages for months, it will be impossible to pretend that America’s out-of-control entitlements are not a problem. The left has been saddled with a losing issue at the worst possible time.

It wasn’t always this way. For decades, the left churned out statistics demonstrating how little America spent on problem x or regulation y, in comparison to other Western nations. The point was to shame us—piecemeal—into becoming like Europe, without having to offer a principled argument for an expanded welfare state. I haven’t heard that sort of statistical comparison in quite some time. Its contemporary counterpart is the attempt to encourage American judges to draw on foreign law (always European, of course) as a way of winning for the left what it cannot achieve by democratic means. The obvious offense to American sovereignty makes this game difficult to run.

Over the past decade, the Internet has brought us closer to Europe. We influence and irritate each other more than we used to. Europe has to spend more time than it would like brushing away annoying American warnings about Euro population declines, failed Muslim assimilation, secularism, etc. The Economist, which now has a large circulation in America, castigates American conservatives, downplays the significance of national cultures, supports Obama, and generally does its best to push America and the Continent toward its ideal vision for Britain. Once in a while, something like Janet Daley’s extraordinary recent column comes along and suggests that Europe might someday actually want and need to move a bit in America’s direction.

That, after all, was the original idea behind de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville was no disinterested cultural anthropologist, but a committed liberal democrat in search of a model—a way to prevent European democracy from devolving into soft-servitude to welfare-state egalitarianism. He was right to worry—for both sides of the Atlantic—and right to argue that the American experiment was a living solution to Europe’s illiberal temptations. With President Obama and his supporters now looking to Europe’s transnational welfare state as their own ideal model, the argument goes on.

What can no longer be denied is that we are engaged in a debate over fundamentals—over the wisdom and viability of the welfare state. The ideological substratum of this dispute is bubbling to the surface, forced onto consciousness by the increasingly inescapable contrast between the American and European ways. For an American left that depends for survival upon ideological reticence, that is bad news.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the author of Radical-in-Chief.

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